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A Mediation Story: Caught in the Endless Loop - Part One

Updated: Apr 22

A mid-summer Saturday in Brussels. The mediator's cell phone beeps. A couple in crisis. Madame seems in a rush.


"Monsieur wants out... He wants to separate. We have three children. Oui, Monsieur agrees we can see you together."


"Oké, I have a slot next week."


In the melting pot of Brussels, almost two-thirds of the city's inhabitants are born in another country. They share this densely populated region with the Flemish and the Walloons commuting here every day of the week but Sunday for work. Thousands are drawn from all over by the capital of Europe. The European Institutions add another thirty thousand who communicate with each other mainly in English, the language that patiently bears all accents.


Jean-Marc and Lotta sit around the small round table. He's French, she's Lithuanian, and they met in a church as cosmopolitan as the Brussels city itself. Lotta teaches music in an international school, Jean-Marc works in a successful IT start-up. They married soon after they met and little Lia arrived while they were still renting a small flat near the Sablon, in the heart of the city. Lotta took extended parental leave only to find herself pregnant with twins.


The children are now aged 5 and 2, and Lotta has just returned to work. Last year, the family moved out of Brussels to the Vlaamse Rand (the Flemish suburbs) where they bought a beautiful house with a garden where the children could play. All this has come at a cost: heavier commute added extra fatigue.


Jean-Marc seems to have made up his mind. He wants a divorce as soon as possible. He's angry and wants to move on with his life. The mediator watches Lotta sink deep into her chair as she explains her daily routine. They both want to talk at the same time. The mediator reassures Jean-Marc that he'll have a chance to express himself. She will give the floor to each person in turn and support each one to say how things are for them. Then she will summarise what everyone had said.

Jean-Marc takes out of his pocket a piece of paper with a bulleted list.


"I've looked into mediation, I've already spoken to a lawyer, so let's get down to business."

First on the list, the living arrangements for their three children, then the house, the furniture, and lastly, "other".


Lotta hasn't seen a lawyer yet. Her best friend had given her the name of the mediator who had helped settle an inter-generational dispute in her family. She seems to believe that mediators help families to reconcile. Mediators are sort of process facilitators. They listen and help clarify the messages. They reflect what they hear and see. In a way, mediation is a democratic exercise, it's the people who make the decisions.


Lotta says that she doesn't want a divorce. Tears well up in her eyes. The mediator gently touches her and explains how mediation can help them. The simple presence of a listening and impartial third party helps people to feel safe, and then they can start sharing. The mediator will guide them both to find solutions that work for them and their children. And it's normal to feel sad or angry, because you're dealing with the loss or threat of loss of a very important relationship.  


Lotta regains her composure and then counter-attacks.


"If we split up, the children will have to live in the house with me."


"Dads are capable of taking good care of their children. Recent research confirms this," says Jean-Marc confidently. He has read lots recently and he seems pretty sure that he can handle the children on his own. He offers to buy Lotta's share of the house, but selling her share is the last thing on Lotta’s mind, and if she does sell... it will cost him dearly.


The mediator tries to understand what's going on.


"I can see that you're very upset, Jean-Marc."


"Wouldn't you be upset?" he retorts. "She shows no respect for me, nor for her vows, she does only as she pleases. She makes decisions on her own. That's how we got here. I’d hardly agreed to have a child, but not three. We don't live together any more, she falls asleep rocking the kids! She's tired all the time!"


"May I slow you down a bit, Jean-Marc? You're saying a lot of important things... It's seems frustrating for you to wait for Lotta to put the children to bed and come back to you... time goes by and she doesn't seem to..."


"Yes, I'm tired of being alone in this marriage! That's why I want a divorce!"


The mediator rephrases what Jean-Marc has just said:


"I hear that when Lotta stays late in the children's room and even falls asleep there, while you’re waiting for her… and when she doesn't come back... you think she prefers them to you…and you don't feel respected as a husband... have I understood this right?"


"That's it! Yes, everyone comes before me! Her family, when they come to visit us, she's not tired any more, she could go shopping with her mother from morning till night... and if her brother calls, she always finds time to talk. I don't count!


"So, for you, Jean-Marc, it's as if everyone else comes before you..., as if Lotta would prefer the company of others, as if she didn’t hear you..."


 "Exactly! No matter how many times I tell her leave the children alone, to let them cry, because they'll just stop after a while and fall asleep. She just doesn't hear me!"


"So what do you do then, Jean-Marc?"


"There's nothing I can do, just tell her for the umpteenth time to stop running to the boys at the first cry... that's not how they're going to become men!"


The mediator sees Lotta sit up straight in her chair.


"You have no idea how hard it was when the twins were crying at night and I was alone... to change them, feed them and then rock them back to sleep!"


"It was hard for you, Lotta, when the twins were small... double shifts of nursing, you could barely rest at night, they were crying..."


"I couldn't bear to let them cry... you know, my little brother cried a lot and my mother wasn't well...


"How old were you at the time?"


"3-4 years old, I think, but I can still hear him crying... "


"This memory seems painful for you... "


"Yes... I needed Jean-Marc to take time off and look after the twins so that I could rest... Even though I asked you all day long, you wouldn't listen! Your promotion was more important!"


"You needed Jean-Marc to take time off from work to look after the twins so that you could get some rest..."


"His promotion was more important than my health..."


"It was as if Jean-Marc's work was more important than your health..."


"But I was working for all of us," says Jean-Marc, surprised.


"You were working for the whole family - was this promotion for your family?"


"Of course, it was! We were able to buy a beautiful house in the suburbs because of this promotion... I wanted my children to have a decent life, to play in their garden, to explore the neighbourhood safely! I lived in small flats and changed schools five times!


"You changed schools five times when you were growing up?


"Yes, my father left when I was six and I hardly saw him again, and my mother managed as best she could..."


"That must have been difficult for you as a child..."


"I spent the holidays at my grandmother’s house, in the countryside… but all those experiences made me a man and I've done pretty well in life."


"I think I understand better now... please tell me if I didn’t get it right… I hear that when Lotta was asking for help with the babies at night, Jean-Marc said something like: “don’t bother because, once fed, even if they cry for a while, they would eventually fall asleep.” Lotta, you couldn't do this, because the crying brought back to you painful memories… So Jean-Marc, you found yourself alone. And Lotta, you didn't get the help you asked for, so you continued to look after the twins and couldn’t come back to Jean-Marc. You too found yourself alone. It's as if the two of you were caught in a sort of a loop…". Jean-Marc becomes attentive.


"The endless loop in programming… there’s no way out," he says quietly.


"Yes, every day, the loop repeats between Jean-Marc's comments on Lotta’s parenting and Lotta's sheltering away. And it goes round and round, faster and faster. Until and unless you both take control of it and stop it."


Note. The characters, their stories and their exchanges are fictitious. So thankful to my trusted friends who reviewed this translation.

Photo Credit: Christin Hume on Unsplash

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