I got a call from a potential client the other day. Deeply distraught over his wife’s affair, he wanted to know about the divorce process. I listened to his story of how he discovered the affair and his painful details of following her on her lunch breaks. I heard about cars and hotel rooms and credit card bills. I said a word here or there of comfort. He asked a couple of question about what he was entitled to given the breech of trust. I dodged those land-mines and offered some general information about the process. Mostly I just listened.
Toward the end of our conversation, he let out a deep sigh. After a long silence on his end he thanked me for the help and said he would think about what to do next.
Needless to say, he didn’t schedule a mediation session. I knew he would not be working with me from his opening sentence. Not because he wasn’t just the type of person who would appreciate and benefit from mediation, but because he simply wasn’t ready.
Much like the stages of grief associated with death, people going through a breakup typically start with shock and denial then move into anger before eventually getting to more acceptance. The non-linear grief path at the end of a major relationship takes us on loops, detours, dead ends and a periodic spin on the hamster wheel. People pass through the full panoply of emotions. They revisit some particularly compelling ones, like self-pity, panic, anger and detachment over and over.
Over dinner with a friend who got divorced about two years ago I was bemoaning the fact that a lot of people who could save money and heartache in mediation end up in the courts . As a lawyer, she knew what litigation could and could not offer her. She said “I had to try. I was just so angry and hurt, I needed to fight. I fought for 18 months and then I just stopped. After a year and a half, I was done and ready to make decisions with him. I realized that we had to go on raising our kids together and the fighting wasn’t getting us anywhere. But I needed to try to win and make him pay for what he was doing to us before I could agree to any compromises.”
I have to keep re-learning the concept of good timing. Mediation makes most sense to people who have come through the darkest period and are moving toward the dialogue and bargaining stage of grief.
That isn’t to say that there’s not plenty of value in starting the process of separating off on the right foot. Initial actions set the tone for how the breakup plays out. It’s just that sometimes people aren’t there. And there’s nothing you or I can do to hurry that process.
We grieve when we need to grieve. It’s not something you can schedule or put an end-date on. It’s not convenient or particularly pretty. Then, after time works it’s magic, let the healing begin.