Conflicts — 26 May 2009
How couples can mediate their everyday disputes

Mediation is the process of facilitating a resolution between parties who are at odds. A mediator helps negotiate an agreement between two or more disputants through respectful listening, an impartial, unemotional, logical assessment of the conflict and by enabling the parties to find mutually satisfactory solutions. Since this process requires objectivity, how can couples mediate their own disputes?

Mediators offers the safety of a non-invested, knowledgeable and supportive individuals who hold both parties in esteem, honor both sides’ needs, and guide them to a resolution. Mediation is an excellent option in civil (non criminal) cases such as: contracts, real estate, neighbor disputes, employment and divorce, among others. For day-to-day disagreements couples may attempt to use some mediation elements to resolve their differences.

When couples fight they feel detached from each other and thus feel alone and unsafe. John Bowlby’s attachment theory taught us that infants seek from their mothers what adults seek from their mates: proximity, comfort and protection. Schachner, Shaver and Mikulinger in “Adult Attachment Theory, Psychodynamics, and Couple Relationships” add, “We assume that [attachment] is an important component of romantic love and marital commitment, and that meeting needs for a felt sense of security is one of the primary reasons for marriage.” When mates argue, they feel deeply insecure.

The insecurity is further aggravated by the assumption that the discord represents the partner’s disregard for the mate. Being held with esteem by the partner is an essential element in intimate relationship. We seek love, attention, appreciation, reassurance, support, encouragement, guidance, admiration and validation that we matter. Though we may be unaware of each of those needs at any given time, our behavior represents our frustrated deepest desires.

Disputes between partners occur when a mate, who is equally unaware of his/her acute process, does not decipher or respond well to the other’s underlying need. One party needs attention- the other wants solace. One partner seeks approval – the other misses the cues and fails to provide it or is critical. A mate wants to feel heard – but receives problem-solving suggestions. A parent worries about a child’s behavior and receives parenting reprimand. Since we are not attuned to our own needs, we do not voice them, fail to clarify them to our partner and thus reduce the chances of them being heeded. Openness to the mate turns to adversarial, self-serving position that leads to fights and pain.

To mediate your own disputes use the three-step approach:

Step One- Simulate the mediator’s request for stating your needs.

• Ask yourself- “How would I answer a mediator when asked what need of mine is not being met in this situation?” For example, “I need to be supported as a mother when I present an issue about our child.” Your partner may say: “I need to be able to be respected when I offer options for handling our child.”

Step Two- Simulate the mediator’s objectivity

• Listen to your partner with openness and caring at least as a mediator would.
• Accept your mate’s perspective without judgment or concern of risk to you. This will allow you to be objective and unemotional.

Step Three- Simulate the mediator’s labeling the Issue and seeking options for resolution.

• Label the issue in neutral terms. For example as “ A parenting options discussion”.
• Consider the conflict as a third entity that interferes with your closeness and safety.
• Visualize it as an object placed on the floor between you that needs your mutual attention. This changes it from being a conflict between to a mutual concern that unites you.
• Alternate offering suggestions for resolution as you keep in mind each other’s stated need. This helps you become a team ready to solve a mutual concern with emotional guidelines.
• Be creative in making suggestions and weighing their acceptability until you reach a mutually agreeable option.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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