Dishes left in the sink sparked the quarrel that ended Michael Bailey and Denise Thibeault's 11-year marriage. But the real problem was an inability to communicate with each other.
‘‘Why can't you hear me!'' Thibeault yelled. ‘‘It seems like you've got a brick wall between your ears!''
Unlike other divorced couples, Bailey and Thibeault got back together and plan to get remarried in July. Using ‘‘focused thinking mediation,'' the New Hampshire couple learned to communicate and solve problems that interfered with their relationship.
‘‘There was so much love in the relationship, it was wrong to throw it away completely,'' Thibeault said. ‘‘We just got sick of fighting and arguing all the time.''
Stan Posthumus, who has degrees in law and social work from a South African university, was divorced from his wife 20 years ago and developed focused thinking mediation over the past 15 years. He taught this ‘‘device'' to students at Plymouth State College in New Hampshire when he was an adjunct professor there.
He will present this technique to more than 1000 marriage and family experts from around the world at the fourth Smart Marriages conference in Denver, Colo. The conference is presented June 29-July 2 by the Coalition for Marriages, Family, and Couples Education based in Washington, D.C.
Posthumus uses this device to teach couples the communication skills necessary to prevent divorce. In doing so, he hopes to protect parents and children from the depression, substance abuse, high dropout rates and future abusive relationships that divorce leads to.
‘‘Any couple can learn the skills at any point in their relationship,'' Diane Sollee, CMFCE's director, said.
During mediation, Posthumus models communication skills when interacting with the couple. The goal is to teach the couple to understand each other's perspective and solve problems that could lead to divorce.
One key phrase for Thibeault, who took Posthumus' class at Plymouth State College, was ‘‘Are you saying that …?''
Thibeault used to get mad at Bailey for miscommunications he had with her and the children. Other times, Bailey returned from work and asked what the family had done during the day. She incorrectly assumed he was implying that they were lazy, and she never asked him what he meant, which caused a heated argument.
After meeting with Posthumus, who regularly asked for clarification from Bailey and Thibeault, they learned how to better understand each other and their children.
Relationship conflicts are like being in a maze, Posthumus said. Each partner sees where he is and where he wants to go in the relationship. But unless he gets an overview of the entire relationship, he won't know how to get there and will continue to run into obstacles. Understanding each partner's perspective provides that higher, necessary view.
‘‘We understand everything better if we have more than one perspective of it,'' Posthumus said. ‘‘We have two eyes, two ears, two hands. We have two of everything because it helps us understand reality better.''
Communication problems interfere with understanding. Words and tones have different meanings depending on how they are used. Each partner perceives the relationship differently and often does not express this view in a way that the other person understands. Anger and confusion also interfere with communication.
‘‘I'd say something to him and he'd go off on a tangent and I'd just be looking at him like he had four eyes,'' Thibeault said.
Now, Thibeault, Bailey and their children regularly ask, ‘‘Are you saying that …?'' in order to avoid arguments.
‘‘With enough information, we can solve any problem,'' Posthumus said. ‘‘If the reasons for getting the divorce disappear, why get the divorce.''
In about 80 percent of divorces, one or both partners do not want to go through with the divorce, James Sheridan, a Michigan judge, said. The person who files for divorce is usually emotionally exhausted and wants to fix a simpler problem, he said. The other partner often is surprised.
The wife will throw out signals while the husband watches football, Sheridan said. ‘‘That doesn't necessarily mean she wants the divorce. What she wants is a solution to the problem.''
But the current mediation process used in state courts does not provide an opportunity to solve problems. It eliminates property disputes and other obstacles to the divorce.
On Aug. 1, new court rules adopted in Michigan will provide courts with more flexibility in divorce cases. Sheridan looks forward to seeing how Posthumus' focus thinking mediation works in his state.
‘‘He doesn't start out with the question of where are you and how do we get to the divorce,'' Judge Sheridan said. ‘‘He starts out with where are you and where would you like to go?''
About 30 percent of couples who use focused thinking mediation choose not to divorce, according to Posthumus' estimates. Another 20 percent have decided not to divorce within five weeks after mediation.
‘‘During the process they would just turn to one another and they would just say—we shouldn't be doing this,'' Posthumus said.
Even couples who divorce after focused thinking mediation understand each other better, which is less harmful to children. One custody battle had lasted eight years before the unmarried couple went to Posthumus. The parents smiled as they left his office an hour and a half later with the custody battle settled and their arms around each other, excited about learning to be better parents to their child.
‘‘Being able to understand one another can only help any situation—no matter how severe,'' Thibeault said.