The last few months with my father have been more than I could have imagined possible a year and a half ago when I visited him in hospital. There had been much acrimony between us in the distant past, and a smouldering resentment through the in-between years, born of not knowing how to express strong emotions and a swath of chronic misunderstanding that engulfs some relationships.
Even though the separation lasted more than 20 years, it wasn’t like we didn’t try to make it work a few times. Unacknowledged love, regret, and many painful memories had made it impossible for me to see the likelihood of coming back together.
I’m sharing this story with you to shed some light on the insights that led to the flowering of a father–son love that had been hidden all along. It was one that had been desperate to come out, but was protected because of completely forgivable reasons that I will reveal later.
But how did our relationship change from the tug-of-war for rights and personal freedom so long ago? How did we get past all the missed opportunities and the time tether of despair to the almost effortlessly expressed care and love we have for each other today?
Coming to Terms with Our Own Feelings
It all starts with the desire to be free of the pain and suffering. But more than that, we have to commit to challenging our past judgements and the beliefs that extended the separation over so many years.
There are many ways that people cope with feelings of helplessness in their life. As a family mediator and as someone who has lived through it, I’ve come to understand that this feeling is a learned reality. It exists and has strength because we have not learned how to cope with our overwhelming feelings. I had tried to bury the pain of this separation with my father for so long that the terror I felt when it threatened to resurface was something I could no longer ignore if I wanted to live a good life.
Repairing a Relationship Starts with Looking Inwards
Admitting how much the pain of separation was affecting me, and how I had given up on facing it was the first step toward freedom. Looking back though, and considering all I had gained from this effort, it’s clear that it was the most worthwhile thing I could have done.
My next step was to surrender the need to justify myself in the ways that I did in the past. It had been so long, I had forgotten most of the beliefs. They were only there as memories. Sure, I had been hurt, but my pain could no longer be a reason to deny my father’s pain during that tumultuous time.
Through bearing witness to the pain and allowing it to overwhelm me as many times as necessary, my old pain became less important.
I was eventually able to take responsibility for what was mine in the conflict, and not feel the shame that used to feed more discord between us.
Reconnecting with Complete Honesty is Essential
The email in which I wrote this all out was a turning point in my road to recovery with my father. In the email,
- I said that I loved him.
- I shared my regret for what had happened.
- I left an open invitation for him to respond.
There were times in the following period when I was almost certain that if we were to meet again, it would have been almost too late. The fabled deathbed outpouring of emotions that happens in the movies was a regular vision when I thought about how our coming together might happen. I’m humbled by this passage I’ve just written out to you, and very grateful to have the trust and connection with my father that I have today.
Dealing with Conflict from a Divorce Mediator’s Perspective
If there is one thing I need to say to the family members out there who are feeling the pain of separation, it is that at some point one person needs to stop the tug-of-war, put down their end of the rope, and begin to fully feel and acknowledge the pain they have inside them.
This is not so we become locked once again in the inaction of guilt, or carried away into the churning of resentment that can arrest an otherwise good life. It is so that we can, with time and persistence, find peace with our old thoughts and feelings, and to slowly and unexpectedly accept and be generous in allowing the other to be who they need to be, whether that is with us or not.
There is a lot of talk about this word out there these days from authors such as Brene Brown and Simon Sinek. Their research and motivational speaking have been inspirational to me and many others. In this blog post I aim to make a contribution to the conversation by talking about empathy in the context of conflict.
Empathy is often a subtle communication that may come across in words or with only a look. It can look like a kind face that signals to us that we’re being heard or cared for by the one with whom we have become vulnerable. Empathy is easy enough to spot when we have trust for the one sharing the space with us. However, it could become exceedingly difficult to notice acts of care in a relationship where chronic misunderstanding has led to firm judgements and impasse.
How Misunderstanding Can Lead to Conflict
If we’re angry and in pain because of these communication patterns, conflict can arise in the following ways:
- We may start blaming the other for what has happened to us.
- They, in turn, may feel the urge to defend their right to fair acknowledgement.
- Or perhaps the next time the conflict starts we may simply feel we cannot get involved this time, we can feel our pain but are unable to retaliate.
A lack of response is commonly understood in our culture as a weakness, or the absence of care for the one who is expressing how they were hurt. As a divorce mediator in Toronto, my take on this silence is that it is often an act of non-participation, and a temporary halting to the pattern of fighting. This is both an act of self-care and empathy towards the other.
The moment of silence can happen after the heat of the conflict has dissipated and we seek separation from our spouse. But this choice alone does not end the need to retaliate. Mediation can help eliminate or at least make more tolerable the conversions that need to take place.
How to Bear Witness to Our Own Emotions
In activist communities, there is a practice known as “bearing witness.” Its purpose is to give space to the intense and potentially destructive emotions we’re feeling as we become aware of an injustice to our rights and values or to those of others. When we bear witness, we allow the hot fire of a reaction to overwhelm us internally and emotionally. Our self-care can now turn from silence into action that supports our greater goals in life.
“Surrendering” during a fight is an act of empathy because it opens us up to the pain of our spouse or friend while allowing us to feel our own pain. Other than the words we use, is my pain or their pain really a different feeling? Surrendering is an essential aspect to a process of self-reflection and for anyone who needs to productively participate in a co-parenting relationship for the benefit of their child.
In the relative calm after the heat of the fight when self-reflection begins, we all have the opportunity to choose the following paths:
- Work towards lasting resolutions.
- Repair a relationship so that we can make the necessary choices needed to move forward,
- Continue “being right” and return to the pain of separation that comes with that unrestrained desire.
Conflict hurts, but being open to finding new ways to speak about what is important to us, can reduce its intensity over time.
How do you want to remember your separation mediation? Contact me to see how family mediation can work for you.
One of the simplest and potentially life-changing insights I have gathered from my time as a family mediator in Toronto is knowing the key difference between acknowledgement and agreement. However, before we get to that point, we need to talk about the fundamental purpose of having conversations with our spouse or partner during the mediation process:
- Are we interested in mutual understanding and appreciation?
- Or are we more concerned about being right?
The answer won’t always be one or the other, but can flip from topic to topic. Rest assured that neither of these approaches is right or wrong, but each produces very different life paths.
How is Acknowledgement Different from Agreement?
The definition of agreement in the context of family mediation is fairly simple to understand. An agreement is reached when both parties share the same views and come to the same decision about important matters. Agreements are often preceded by constructive conversations that involve a family mediator who is trained in conflict resolution.
Acknowledgement is different from agreement because it is used to demonstrate our understanding, even when we don’t agree with what the other person is saying. Acknowledgement allows us to hold space and show respect and understanding for the other party’s opinions without having to agree with them.
Example of Acknowledgement
After giving you time to say how you feel, I show my acknowledgement by describing what I heard. I may not necessarily like or agree with what you said, but I bear my discomfort so that you know I’ve understood your meaning. Once you know I have heard what you care about, then I can speak about what is important to me.
This more detached listening allows you to objectively reflect on what is being said as a whole. You can respond without taking a position, holding on to your side, or taking the opposing view.
The Benefits of Acknowledgement
When we’re having a tough conversation with a friend or partner, we’re sometimes more focused on how we need to respond rather than listening to the message in a way that promotes understanding.
Imagine how different a tense conversation would play out if one of the participants shifts from offering an opinion and instead starts to ask questions about why the other feels the way they do. How would the dynamic change if that participant simply confirms what was said to take care of any doubt we have about their intended meaning. This constructive and respectful style of communication can help both parties maintain a positive attitude, which can lead to favourable outcomes for everyone involved.
Why is Acknowledgement Important?
There are two equally valid experiences going on simultaneously during any interaction. When our views aren’t being recognized throughout a conversation, we start to focus more on proving that we’re right.
This is one of the most common conflicts we have with those we care about. Acknowledgement allows us to be the agents of change and offer the recognition both people are seeking. For acknowledgement to work,one person will need to take the lead and create the space for the other so that a new path to the conversation can unfold.
Acknowledgement and Separation Mediation
For people in mediation or for those who are thinking of separating from their spouse, their past experiences will continue to lead to aversion, defensiveness, and confrontation without interest in and effort applied to change the pattern.
Acknowledgement can help people break this pattern and transition from an intimate relationship, where asking for emotional engagement and care is normal, to a co-parenting relationship, where each person is more self-reliant and child-focused.
With this perspective, both parties can listen deeper and have a chance to speak and be heard. The requirement to be proven right or in control of the conversation may arise within us, but it no longer has to be followed.
Are you looking for family mediation in Toronto? I can help you and your spouse start a respectful and goal-oriented dialogue through professional conflict resolution management and conflict coaching.
Contact me at Aligned Choices mediation today.