written by Jim Duzak

I’ve written previously in Boomer-Living about mediation, and why it’s usually better than litigation as a way of resolving disputes in divorce cases. But mediation can also provide lessons on how to prevent divorce by resolving disputes in relatively healthy marriages.

I learned early on in my practice as a divorce mediator that it was vital to focus on just one issue at a time, and that the smallest, simplest issues should be addressed first. Normally, the couple seeking mediation was already living apart, so I would start by asking them if they had already divided the furniture and other household items to their mutual satisfaction.

I asked this question partly because I wanted to see how tough a case it was going to be. If the couple were fighting tooth and nail over the living room set or the pots and pans, how would we ever get to the really tough issues of alimony, child custody, and the sale of the house?

But I also asked the question to see if there was something we could build on. If everything in the house, or almost everything, had already been divided, and neither person was complaining about getting the short end of the stick, I would congratulate them on their ability to achieve a fair compromise during a period of great stress in their lives. If some items of property still needed to be decided on, or needed to be physically removed from the house, we’d work our way through the whole list, item by item. Eventually, we’d get an agreement on who would get what, and how and when everything was to be removed or distributed. After that, we’d move on to the tougher issues with a sense of optimism and accomplishment.

I think this approach is useful whenever there are disagreements between spouses. At any given moment, most husbands and wives have a dozen or more issues they could argue about. Those issues might range from the relatively trivial (he constantly forgets to pick up the clothes at the cleaners), to the more serious (she keeps incurring late fees on her credit cards), to the very serious (his pregnant adult daughter from a previous marriage wants to move in with them and she’s dead-set against it).

The problem is that when people start arguing about an issue, they quickly throw every other issue into the mix before they’ve resolved the first one. One minute they’re arguing about his obnoxious brother who’s coming to visit, the next minute they’re arguing about her spending habits, and the minute after that they’re arguing over whether he flirts too much with waitresses. Harsh words get uttered, tears are shed, and eventually apologies are made. But the original issue—whatever it was—never got resolved, and it, along with all the other unresolved issues, will lurk just below the surface of their conversations, waiting for the right chance to pop up again.

Unless you have something that is so important, and so time-sensitive, that it simply has to be dealt with immediately, pick the easiest of the issues you need to discuss, and then discuss it calmly. Avoid sarcasm and drama, and resist saying “You never…” or “You always…”, no matter how many times you’ve discussed the matter in the past. Those words only invite retaliation (“What do you mean? You’re the one who never…”), and will ensure that the argument will end badly and without resolution.

And if you’re successful in resolving that relatively easy issue, take a break. Be good to yourselves. Celebrate your success in some little way before moving up the ladder to the next issue. Take a walk together, or open a bottle of wine, or just smile at each other and say, “Why can’t we do that every time?” The truth is, you can do it every time; you can work out your differences in a respectful way. Resolving problems in a marriage takes practice and self-control, and is not necessarily fun, but it sure beats trying to resolve them in a divorce proceeding.

Tags: Boomer-Living, compromise, divorce mediator, husbands and wives, litigation

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