Control, Leverage and Letting Go of Relationships

As mediator I see hundreds of couples at the point where they are negotiating their arrangements for separation and divorce. It is fascinating. Many of them say they ‘Just want what is fair’ and that ‘They just want to sort it all out as quickly as possible’. They may well then embark on behaviour and an approach to negotiations that will ensure exactly the opposite happens, it does not get sorted quickly and what they want is what the want and it may not be fair. They bring their couple boundaries into mediation where they have to be managed by me as the mediator to achieve a fair negotiating balance between the parties to mediation. So the so-called controller will have to let go of his or her influence over their ex partner and they will find this very hard. As mediation progresses it often becomes clear that the couple will never agree what is fair because this is an opinion seen through the lens of their self interest. It is possible to argue endlessly about fairness and people often feel very strongly about certain things, even when in law these things may make no difference at all. In most cases the main question is ‘How can these assets provide for you both and any children? What is practical?’ On divorce there is no forensic accounting and handing back of contributions made 20 years ago and the partner who has worked in the home childrearing and housekeeping is treated equally to the partner who has earned the income on which the family has lived.

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Controllers may seek to use their historic influence in negotiating their settlement in mediation. An effective mediator helps the couple to re-define their couple boundaries, especially the ones relating to influence and control and re-balance the two people on a consciously more equal footing, something both necessary and extremely uncomfortable. An example may help:

Towards the end of the mediation when the issues have almost been resolved, one party may hesitate, and delay booking the final session. They may raise additional issues and appear to start new or old arguments, running the risk the mediation will collapse and court will be the only option, this holding the couple stuck in their existing boundaries for longer with historic levels of control and influence. What are they afraid of? They may be unconsciously afraid of losing control or influence of their nearly ex partner.

My heart always sinks if I hear someone worrying about ‘Leverage’. That is not a good word, it imports a world of meaning associated with the exploitation of a dominant negotiating position to exercise non consensual control. The controller will fear loss of control mightily and will seek to retain it. They may well also complain bitterly about lack of communication with the controlled or leveraged person. They will not understand the connection between the leverage they are accustomed to exercising and their poor communication with their victim. As I said to one divorcing man recently, as he twitched nervously about his loss of financial leverage on settling his finances with his ex wife, ‘Have you ever thought if you didn’t have any leverage over her, your relationship with her might improve and with it your ability to communicate over your children?’ He looked at me with real fear and lack of comprehension, so I held his eyes and said ‘Just think about it!’

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