Sophie and Seth were not an ordinary couple, nor were they business executives or international diplomats, those people who often use decision-making mediation. They were extremely conscientious, dedicated parents, who were involved in their church, and in an “ethical humanist” society, where they met at Boston University.
The couple sensed and then learned for certain that they had been brought up with similar values and beliefs which they practiced in their professions and in their personal lives. Everything clicked, and two years later they and their families joined for a meaningful and beautiful wedding ceremony on the Chesapeake Bay. A year later, Jennifer, an adorable baby girl was born. Then, two years later, twins, Adriana and Kathryn, came along to bless their home. Both Sophie and Seth’s parents were young grandparents, adored their first grandchildren, and contributed time and financial resources to help their adult children. Sophie and Seth did not have to sacrifice their couple relationship to be parents.
The couple and their family were the envy of their friends and acquaintances. Initially, the family occupied a whole pew of little girls at their temple, decked out in hair ribbons and patent leather shoes. They became beautiful, robust and athletic adolescents. They and each parent found his or her own path to a different type of spiritual meditation, yoga, or dance.
Almost, unbelievably, Seth’s company allowed him – with him paying the tab, of course—to take the whole family with him while on business travel to cosmopolitan urban centers or rural places with idyllic natural settings. Neither their colleagues, nor their friends would ever have detected a fault line in their relationship. Yet, here they were in the office asking for decision-making mediation about the future direction of their relationship. It seemed unbelievable. Absolutely no one would have guessed it. Had they experienced a too exorbitant a life style, and now were stretching for even more? They had married the first real love in their lives and were young and still in college when they married. They said they were curious how differently there lives would be if they had waited until they were more mature to marry. They had each been in individual therapy, and had concluded that they needed to make a decision about their future, and had heard about decision-making mediation from neighbors who needed to decide whether to build an addition to their home for the wife’s mother, and who had reached a successful resolution through the decision-making mediation they had undertaken.
After settling in and giving background information, we agreed that they would take enough time to reach a sane and carefully thought out decision. At all times they were asked to step into one another’s shoes to empathize with what the other person must be feeling, to listen well, and to genuinely hear one another.
According to the “Seven Visual Steps to Yes” * I asked them to create a mutual definition of the decision ahead of them. They agreed that it was “we want to uncover and be clear about what a six-month marital separation will look like; to be clear about what we want to accomplish, what we want to achieve during that time.” Sophie brought in a quote from Henry David Thoreau, saying that they, too, wanted to “live deliberately” during the six month separation and to find and hold on to ourselves as individuals, not just as family members. They said they wanted to discover and envision what they wanted to achieve during a separation of six months.
Thoreau’s quote was “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, to discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.”
Seth and Sophie agreed that that the meaning of Thoreau’s quote reflected their purpose in undergoing a marital separation. They didn’t want to arrive at the end of the designated time period without having achieved deliberate goals they had carved out for their separation. Sophie and Seth were serious and thoughtful people. They wanted a meaningful separation as two individuals. Using the “Seven Visual Step to Yes” model, Sophie declared that while in individual therapy she discovered that what she wanted during a separation in the marriage (Step I) was a “pause in the relationship”. Seth said he wanted to restore intimacy to their marriage. It seemed that their initial I want positions were dissonant or even contradictory. However, the point of the Seven Steps was to design a vision of a marital separation that would satisfy both of them.
When asked in the decision-making mediation session what her Step II, Bottom-Line Need was for the separation, Sophie stated hers was “freedom”, Seth stated his was “home”. Sophie took more time to article what really, really mattered to her, and Seth even had a more difficult time. His eyes rolled up into his head until he finally connected with what was really important to him during a separation.
For Sophie, there were six things that really mattered to her during a marital separation, and they all got the highest rating, a number five, for her in terms of importance:
- “To hold onto the better sense of myself I’ve gained during the past three months.”
- “Trust and openness”
- “Less pressure in our daily lives”
- “To feel free to say what I really feel without Seth taking it personally
- “To have a genuine separation, to be able to date and interact with others on all levels, emotionally, spiritually, and physically”.
- “After I’ve said something, not to hear from Seth that this is not have I really feel”
Seth coincidentally also had six things that really mattered to him during a separation:
- “For me to be committed and open”
- “To have our date nights”
- “To take the family trip to New Orleans”
- “To feel we can both express ourselves freely”
- “To reconnect to you, Sophie in every way”
- “To be affectionate, have sex, hold hands, kiss, and hug”
Seth also rated all of the things that mattered to him with a 5, except having date nights, which he rated as a 3-4 in order of importance to him. The couple agreed that all of what mattered to both of them, except date nights, would be implemented during their separation.
When asked what they would do if, in the end, they couldn’t negotiate to a satisfactory solution after a separation, (Step IV, Your Best Personal Alternative) Sophie gasped and said her alternative scared her, she wanted to keep it to herself. Seth said he preferred keeping what he would do to himself, as well, if he couldn’t negotiate a satisfactory solution with Sophie. Later on, it was revealed that Sophie’s best alternative would be to step outside of the marriage, literally, and Seth’s was to step outside of the marriage, visually.
In our following decision-making mediation session, it was time to brainstorm (Step V) creative ideas and options, in addition to the items that they had already agreed upon, that really mattered to them, to make their separation deliberate, to make it purposeful and what they really desired to achieve.
This is the list of their options with the ratings each gave them about how important they were to each of them.
- Sophie: “I am more committed to the “nesting concept” living in the home half-time, after hearing how important “home” is to you, Seth, even though it will mean a lot more work in the house for me.” Both of them rated this option as a 5 in terms of importance to each of them.
- Sophie: “I will work on getting a second job, attempting to be more financially independent.” Both of them gave this idea a 5 rating.
- Seth: “I want intimacy inside the marriage, and you want intimacy outside the marriage! Sophie rated this option with a 1, Seth with a 5.
- Seth: “Fidelity while still officially married is huge to me”. He rated this option with a 5, Sophie with a 1. She said she didn’t think a separation during a marriage should carry fidelity with it.
- Seth: “Kissing hello and good-bye for starters, and holding hands.” Sophie gave this option a 1, Seth a 5.
- Sophie: “Friendship, and really good co-parenting”. Both of them gave this option a 5.
- Seth: “Family dinners, occasionally”. Both of them gave this option a 5.
- Seth: “Taking our New Orleans vacation”. Sophie rated this option a 4, Seth a 5.
- Seth: “In the alternate weeks when I’m living in the apartment, I will come to the house two evenings a week to have dinner with the girls and help with their homework”
- Sophie: “Parenting the girls every other day on the weekends”. Both of them gave this option a 5.
- Sophie: “Dating and living socially, emotionally, spiritually, and physically as independent individuals” She gave this idea a 5, Seth gave it a 0-1.
In a following decision-making mediation session, Seth and Sophie looked at their creative ideas and options. They decided that in addition to all of the things that really, really mattered to each of them, that they would adopt a “nesting” living arrangement during the separation, each living in the home half time. They would also commit to the occasional family dinner and to friendship and really good co-parenting. Additionally, Seth would come to the home two evenings, maximum per week, perhaps one, to have dinner with the girls and help them with their homework, and they would each parent the girls in the home one day a week-end. They reviewed what they visualized during their separation and as mediator I drafted a contract of their Vision for a Mutual Marital Separation for them.
Sophie and Seth lived with the commitment to their vision of their separation for six weeks and then confided that what they wanted, their fundamental non-negotiable needs, and what mattered to each of them were not compatible. They would live out the term of their separation, made in decision-making mediation, but during the time-period begin the process of divorce mediation. They said that without the “Seven Step Process”, their desires, needs and positions would never have been as clear to them. Although the outcome was disappointing to them, and especially to their families, they decided it was the correct outcome and one they could live with, especially keeping the needs of their children foremost for both of them.