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Preserving AUTONOMY While Supporting MUTUALITY

Is mediation the best choice for you? Will the other person in your life participate at all, or participate fairly? We can't answer those questions. We can speak to how mediation might work for you and give you some ideas why it might work well.

Certain interaction patterns - avoidance, control, accommodation - tend to perpetuate conflict. There is a hand in glove sort of relationship dynamic when a style of behavior in another person causes in us a fixed and predictable form of response. This pattern tends to be reciprocal between people, and it can be like an unspoken contract or even a dance between partners and couples that acts in invisible ways. Invisible dynamics tend to short-circuit our own best interests.

One of the goals and useful benefits of mediation is to help people to become aware of their interaction patterns. When these are not seen they are quite reflexive and habitual, which is why we can sometimes be triggered quickly and deeply into reacting. This reactivity often makes one person's interests (i.e., their 'reality') seem impossibly difficult to reconcile with our own, which leads to the sort of zero-sum thinking that is characteristic of adversarial litigation ("if she gains a point, I lose a point"). This emotional reaction naturally causes us to want to fight or flee. 

There is another alternative. Parties to a conflict each have an important need to maintain and protect their autonomy. Mediation never seeks to have people disregard their own important self-interests, particularly those that are basic to functioning (whether this be in terms of self-respect or enjoying shelter and food). Mediation does seek to identify what is really important, however, since many points that people will not concede are struggled with because of the invisible patterns of reactivity, and not because they define real success or failure at the end of relationships. 

Autonomy over valuable interests includes assuming responsibility for one's life, behaviors, and perspectives and honoring one's own needs. 

Identifying mutuality is also a part of the mediation puzzle. Parties must be willing to consider how autonomy for two persons can be reconciled in ways that may benefit both mutually. It is almost a guarantee that this can be accomplished, but only if there is a willingness to look at the apparently opposing views more carefully than when one is just reacting from a place of patterned conflict response.  

Mutuality is distinguished by each person becoming willing to respect the other, to work together collaboratively, and to honor a mutual sense of fairness. Clearly these qualities are characteristic of how parties interact at the beginning of relationships. We know they once were possible.   

Mediation aims to help parties to identify on some level how the reactivity that drives their conflict works. Mediation seeks to have a discussion of where common interests lie. Supporting what is really important to each person together with engendering - or 'remembering' - a mutual respect for the experiences of the other person are important keys to exposing conflict for what it is (habitualized, addictive, unconscious), and thus moving beyond it.

True, if each party is unwilling to look beyond their initial feelings then adversary court litigation may their only route. But most people are willing to become a little less defensive, and professional mediators are trained to assist in this process. Often with surprising and positive results.

This is why at DFMS we are passionately devoted to the mediation alternative for resolving marital and domestic partnership disputes respectfully.

T.W. Arnold


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