This article was published in Evening Echo on 20th January 2010
Frequently, people ask why are marriages breaking down in such numbers today? It is often implicit in the tone of the person asking the question that there is something “wanting” in people living now, as opposed to people of previous generations. This question can be asked in similar ways about other problems that arise for families today e.g., looking after older members of our families. If we think about it these issues arise not because we are lazier, lacking in moral fibre, less caring, more selfish but rather because the scale of these difficulties for many families has greatly increased because of our increased longevity. Increased longevity also affects marriage and the issues that arise from it.
Two centuries ago, no one expected to be married to the same person for 40/50/60 years. Two centuries ago very, very few people lived beyond 60 and, therefore, the problem of caring for the aged did not generally arise. We need to examine the strains our increased longevity puts on a marriage relationship and be more realistic about it. Not all relationships are meant to last a lifetime. In the recent “Sex and the City” movie Carrie comments that not all love stories are for life, some are short lived but no less intense and loving for that. It is worth remembering that no one falls in love to divorce, we all start out in our love relationships in hope, optimism and love.
In her article entitled “Introducing a New Metaphor for Separation, Divorce and Remarriage”, Dr Susan Gamache mentions that in the 1850s the average life expectancy was only 40 years and “marriages were generally ended by the death of one of the spouses before the 10 year mark”. Interestingly, remarriage rates were very similar to today. What is interesting about this is that children growing up in one- parent families was as common then as it is now, though we often think of it as a totally modern phenomenon. Also common was remarriage and second families. Closer to our own time during the two world wars, whole generations of children across Europe and in the USA were raised with little or no male influence because available men were away at war or were sadly never coming home. So why do we regard these issues as modern problems? I think it is because these issues have components which are modern and because they are usually discussed in the context of divorce or separation. Custody, access, child support, and co-parenting relationships are all relatively modern problems. They do not arise in the same way in a historical context. However, we can be helped a lot in the way we look at these problems by having regard to social history. For example if we realise that our idea of the nuclear family is a relatively modern concept and the” apple pie version” is peculiarly American and very recent, it stops us from thinking that previous generations were made of sterner moral stuff than ourselves. Realising also that some of what we regard as modern problems existed in previous generations, admittedly in somewhat different formats, helps us to stop beating ourselves up and actually focus on the issues without blame and with a solution orientation. Collaborative teams are committed to problem solving. We do not blame or judge. We focus on the issues and the solutions and as a team we put in place agreements that enable the family to transit into a new co-parenting two unit structure. We very deliberately examine our language so as not to demonise relationship endings by focusing on what went wrong and using the language of blame. We try very hard to use future focussed language and constructive metaphors to describe the new relationships that are desirable both socially and for the family itself moving forward. Because custody and access, finances and co-parenting relationships are often mainly logistics, we find that if we can detoxify the language and improve the pattern of communication between the couple, solutions can be found to seemingly the most intractable of problems.
Similarly, since life expectancy in the 1850s was 40 years and is now 80 plus, we have to look at how we manage caring for our older family members. Most older members of our communities wish to continue to live independently whether or not they have children who will look after them. They do not wish to be a burden on their children and they want dignity and respect. It is a challenge to achieve this for seniors and ensure their safety and day to day care. Norman Pickwell in his article “Mediation for Seniors” states that “No one disputes the fact that being independent and active is key to a senior’s mental and physical health”. However as people grow older, families are faced with uncomfortable decisions about where the older person should live, whether or not they should drive and how financial affairs are to be managed. These are tough decisions which often require uncomfortable conversations for families. Like in a marriage, these conversations can be very difficult not simply because of the nature of the topic, but because of the family dynamics i.e the way in which the siblings have historically interacted since their childhood and their independent relationships with their parents. All of which can give rise to tensions, quite apart from the subject matter. Mediation can be of enormous assistance in facilitating these conversations and assisting in the reaching of agreements, while preserving family relationships and in many cases improving communication. The mediator can ensure that everyone is being realistic in what they agree to do and that there is respect for all in the room to enable the conversation to take place. The mediator can also help to maintain the focus of the discussion. The neutrality of the mediator can channel the conversation which otherwise could simply become disparate and incoherent. The mediator will bring together the senior, the adult children, sometimes the spouses of adult children and other necessary family members. The mediator will travel to facilitate the family at some central location and will assist the family to have a civilised conversation concerning sensitive, emotional issues. Everyone will be given an opportunity to be heard and to express their views. Without the help of a mediator it is very difficult for everyone to feel heard and to be given equal opportunity to speak. A skilled mediator will create an atmosphere that promotes discussion and makes everyone feel safe.
It is worth remembering that reaching good agreements will only be possible if everyone has an opportunity to express their views. The Mediator will have to spend some time looking at the underlying issues surrounding the problem. In addition to looking at the history, the mediator will also seek information that will facilitate solutions as relevant, ie medical information, financial information and legal input.
Many of the seemingly insurmountable problems of our modern life can be overcome by skilled teams working within the alternative dispute resolution continuum. The skills are there, we are only limited by our own imaginations and our unexamined attitudes.