Friday, February 24, 2012

Why Butterfly's Marriages Work so Well

This week, all my clients seem to be teaching me about what blocks people from letting go of their patterns.

From the outside, it makes no sense that after the second, third, and especially after the thousandth time of yelling at your partner, it still doesn’t make them change, you’d think it would give the yeller pause. But no.

I just started working with a couple whose fights are so mean I wouldn’t stick around for the end of the first one, much less the second one they have on most days!

I offered them an alternative way of expressing their needs, and since they are both quite bright they not only caught on, but amazingly are able to use the skills even during their screaming fights. (I’m not sure I would have the presence of mind to remember something I’d just learned, much less try it under those circumstances, but they are better suited to this nuclear-reactor of a marriage than I am)

As expected, it created a “softer” communication right away, and they reported having days of peace after each session.

So on our third session, after they had this same experience: a couple a days of softness, and then falling back into war, I asked the husband what started it up again?
“I did,” he said, nonchalantly.

“Really, why?”

“Because in the soft quiet, I began to feel invisible. At least when I scream at her, she notices me.”

Another couple I’m just finishing up with is having a similar problem. When they use the skills, they feel connected and resolved, but there is one area for each of them (what I call their Hidden Needs) in which they would rather fight than use the skills they know would work.

In all of these cases, each person prefers the negative attention they are used to, rather than getting the actual satisfaction (which in both of these marriages is completely available to them with their present-time spouse).

Carolyn Myss, in her book “Why People Don’t Heal” talks about this. Healing isn’t just the end of the uncomfortable problem; it’s an opening to a whole new level of energy. “Things speed up”, she says, “the person gets lighter, faster, feels things more intensely and becomes more responsible for their own lives.”

For a lot of people, it isn’t a given that this is what they want. People are so used to relating to the problem, and to seeing their partner as the one who has to change, that the idea that, even though they know it will make the problem go away, their life will not be the one they know but without the problem. It will be so different they will actually be living a whole new life.

When caterpillars are made this same offer, by and large, they take on their completely new existence as a butterfly.

Many marriages fail, because the Mature Marriage isn’t a caterpillar thing, and only butterflies get to live their lives aloft, sipping the sweet nectar of love.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Mature Relationship

I believe that marriage is a three stage process: Infatuation, Difference and The Mature Relationship.

During infatuation, you both get all your needs met, without having to ask. I think of this as the sampler - you get to actually experience all that is available to you with this person.

It ends when you start to have to ask for what you need. That begins the Difference Stage. If done with the skills available through Teamwork Marriage Mediation, you quickly learn how to negotiate with each other and get the benefit of these differences you brought into your life because you needed them.

If you do it the way most people do, stage two feels more like the Conflict Stage.

The only way to get to stage three: The Mature Relationship is to learn the skills; either from us, or by discovering them by yourself.

In many ways, the Mature Relationship is exactly like the Infatuation Stage, except this time it's under your control, and it's purposely co-created by the two of you. And it's flexible, because you can talk about what you need, and negotiate ways to meet both your needs.

It's like before only better!

It's like one of those optical illusions where the ground and subject switch back and forth depending on how you look at them. Sometimes you see a vase, other times you see two faces looking at each other.

Is all that fighting your real relationship, with momentary time-outs, or is your relationship a safe-haven, with momentary disagreements?

So the second stage, the difference stage, if done right, lets you relax into the simple truth of your longings and desires, unhooks your significant-other from the stress. They float free again. "Hum, I wonder who that is?" you get to ask again. Your curiosity is reignited. And your desire.

Inviting another person into that peace is phase three.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

When Is a Car, Not a Car?

A few months before Elise and I started developing Teamwork Mediation, I started to “get it” about being a mediator. Up until that point, I was doing the process, but I never quite knew if I was doing it right or not.

I remember the case which changed all that. I remember that the case involved a couple who were separating.
“This is a simple case,” he said. (They all thought that -  open and shut - finding for their side, of course.) “I bought the car before I met Janet, we have since broken up, and I want my car back.”

I turned to Janet. “And what is the issue for you?”

“Well,” she said, “first of all, it’s not a car.”

That was the moment I knew I had become a mediator. To a non-mediator, this probably sounds like a Zen koan: “When is a car not a car.” But to my mediator’s ears, this was exactly what I expected: difference.

Before I became a mediator, like most other people, I went around believing that while there were plenty of disagreements happening all the time, basically, there was a pretty good agreement about what Reality was.

But at this point we had been mediating for about six months, and that belief had been shattered so many times, I noticed that I had developed the ability to suspend my belief so completely, that even this didn’t phase me. I had become a mediator - unflappable by the relativity of reality. Einstein found it at the speed of light, I found it in small claims court: relativity.

Difference is such a double edged sword! We invite it into our life to make sure we get the benefit of all the different points of view, and then we cut ourselves on its sharp-edged difficulty. We want it all and we want it simple.

But to get it all, we have to deal with the complexity and contradictions. If you like the quiet life, and revel in your aloneness, who do you think you’ll be attracted to? Another hermit? Ney! (You’d probably never even cross their path, much less be attracted to them.) No, you’ll fall for some gad-about who swoops you out of your nest and teaches you to fly. It’s terrifying and exhilarating at first. And then you can’t get enough.

And then, although you love the soaring, and can’t imagine living without it, you also miss the quiet and the calm, and there begins the struggle: which way is the RIGHT way?

And so whether you end up in small claims court, or divorce court, or just the court of public opinion, the clash of swords can be heard as you externalize the struggle which we all face within: the simple small life, or the large complex one?

Is difference a good thing, or bad?

I had become so comfortable with difference, I almost hated to ask, but this was small claims court, so ask I must: “Not a car?”

“No!” she spat. “A car has wheels, and this one is up on blocks. As car goes places and he just lives in this one in my driveway. He can have his ‘car’ back when he pays me his back rent for living on my property!”

There’s an old saying: “If my grandmother had wheels, she’d be a trolley car.” It came to mind in that moment, but I didn’t think it would help, so I kept it to myself.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Oak Tree’s Lover

We live in a hundred year old house, with a hundred year old oak tree out front. I often find myself pointing out the window at the tree to teach clients how to have a happy marriage.

I tell them about the other oak tree which used to be right next to ours, in our neighbor's yard. They stood for a century, with only a thin, split-rail fence between them, their limbs forming a huge, green gumdrop that could be seen for blocks.

Last winter, my neighbor's tree fell in a storm, so now my tree stands alone, and I can see, for the first time, how unbalanced it is: all the limbs face towards my house. The other tree was so close my tree didn't bother, or didn't have the room, to grow in that direction. It wasn't obvious when the other tree was there, but now my tree looks misshapen, like it may fall at any moment.

Here's a picture of our tree:

Across the street is another oak tree, planted at about the same time. For a hundred years it has reached towards my tree, and mine has stretched and grown towards it. They are just about to touch. A hundred years of desire, about to be consummated.

That tree looks strong and balanced, full and healthy.

Perhaps our culture's model of relationship: two people pressed up against each other, isn't the best configuration for a long and healthy love.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Sock Puppet Argument

Several years ago, a couple came in, and the wife brought with her a 300 page notebook full of all of her husband's wrong doings. She didn't really need the notebook, she had all of his transgressions so committed to memory all I had to do was mention a problem, like "dishes" and she could find all the pages describing each of the instances involving dishes and what he had done 'wrong'.

Okay, so it's an extreme example, but essentially every person who comes in to see us has a log of their spouse's transgressions. They may not write them down on paper, they just know them by heart, but that may actually be worse!

Once you've logged enough of your partner's transgressions, you start to believe you not only know what your partner has done wrong, you also feel certain you know what they are going to do wrong! When it gets to that point, you don't really even need your partner there to have a fight.

Elise and I call this the "Sock Puppet" argument. Once she wanted me to do something which she thought I wouldn't want to do, so she said, "I want you to [whatever it was]" and then, before I had a chance to respond, she said, "I know what you're going to say, you're going to say, '[Her imagined counter argument of mine.]'" and then she said, "But, [and then she countered 'my' counter argument.]" And before I could speak, she countered her counter of her counter. I finally said, "Call me when this argument is over, and let me know how I did."

The image of putting a sock on your hand, and turning it back on yourself and arguing with it is so ridiculous; it often stops these kinds of arguments in their tracks.

The solution to a Sock Puppet argument is to let go of the idea that you know what the other person is thinking, and actually risk asking them for what you want. One of the first lessons they taught us as mediators was to be excitedly curious about the other person. This was also called the "dumb mediator" because even though you may think you know what the other person is thinking (it's obvious because you know what you would be thinking in that situation) you let go of what you 'know' and get curious about them.

It's amazing how often they surprise you.

Q4U: Watch for Sock Puppet arguments this week, and tell us about the ones you see - or better still, the times you caught yourself being the ventriloquist!

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Story of Max, Elise and Teamwork Mediation

Although born fifteen years apart, Elise and I had very similar lives before we met.  We had both had done a lot of personal growth work, had done a lot of education, and although both of us had very rich and fun single lives, neither of us had married by the time we met at 35 and 50 years of age respectively.
The roots of Teamwork Mediation began before we’d even moved in together. In the wake of 9/11, I noticed that in just a few weeks, the rest of the world went from total support and concern for the people of the U.S. to turning their back on us, just because of the strident way the U.S. government spoke about its fear and hurt. This struck me as so analogous to what happens to individuals who go from infatuation and love to seeing each other as enemies. But what to do about it?
I found a weekend mediation program that I wanted to take as a way of learning better skills for dealing with conflict, both personal and political. Elise decided to take the training too.

Our Lawnmower Story (Everyone had one, right?)

After the training, Elise and I did more than a year apprenticing in a Small Claims Court to practice our skills, and it was here that we began to develop what we eventually named “Teamwork Mediation,” which we talk about in our book. 

The case that started us on this path involved two old neighbors who were also best friends. One of them had loaned the other his beat up, old lawn mower, and it had been returned broken so he was suing his friend! 

“We’ve been best friends for over 30 years, but I’ll never speak to him again!” said the borrower. Our training taught us how to help the disputants focus on the issues, so we could help them decide on the fair value of the item, and settle the case. And I started to do just that.

But Elise is a kind-hearted being, and her focus was elsewhere. “You’re willing to let a 30 year friendship go? For a lawnmower? Thirty years?” We three men could actually feel the lawnmower begin to recede from the room as Elise’s compassion helped us focus on the deeper need: the value of human connection.

They were sacrificing their life-long relationship for a broken-down power-tool.  Elise began to apply the soothing techniques of mediation to the relationship, instead of focusing on resolving the legal issue. Once the relationship was healed, the lawnmower and the legal issue were summarily dismissed by both parties.

That was the first in a long string of cases, in which we began to mediate the relationship instead of the issues. At first the judge would call us on our method, “This isn’t couple’s counseling! It’s small claims court!” But we were having amazing success with our new method, and after a while, even the other mediators began to notice that instead of randomly assigning cases, any case which involved an ongoing relationship got assigned to us.

After some time, Elise and I wanted to teach our clients the skills of conflict resolution. After all, it had only taken us 30 hours to learn to be mediators, and it was really changing the way she and I communicated with each other.  Since most of our clients had ongoing relationships, we wanted to share this new information with them, so we started doing what we called “teaching points.” 

The problem was, mediators are neutral – not involved in the conflict. Our clients were involved, and so the mediator skill set wasn’t quite right.

One of the other mediators came to us one day and said, “You want to be teaching them NVC – Non-Violent Communication.” It’s like mediation, but designed for regular people to use in their conversations and conflicts.

He was right.  NVC was exactly what we were looking for. So we began to create a hybrid form of mediation. We’d use our skills to demonstrate that the dispute could be resolved, and then we’d teach the clients the applicable NVC concept so they could do it themselves.

And Teamwork Mediation was born. 

Is there a “lawn mower” issue you’re dealing with? Have you lost sight of the value of one of your precious relationships over whether the toilet seat is down, or the top is back on the tooth paste tube? Tell us about it…

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Same Old, Same Old

So, you're arguing.

Not just arguing, but arguing repeatedly.

Like so many couples, like so many families, like so many lovers, you were seeking love, peace and fun. But you got fighting instead, with frustration and upset thrown in.

It's a sad thing. Or, at least it was.

There's a story about a guy who falls into an open manhole. People walk by and look down, and offer suggestions, and then go on their way. Finally his best friend happens by and he calls up to him for help. In response, his friends jumps down into the hole with him!

Why did you do that?" the man shouts.

"Because I've been here myself, and I know that with my support, you can find your way out."

I'm a marriage mediator, and I've spent the last ten years jumping down into the hole with couples, and supporting them in their efforts to find their way out.

This is a blog about that journey, and about the book my wife and I are writing about it.

I also want this to be a place to  talk about the new things I am learning as they happen, because I do learn something from each couple almost every session.  Obviously, I'll need to protect my clients' privacy, so I'll either be describing the new concepts I learn, or I'll change enough of the details so even they wouldn't recognize themselves.

I'm excited about getting the bulk of what we've learned down in the book, because my wife and I have co-created a skill set (on top of the huge pile of wisdom we've inherited from others - which we will also share here) that can take a couple, even one that has done years of couples counseling and are still on the brink of divorce, back into the intimacy and love that brought them together in the first place. And we can do this in just six sessions.

In fact, that's how we're writing the book - in six sections to coincide with our six sessions. So it will be just like being on our couch with us in our home/office. We realized we weren't going to be able to get all of you who need our little process onto our couch, or even into our office so we decided to bring our couch to you.  Try not to spill anything on it.

I'll also answer questions about those same old arguments, if you leave them here as comments.

So, if you were going to sit down on my couch, with or without your partner, what would you want to know about your Same Old Arguments?