Please note: the following analysis and synthesis is based on the case study provided by Michelle Bailey-Cole.
This conflict case involves a married couple, Susan and Duane, and the wife’s son, Johnny, from a previous marriage. Susan and Duane have been married for two years; they are now separated and headed for a divorce, although they continue to live in the same house. Recently, Susan and Duane had an argument which ended in Duane assaulting Susan. Duane was arrested; he was then served with a restraining order initiated by Susan. Concurrent with that restraining order, Duane initiated an order against Johnny. Due to the dueling injunctions, all three people find themselves before the circuit court judge. We are asked, “What should be considered in order to allow Susan, Johnny, and Duane to mend the family relationship?”
The causes of conflict within these relationships are many. We learn Susan and Duane are both superficial, share limited trust and respect, and are reactive in nature. They find themselves in a conflict spiral with every action sending them further into conflict. From the description of the case, it appears they have little in common and, at the moment at least, little reason to salvage the marriage. It appears their marriage is built on a foundation of sand, such as looks; we don’t learn what drew them to each other early in the relationship beyond physical attractiveness.
The conflict could have been prevented by action on the part of Duane and Susan more than two years ago: they could have chosen to not marry. Considering they did, however, conflict prevention could occur through healthy communication styles. Both Susan and Duane have much emotion and baggage which gets in the way of their interpersonal communication. They don’t know how to talk with each other without entering the conflict spiral. Putting distance between them would also help with preventing conflict.
I note here that since Duane owns the home – and it appears he owned the home before the marriage with Susan and she has no interest or piece of the home – Susan is going to find new lodging for herself and her son. Since she’s paying rent to Duane, money does not appear to be a constraining factor. With the conflict having escalated to a violence situation, a situation which drew all three of them into the conflict spiral, putting physical distance between Duane and Susan is paramount.
At this point, Susan and Duane have limited options. The violent assault in front of Johnny, and the dueling court orders, have raised this conflict to levels they had not previously experienced. As noted earlier, they need distance between them, if possible. Or, if they remain living in the same house, Susan and Duane should build a living-under-the-same-roof agreement, delineating roles, responsibilities, and behaviors.
Susan, Duane, and Johnny all have individual needs. Susan has a need for a home for herself and her teenaged son. She has also expressed a desire to no longer be married to Duane. Finally, Susan has a need to be able to live without fear of being assaulted. Johnny’s needs are related to Susan’s: he has a need for a home and a need for he and his mother to be safe. Duane’s needs are more worldly; his primary need is to exert power within his own house. While he sometimes claims to love Susan, his behavior does not demonstrate love. The shared needs between Susan, Duane, and Johnny are few; they all share a desire for a home and safety.
I propose a four-part intervention strategy. The first component of the intervention strategy is to separate Duane from Susan and Johnny in terms of living arrangements. Recent history has demonstrated that the relationship between Duane and Susan has become increasingly violent in nature. If Susan is not able to immediately find a place for Johnny and her to live, Susan and Duane must create a situation whereby Duane and Susan are not in the house at the same time. The second component of the intervention is to have Duane and Susan determine what would be necessary to move toward divorce and dissolving the marriage. The case study notes “Duane has attempted to delay the process of the divorce due to feelings of failure, jealously (sic), anger, and vindictiveness.” Working with a third party, Duane can explore those feelings and work to put them aside as he moves forward with his life. The third component of the intervention is to develop a formal separation agreement detailing a property settlement and support agreement which can later be incorporated in the divorce decree. This would need to be a mediated process with both Susan and Duane. The fourth component of the intervention is for Susan and Duane to come to some understanding that while their marriage is over, some good was created in the marriage. The mediator would have them focus on good from the marriage not to help them salvage the marriage, but to salvage the memory of the relationship, ending it on a more positive note.
The expected outcomes for this case are deceptively simple: to create a safe living situation for all involved. We have other outcomes, of course. We expect the marriage between Susan and Duane to end in divorce; we expect Susan and her son Johnny to live in a safe and comfortable home; we expect – indeed, we hope – Susan and Duane will remember some good from their time together.