Written by Norman Hartnell

Norman is a highly experienced family lawyer and is also the Chair of the OnlyMums & OnlyDads Steering Group. He was a member of the Law Society Children Panel from 1988 to 2008. He is an Accredited Mediator, FMA/Resolution Supervisor/Trainer, Private and Legal Aid qualified mediator for All Issues Mediation including Child Consultation. He is also a collaborative lawyer and family law arbitrator.

So many relationship problems seem to relate to the issue of “controlling behaviour” or the feeling of “being controlled” within those relationships, possibly its presence or absence is an indicator of the sustainability of relationships, highlighting the difference between those relationships which will last and those which are doomed to either ultimately fail or lead to a position in which at least one person is trapped by lack of ability to leave into staying in a destructive relationship.

One of the insights a mediator is given is the privilege of hearing and understanding the perspective of both of the couple in a dispute, it’s part of the role.

Something that I frequently hear each of the couple say in mediation the following;

“I feel controlled by the other person”

yet they will both say

“I deny controlling the other person”.

How can that be? Can both honestly feel controlled whilst being unaware that their own behaviour is perceived by the other to be controlling?

I think that the answer is yes, but calls for an explanation, on which my take is the following.

When in conflict it is easy for fears to dominate thinking, fears are a very powerful emotion tapping into our most basic need to survive, and when we feel threatened the flight freeze or fight response is triggered. In an attempt to address fears we naturally attempt to control our environment, to make it feel a safer place to be. We then exercise such power as we have to provide that feeling of security, of being safe and again in control; thus ok. We exercise that power in that area in our lives over which we can exert control instinctively, out of a sense of self preservation, not necessarily consciously out of a need to diminish anyone else.

So what power is available to each in the context of a separating couple? What are the fears which stimulate the instinctive exercise of power?

There is that power which comes with possession of financial knowledge and control of the money. There is that power in the ability to exercise influence over children by both the person with whom the children live and on whom the children are dependent, to whom they instinctively show the greater loyalty and the other parent who may see themselves in a battle.

There is relationship power, to give or withhold cooperation, politeness, clarity and information that is held by only one of the couple, the ability to push buttons, to manipulate the other, to keep the other person off balance and in a state of uncertainty.

Fears come in a number of guises, often unspoken, often the person is unaware of them as they have not been put into words as we are in the territory of instinct. Generally the fear relates to a perceived threat to a basic need or right, such as the need for basic provision, home clothes food, money or the need to maintain a relationship with children which is under threat to be limited or even extinguished in some way. They are a powerful motivating force, they need to be named for them to be addressed and understood by the other.

The moment that a separation is perceived as likely, the instinct of self-preservation takes over, often the previous focus on mutual interests disappears. Fears are fed by not only our own nightmares but also those around us, family and friends who encourage us to see ourselves as the victim in any situation, the other person as the aggressor. Self-interest is dominant, often even above parental protective notions.

We try to meet any fears by the exercise of such power as is available to us, in the hope that the leverage it gives us will give us security. However being on the receiving end of the exercise of such power generates ever greater fears in the other person, a spiral is created and the sense of being controlled follows.

A couple of practical examples will help, forgive the stereotypical gender they should be read as equally applying to both genders; this is not a gender issue, it is a power issue. They are taken from my own experience, anonymised of course.

So let’s take for example a mum who has never had to budget, because dad has always paid the bills etc. Her greatest fear may be of not having the mortgage paid, or being cut off from electricity, or not being able literally to feed herself and the children, the loss of a home. These are fears of basic needs not being met.

Dad’s choice is one of the following, he could (1) actually feed and increase those fears by not paying bills, could leave her in a position of not knowing, allowing those fears to grow by doing and saying nothing, or (2) exercising conscious choice he could actively recognise that fear and take steps to put her mind at rest. The latter would be the kind thing to do for another parent, but too often the anger arising from the ending of a relationship gets in the way. The first would undoubtedly call for an instinctive response in which mum protests maybe through lawyers, or exercises what power is available to her, and the circle of conflict will either grow or diminish depending on the course chosen.

Take another example, the Dad whose greatest fear is that he, having left home, will lose his relationship with his children. Mum’s choices include the following, (1) she could feed that fear by discouraging or actually impeding contact, could undermine the Dad by criticisms of him or say his new partner, or, (2) she could choose against her instincts and, putting her own sadness or anger aside to foster a good relationship between the children and their Dad by encouraging contact, overcoming obstacles and giving the children permission to love both parents, whatever she thinks of him as a partner.

The better choice in each case is counter intuitive, by doing something positive for the other parent when we are hurting, we deny our instinct to hurt another whom we feel has hurt us. However, one small positive action, one acknowledgement, one thank you, one kind word or action has the power to break that vicious cycle.

Every separating couple is faced with such choices at the time of separation.

Family lawyers are well placed to help clients who may understandably be in distress and fearful of the future as they address such issues, if they understand the dynamics above. Having first taken time to understand and acknowledge the fears of their own clients (rather than ignoring them or pretending they don’t exist) their aim should be to help their client to see the problem not as “the other person”, but rather how to find a way of addressing the fears and needs of all concerned, using as the benchmark the overriding needs of their children to dictate their actions.

The choice for every family lawyer is whether to feed the fears that generate conflict and cost or to be a force to help take the heat out of the situation by following the Resolution code in seeking wherever it’s both possible and safe to:

Focus on identifying not only the client’s interests but also the mutual interests of the separated couple / family;

Aim to find solutions to all issues which work for all, minimise conflict and costs, and treat the other person and their representatives with respect:

Keep the improvement in the lives of any children involved as their guiding principle.

You may rightly say “What if one parent or lawyer gets it, but the other doesn’t?

Doesn’t that expose my client to be disadvantaged?”

That will be the topic of my next note “Transforming conversations”.


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