One of the things I love about mediation, is the way it so often helps parties agree to things they really want, but somehow felt they shouldn’t ask for. A case in point was a recent custody and visitation mediation. The parties came in diametrically opposed, fixed in their positions and certain there was no resolution. The father wanted a larger portion of time with the child than is traditional. The mother balked, but did not articulate clear reasons for not wanting it. At one point, the father asked, rhetorically, whether he was wrong for wanting it. I said there were no rights and wrongs, that parents agree to a variety of different arrangements, and it depended what worked for any particular family and what they were willing to agree to. I repeated this sort of statement more than once, in response to questions from the parties.
At the beginning of the mediation, the mother doubted the father’s sincerity in wanting or intending to actually spend additional time with the child. Over the course of the mediation, however, it became clear from his continued interest in the extra time, and perhaps from my taking his interest seriously, that she was beginning to consider that he truly was interested in spending more time with the child.
At one point, the mother expressed a frustration about feeling unappreciated. I reflected that back to her: “So, I am hearing that you feel that you are unappreciated.” The father responded that he did appreciate her, but said that he wasn’t going to “just volunteer that”. A subtle undertone changed in the room as some of the mental blockages cleared.
The parties continued to interact in a rough rather than gentle manner with one another, but it began to become clear that they enjoyed that kind of interaction on some level, and that that had always been a part of their relationship. At one point, the mother suddenly took the plunge. She would agree to what the father wanted. After that, I could see her warming up to the idea. She considered all the things she could do with her additional free time, and clearly gloried in the possibility that she would have fewer responsibilities, while still having plenty of time with the child. The change was not all in one direction. Without engaging in any discussion of a quid pro quo, the father agreed to some of the things the mother was asking for as well.
My sense was that the changes had come about as a result of two things: the parties began to feel free to do as they wished, rather than what was expected of them; and the parties felt more appreciated by each other, and therefore did not have to prove anything to the other.