Mediation's Transformative Power
By Barry Simon, Mediated Solutions
It was around 1 A.M. when the phone awoke me from a deep sleep."Hello?"
"I'm going to kill myself!"
"Larry? It's one A.M."
I had met Larry in graduate school and we immediately hit it off as friends. Then I came out of the closet and Larry followed. It was a heady, exhilarating time. It was the early 70's and being gay and out and proud gave us all a sense of power and being in control of our lives.
"I'm going to kill myself," Larry wailed again. "He treats me like I don't even exist."
"He" was Warren, a very good looking but self-contained young man with whom we shared a house. Standing tall and lean, Warren could be exasperating one moment and charming the next. He was very opinionated, proclaiming his theories and leaving no room for opposition. He exuded a masculinity that was intoxicating and a coolness that was off-putting. Unlike Larry and I, he had not proclaimed himself as being gay.
"I'm just a doormat he wipes his boots on," Larry continued. "I'm nothing to him. Nothing!"
This drama had been going on for nearly two years now. I finally got fed up and moved into my own apartment. But Larry and I were still friends and he would called me to vent his frustration and anger at a man who was excellent at giving just enough encouragement and then pulling back. Like a trapped insect, Larry flailed around only to find himself further entangled.
CREATION OF A "SYSTEM"
Who of us hasn't known someone - a friend, a co-worker, a lover, a parent - who thrives on being miserable. We have even given them a name: Drama Queens. They bloom in chaos and love nothing more than to involve anyone within listening range. If you are quiet you can hear them sighing loudly as they look around for a response, any response that will be interpreted as encouragement. Soon their lives engulf our own. To confirmed co-dependents like me, they are our life's blood, the reason for our existence. "Rescue me!" they cry, and we gladly heed their calls like a moth drawn to a flame.
The fact was anything that reminded Warren that he was gay was a threat. And so Larry's advances caused Warren to retreat into his icy shell. He wasn't doing anything to Larry. Instead, he was protecting himself. At the same time, Warren wanted nothing more than to have an intimate encounter with a man, maybe even come out of the closet. But every time he allowed Larry closer, the pain, guilt and fear he felt caused Warren to flee emotionally. They had created a system which was a no-win situation. Yet, they fed and nurtured this system for several years.
Larry would look to me for the answer to his problem. And co-dependent me was only too glad to respond. This was our system and about as rewarding as the one he and Warren had created. But in some unspoken way it fulfilled whatever needs we had at that time in our lives. So, Warren would flirt with Larry, encouraging him to come closer. When Larry responded, Warren would flee in the opposite direction, and Larry would run to me. I would comfort him as I dispensed advice. Larry would listen intently, and then the whole thing would start all over again.
BREAKING THE SYSTEM
As I sit at the mediation table and listen to the parties tell their stories, I hear variations of Larry's late night phone calls. They always start as a tale of victimization, such as "I was just minding my own business when..." The disputants never play an active role in their version of what happened. It is always the other person's fault. But if they could put aside their hurt feelings for a moment, they would realize the parties themselves are creating the conflict just like Larry, Warren and me.
What would have happened if Larry had stopped pursuing Warren? What if Warren had moved out and never talked to Larry again? What if I stopped giving Larry advice? In other words, what would have happened if one of us changed the rules? The curtain would have fallen on our little drama. But none us wanted this to happen. Why? For whatever deep psychological reasons, these conflicted relationship "worked" for us. If Larry, Warren or I had faced the truth, we would have seen that we liked our systems. They were reflections of what we thought of ourselves, no matter how distorted that might be.
Each conflict is a system created by all the involved parties, including the advice givers who stand on the sidelines. To break this system, the rules of their relationship need to change. However, change takes courage for it is painful. It involves creating a new but unknown future. However, for most of us it is more satisfying to live in the "known", no matter how painful it might be, than to change, grow and face the unknown. In a mediation I conducted several years ago, two neighbors had been fighting over one neighbor's loud television and the other's smoking barbecue. For five years they maintained this battle. One party's sickly husband had died during this period and she blamed his death partially on her loud neighbor. There was no indication that either party really wanted to end their dispute. So, they didn't. It was easier for them to live in hell than to move on.
Larry's phone calls were really his desire to find someone to rescue him from himself. Many disputants look to the mediator as the person who will make the hard decisions for them. But this allows the victim to stay a victim, continuing the same pattern of behavior. I might rescue Larry, only to see him stumble into another entanglement. Fortunately, in mediation the disputants themselves must devise the resolution to their conflict. The mediator's role is to help, not rescue. If the mediation process works, the parties realize eventually that living in the past doesn't work, that going over and over the details of what happened is futile, that being a victim is not working. They understand that it is time to take responsibility for their role in the dispute, to change the rules, to dismantle the system and replace it with a new future. At this point, their transformation from victim to hero begins.
Becoming heroes and heroines is what we as lesbians and gays were doing in the early 70's. As a group we decided to no longer play the role of victim, to collaborate with our oppressors. We decided to change the rules that the larger society had created, replacing them with everything we see around us today. And that struggle still continues as others try to define who we are and regulate how we should behave.
Yet as individuals, we can still easily fall back into being victims. The strength we developed as a community seems to fail us in our private, intimate lives. Like Larry, we call our friends in the middle of the night, complaining how so-and-so did such-and-such to us. But it doesn't have to be this way. During one late night call, I told Larry that I was tired of providing meaningless solutions to his problems. It was time for him make a decision about Warren or just stop complaining. I changed the rules of our system. Once the co-dependency wasn't allowed to flourish, the reason for the relationship was gone. Sadly, there was nothing else to replace it and our "friendship" ended.
Barry Simon is the founder of Mediated Solutions, a conflict resolution service, and is also on the panel of mediators for the Mosten Mediation Centers. He has been helping people resolve their conflicts since 1993 and is a member of the Southern California Mediation Association. He conducts mediations dealing with neighbor/neighbor, landlord/tenant, merchant/consumer, contractual violations, business and organizational conflicts. He specializes in mediating divorces as well as relationship dissolutions for the gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered communities and encourages all couples who live together to write a Living Together Agreement. For his service to the community, Barry has received an ́Honorable Mentionî Award from the County of Los Angeles and awards of recognition from the California State Assembly and Senate. Barry can be reached at (818) 752-8340 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.resolvenow.com.