She is seething, saying “He’ll be late. He’s always
late. One of the reasons for the divorce. It’s a sign of
disrespect, of thinking he’s more important than the
rest of us.” She calls her husband, Seth, on his cell
phone, no answer.
What to do? Tell her to wait outside?
Explain to her I’m sorry I can’t meet
with her alone because I have to be
neutral? Find something else to do
while we wait for him? Any course
of action taken has its advantages
and disadvantages. I always try to
do what the client will find most
helpful. “Go with the flow,” says my
middle son. The laws of physics apply
to mediation, with inertia a constant
guide and force.
So she’s in my office, takes off her coat and put it
on the next chair, opens her bag and pulls out her
homework. She wants to talk. She wants to tell me
how Seth is always late, and gives two poignant
examples. She then calls him again and he answers.
He’s in his lawyer’s office preparing for our meeting
which he thought was tomorrow. On speakerphone
I ask him, while looking at her, what they want to
do? Have a meeting like this, with him on speaker
phone? Seth says he’s not far away and can be
there in half an hour. I have time, and so does Catherine.
While we wait for him to arrive I learn a lot from
her. Catherine makes more money than Seth does
and does not want to pay him alimony. He has been
jobless for a while and does not seem to her to be
working hard to find a job. She thinks he has a lot
of family backing, will not work and will want alimony from her, which she will refuse to pay. She is
prepared to go to court, to have a judge order him
to work or to attribute income to him based on his
education, training and work history.
If people lived off attributed income
they’d be rich. Alas, although the
courts have the power to pretend
a person could earn a certain
income and make alimony and child
support judgments accordingly, they
almost never do. There has to be
spite or other egregious behavior,
like quitting a job. “Everyone on
Nantucket wants to be a scalloper,”
sighs one Massachusetts judge who
locks up a flagrant shirker.
Yet amidst all her anger, disappointment and
almost shame at the story of her marriage, Catherine says they always work well together around
their child, now in his senior year of college.
Seth arrives, apologetic, explaining his mistake.
He sits and asks what we have been talking about. I
explain we talked about how well they have worked
together as parents, saying as little as possible about
her determination not to pay him alimony.
By now we only have an hour left before Catherine
has to go. I want them to talk about what they want
to talk about. Seth says he would like to know where
she stands about alimony, child support, property division. I ask him if he knows what he wants,
because many of my clients don’t.
Do you know what you want? Do you
ever really ask yourself that question,
which Camus described as the most
existentially difficult question there is?
Much of the struggle I see in my office is
not the battle between Cathy and Seth
but the “intra-psychic struggle” defined
by Morton Deutsch: Cathy trying to
figure out what is really most important
to her and Seth doing the same. During
the period of the mediation, each client
travels this tortuous road eloquently
depicted in Mary Oliver’s poem, “The
Journey,” concluding that the only life
you can save is your own.
Catherine arrives on time for her second mediation
session and walks into my office, not pausing to wait
in the waiting room.
About the Author
divorces in 1979
and joined the
Academy of Family
Mediators as a life
member in about
1985. He attended
the first ACR Family
after September 11,
2001 when flights
from and to Boston
empty. He was
actively involved in
the Family Law
Section for years.