Changing the Goal in Marriage Counseling From “Do We Have Another Child” to “Where Do We Go on Vacation?” in Decision Mediation
Laura and Caleb were a bright and thoughtful couple in their late 30s and early 40s. They were established in their careers, she as a radiologist and he as an environmental field engineer. They had two children, Hannah, age 7, and Abe, age 4. They came to the office for marriage counseling this spring to discuss parenting issues and to decide whether to have another child. She had come from a family of two children and he from a family of five children; he was leaning towards growing their family, at least to a family of five, she was leaning towards a four member family.
During our discussions, they were each offered vacation time, at the same time, during the last two weeks of July. The marriage counseling suddenly turned into Decision Mediation. They were eager to meet the needs of the whole family. Before even being asked, Laura announced that she wanted a family vacation at Mt. Katahdin in Maine, where her father had always taken her and her sister, Margret hiking as teenagers and young adults. What fond memories she had of those days. Her father had died this past summer, and she had been waiting for the opportunity to spread his ashes on one of his favorite peaks. She knew this summer would be the best time. She wanted to celebrate his life.
Caleb wanted a family vacation as well, but he wanted to go to their traditional Martha’s Vineyard cottage in West Tisbury, Massachusetts to rest from his grueling travel schedule. He was already savoring the taste of seafood grilling on the barbeque, and the prospect of reading, and dozing with a book on his nose at the beach. Hiking wasn’t his idea of a restful vacation. He could smell Martha’s Vineyard, already. He could survive until July only with the prospect of this vacation in front of him. His work had been difficult; the travel almost too much for him. He needed decision making mediation with Laura.
Laura’s job was sedentary, sitting atop a high stool, reading x-rays, MRIs, and writing reports, in a room without windows in the hospital. She wanted and needed to move on vacation. She needed to spread her father’s ashes, lose weight, and to get in shape for a national presentation in the fall.
Caleb interjected that recently he had been walking up the back steps to the family room when he heard moaning and groaning coming from the family room. He saw Laura collapsed and crying on the floor. Had she had an accident? A heart attack? “No!” Laura growled. “These leg lifts and crunches just aren’t going to work! I need to get back into hiking, the only thing that really works to help me take off weight. Ever since Abe’s birth, I just can’t seem to lose these extra pounds!” “I need to be in shape for the videotaping at the medical conference in September!”
“I get it Laura!” “You’re going to be able to run the roads on the Vineyard!” “You better start preparing now!”
“Wait a minute, Caleb! You know I need to spread my father’s ashes and need, on the anniversary of Dad’s death to be in a place he loved to take me and my sister! And, hiking is so much better for losing weight for me, than running!”
“Hey, you wait a minute Laura! Don’t you realize how absolutely grueling my work has been these last two years and how much I need a rest – to stretch out on the beach for days on end with a book and a beer? Are you kidding me, Laura, that you don’t understand my situation? I’ve already prepared shrimp kebabs, beer-infused chicken, grass-fed beef and vegetables in my mind to cook on the grill. And, we’ll all go out to eat at our favorite restaurants, and the kids absolutely love to play on the beach. I wouldn’t deprive them of Martha’s Vineyard summer vacation for anything! Don’t you remember my favorite Spanish proverb ‘how beautiful it is to do nothing and then to rest afterward?”
Woah! It was obvious that Laura and Caleb’s needs and desires for a family vacation were very different. They were caught between deep needs for rest and glorious activity on the other hand. Would they be able to negotiate a mutual agreement to these seemingly polarized needs? They were stuck and they knew it. Both of them were unhappy, sometimes believing that the other person was the problem instead of their own deeply felt and polarized needs.
Caleb started to brainstorm. He was taking the decision mediation seriously. If Laura needed to hike and spread her father’s ashes, she could invite her sister, Margret, to hike up Mt. Katahdin for as long as they needed, and then Laura and the kids could join him at Martha’s Vineyard. “Well”, said Laura, “you Caleb, could come to the new Mt.Katahdin lodge and resort, with hot-springs, hot-tubs, saunas, and two gigantic new swimming pools. You can hang out during the day, while I, or Margret and I hike, spread Dad’s ashes, and get the exercise I need to start dropping pounds for my presentation. I can’t do that on the Vineyard. There is also a kids eco-camp, in which Hannah and Abe can participate when they don’t want to hike. I can’t believe you’re being so selfish!” She made a persuasive case. Caleb did think the hot springs, saunas and hot tubs sounded wonderful.
The couple was encouraged to continue to brainstorm creative options in decision mediation for their vacation. Laura continued with “I certainly don’t want to split up during our family vacation. I want us all to be together as a family. That is what family vacations are all about!” “Well, then, Laura, come to the Vineyard, and we’ll all be together!” quipped Caleb. “You can go to Mt. Katahdin with Margret in September when the temperatures are cooler, and climbing is easier!”
“But, Caleb…you’re not paying attention to my needs!” I have to lose weight and shape up before the AMA conference in September! Are you listening to me at all?”
The conversations were intense and heated in the decision mediation. Neither Caleb or Laura seemed likely to relent. They needed to schedule another session to delve deeper into each of their needs.
At the beginning of the following decision making session, Caleb expressed that he did understand Laura’s point of view about having the whole family together for vacation. “Realistically, Laura, our needs are very different. You absolutely need to get in shape, lose weight, spread your father’s ashes with Margret at the special place where your Dad took the two of two as teenagers and 20- somethings. I get it. And, I think you should do that and hike with the kids part of the time, and have them go to the eco-camp part of the time. But, Laura, my love, I need to be at the Vineyard for the whole two weeks, I absolutely do. When you are done with Mt. Katahdin, I want you to fly to the Vineyard, and spend the rest of the vacation with me, all of us together. It will mean the world to me.”
“Laura, I’ll be rested when you arrive… at least somewhat..and ready to see you, all. You might even talk me into going running with you, and, for sure, we can fast walk on the beach.”
Laura looked disappointed, but not completely defeated. What Caleb said made sense, it was realistic. She got up from her chair, embraced her husband, saying “I knew I married you for a very good reason, Caleb. The kids will get to go hiking, to eco-camp, into the hot-springs, and sauna, and to the beach and to Martha’s Vineyard, where they’ve gone every year! You’re just one heck of a sane and logical guy. I’m so glad I married you, Caleb. I love you to the sun, the moon, and the stars!