Marriage Conflict Skills Pt. 2: Lessons from 30 Years of Divorce Mediation

© 2012 By Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.

I started doing divorce mediation over 30 years ago, when I helped two friends figure out a shared custody arrangement of their 8-year-old son. I don’t recommend being a divorce mediator for your friends, but this one worked out okay. Since then, I have been a divorce mediator for approximately 1100 couples. Recently, I have been reflecting on what I have learned about marriage from these experiences.

Really listen when you disagree. I have found over and over again that unhappy couples don’t really listen to each other. Many of my mediation clients are good listeners, but their goals have become different, their ways of managing finances are seriously different, or they have drifted apart. But the most unhappy couples never learned how to really listen to each other. They both report a long history of this, before they decided to get a divorce.

One or both spouses eventually gave up trying to communicate. Instead, they have focused on how “correct” they are on various subjects and have tried to persuade or bully the other person to agree with them. As soon as one starts speaking, the other turns away. They both acknowledge that this has been going on for years. Yet research by John and Julia Gottman, the marriage researchers, indicates that “turning away” when your partner is sharing something important is the kiss of death for the relationship.

You don’t need to defend yourself or respond to everything that your partner says. It often can be sufficient to really look at your partner as he or she is talking, and to really listen without interrupting. Then, see if you can summarize what you have heard, before responding. This skill may save your marriage. If you and your partner aren’t sure how to do this, try couples counseling for a while.

Share common interest activities. I have been truly amazed at how some couples have operated for years without sharing common interest activities. With our longer life-spans, it’s easy to have different interests develop for each person. Separate work, parenting, religious activities, educational activities, and the general division of labor in a marriage can lead to separate interests and friends. It’s okay – in fact, even great – to develop your own interests, so long as you also make a point of sharing some common interest activities. Do this even if it feels a little strange at first. Try out what each other suggests – you might find it is interesting. Otherwise, the connection of the relationship may slowly die without either of you realizing it at first, when something can be done about it.

Blame yourself first! When things go wrong (as they will), don’t start in on your partner for their bad behavior, decisions, or values. Start with looking at what your part is in the problem. In my current divorce mediations, I’d say that about two-thirds are “low-conflict” couples, who take responsibility for problems and just no longer want to be married. For example, a recent couple (who have been married for close to 50 years) said they do better when they don’t live together – and they seemed to be very respectful of each other and able to solve problems quite constructively.

On the other hand, about one-third are “high-conflict” couples, who are preoccupied with how wrong the other person is. They usually reach agreements in mediation regarding parenting, monthly support and property division, but it takes them a lot longer and I am concerned that they will simply repeat the same pattern of blame in their future relationships. I often encourage people to get some individual counseling after they get divorced, so that they can look at their own patterns and how they might want to change them. Few of the high-conflict folks are interested in looking at themselves at all.

Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Training Director of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.