Category: Relationships

What is “normal” and what is abusive in a relationship?

By now everyone has probably heard the tale of the frog placed in the pot of water and set on the stove. Gradually the heat is turned up. The frog makes no attempt to get out of the pot. Because the temperature increases gradually, the frog doesn’t notice and thinks it is normal.

Relationships can be a lot like that. Sometimes, we start out happy, then gradually things deteriorate. As it happens slowly, over a period of time, we fail to notice the impact it is having on our mental and physical health. If we do experience discomfort from time to time we may excuse it away… this happens to everyone, it’s normal.

So, what’s the difference between normal and abusive?

In any relationship, it is pretty common for the honeymoon to wear off. Things like bills, cleaning, and children can get in the way of romance. Yet, in a healthy relationship, there is a sense of teamwork, shared responsibility, partnership toward common goals. We might feel tired from the effort, yet we also often feel appreciated for what we contribute and are compensating through things like companionship and fun. It’s not all peaches and cream. We disagree from time to time and may even stomp off mad or raise our voices, but when troubles come, we work together to find solutions. Or, if the relationship needs to end, difficult as it may be, we are able to do so.

In an abusive relationship it is not uncommon for things to start out really strong–maybe  even a little bit too strong. Nothing and no one is perfect, yet it can often seem just too good to be true. When a problem arises (as they always do in life), in an abusive relationship there will only be one person held responsible and that will be you. Often you will be punished for your perceived transgression–bullied, excluded, demeaned, isolated, physically harmed. Your partner is in control, and s/he expands their control whenever possible, while you are left to walk on eggshells hoping not to upset them. Sometimes, they will apologize. They may even give you a gift or some sign of recognition. They may promise you it won’t ever happen again or beg you not to leave or tell anyone. Yet, it does happen again. And often, over time, it gets worse. If you want to end the relationship, you will likely be threatened or worse.

Because abuse (verbal/emotional, physical, sexual, economic, psychological) can happen infrequently or gradually increase, it can seem like it’s not real or it’s bound to get better. We can all do a better job of learning to manage conflict in our interpersonal relationships, but it is important to know that the usual tools won’t work within the dynamics of an abusive relationship.

If you are in an abusive relationship, it can feel overwhelming to even contemplate taking steps to leave. You are not alone. Others have also been where you are. It is not your fault (even if you are being told it is). There is support available. If you are experiencing abuse or just want to know more, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline today at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224 or visit their site at Or contact a local provider such as Willow Domestic Violence Center at 585-232-5200.


When post-divorce mediation can help

Separate couple artThings change as you move through life. Sometimes the agreements that were made at the time of your divorce or separation no longer work for one or both of you, or are not being followed. Mediating the issues that have come up can lead to new understanding and willingness to compromise.

There can be new issues that have come up that were unforeseen at the time you filed. If you have children, their needs are continually changing as they get older. There may be things that you didn’t initially address in your agreement that need to be worked out now, such as paying for club sports, braces, or college. Changes in the kids’ activities might mean your current parenting schedule no longer works well. One of you may want to move farther away. One or both parents may have remarried and need to accommodate stepchildren in the scheduling.

There can be issues with certain parts of your agreement. A property or business that you continue to co-own may need to be dealt with, or perhaps there was a payment plan set up for one spouse to pay money owed to the other for the distribution of their assets that is not working. There may be an issue with payment of the child support. There may also have been a change in income, and you need assistance working out a new support amount and filing it with the court. Those issues can be addressed in mediation and any new agreements you make can be added to your court filing.

Coming together with the help of a mediator can lead you to re-establishing effective communication and coming up with mutually acceptable solutions to these issues.

Typical issues in post-divorce mediation:

New parenting schedules

Adjustments to child support/payment of child support

Decisions on paying for college or extracurricular activities

Selling jointly owned businesses or property

Payment of spousal support

One parent moving away

Disagreement over an issue affecting a child/the children



Call the office for more information at 585-244-2444.



Listening to reach agreement

When we are in conflict with another it can be difficult, if not impossible to really listen to what the other person is saying. And really, why should we bother listening when we clearly disagree? Yet, we may be making assumptions about what is being said because we are defensive, which can escalate the conflict further. If we are ever going to make progress and reach agreement, we have to listen.  Here are three quick tips which can help.

Access calm

The first step is to calm ourselves. This is really important because until we are calm and centered, not only can’t we hear the other person, it is very difficult to articulate what it is that we want and need. You could ask to take a break, count to 10 (or 20 or 30…), breath deeply a couple of times, think of your happy place, etc. Whatever you do that soothes you, DO IT!

Pretend you’re a reporter

In conflict with someone we know, it is easy to believe we know what they’re going to say before they say it. This often angers the other person which ratchets up the conflict. Instead, tap into your curiosity. Ask open-ended questions (who, what, why, when, where) in a neutral tone of voice. Listen deeply for the interests and needs this person is expressing and those things you may not have heard before. After all, listening doesn’t mean you agree, you’re just collecting information.

Clarify what you’ve heard

Repeat back to the person you are listening to what you’ve hear. Saying something like, “Let me see if I got what you’re say…” makes it clear that you are seeking to understand. Again, understanding does not equal agreement, but the person speaking is going to be a lot more likely to hear what you have to say if she or he thinks you understand them.

When it’s too tough to talk directly with one another, a mediator can help. Having someone who is trained to facilitate conversations without choosing sides can increase the chances you will be able to hear one another and make progress. If you’re having a hard time with a specific person or a theme has emerged in your conflicts, a conflict coach can help. Having someone support you in your efforts to better deal with conflict can help you try new approaches and offer tips on how to have more successful results.

Teaming Up Against Destructive Conflict

three white cubesDestructive conflict often sends people spiraling downward in a negative cycle of me versus you. This creation of “other” is the basis of conflict escalation which allows one person or group to dehumanize the other which makes it “okay” to perpetrate everything from indignities to violence.

Why does this happen? One explanation may have to do with empathy or lack thereof. Over the past several years researchers have been considering what is called “empathy gap”–otherwise seemingly reasonable and empathetic people behave in ways that are not empathetic toward those they perceive as their enemy.

Of course most of us would say that’s ridiculous and we would never behave that way… turns out how we think we’ll behave and how we actually behave in a “hot affect” situation (such as when we are scared or angry) are quite different. Worse? We’re not very good at predicting our behavior. Worse still? In the midst of a “hot affect” situation people tend to act primarily in their short-term interests throwing long-term interests out the window. (,

This may not be as surprising when you considered what Goleman dubbed the “Amygdala Hijack”–evidence that when we are flooded with strong emotions it is literally impossible to access the reasoning part of our brain. (

While most people’s brains light up with recognition (representation) of the pain or suffering of another, it doesn’t automatically translate to empathy for the other person. In fact, research being conducted by Bruneau at MIT shows that the empathy we access and express can depend upon the individual or group in question. His early studies have shown that people can create an “empathy gap” toward those they perceive as an enemy while at the same time expressing deep empathy for those in their group or other groups. (

In the meanwhile…

Where does this leave us when we are grappling with a conflict escalating before our eyes or between us and another person? Humans, it has been well-documented, have the tendency to feel affinity for those within their own group. Being on the same team or in the same group increases empathy for in-group, while increasing the likelihood of conflict with out-group members. Yet Sherif’s famous Robber’s Cave experiment showed that when working on a shared problem (a.k.a. on the same team) conflict decreased. (

Problem-Solving Mediation uses this tendency to help people focus on their common interests and see themselves as aligned together against the problem. Narrative Mediation, similarly, invites people to externalize the conflict, see its ill-effects as separate from the person, de-construct the conflict-saturated story, and work together to develop a new story. 

Prevention is always the best course when discussing conflict. All those silly team-building exercises, it turns out, may help. Anything that you can do to solidify the sense that you are on the same team may increase your odds of constructively working through conflict when it does arise. Reflecting on a time you worked together well, may also underline this. Determining together what your common interests are and listing them where you both can see and access them (e.g. increasing the bottom line, raising healthy kids, etc.). Even using words like “us,” “working together,” or “on the same team” may help to create a more cooperative atmosphere.

And if all else fails and you find yourself in the throes of a conflict, don’t let your Amygdala get hijacked! Taking a time out, counting to ten, or even thinking about or doing something else for a while might be the best thing to do for yourself and the other person.

Holiday Traditions

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A Mediation Center holiday tradition–wrapping gifts at EastView Mall to raise money for Ontario ARC!

I’m probably the most traditional person I know when it comes to my favorite holiday–Christmas. I even look forward to simple traditions, like the sweet potatoes topped with pecans we only have once a year and the raucous gift exchange game with extended family on Christmas Eve.

I often hear families this time of year expressing concern about maintaining their holiday traditions for their children when divorcing. Traditions are comforting. They fill our need for reliability, an element which is often shaken when divorcing.

Yet, every year–like it or not–things change. For one thing, we never had that sweet potato dish in our family until my sister-in-law made it for the first time a decade ago. And we never did that wacky gift exchange until one of our family members skipped a year and came back from Minnesota with this new idea.

My point is, traditions haven’t always been traditions–someone started them. And, while it may be possible to maintain certain traditions, divorce often means that some of them will have to change. As a parent, you have the opportunity to show your children that it is possible to create new and special traditions.

With hopes for peace, inspiration, and a new sense of reliability, here are some “new” traditions to consider:

Thanksgiving movie night followed by going to see Santa on the Friday after Thanksgiving;

Reading “Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins” after lighting the Menorah;

Playing “The Message Game”–each person writes one thing about every person present they appreciate and then everyone takes turns reading the messages and tries to guess who wrote it;

Hunting for the “Santa Present” that Santa left on Christmas Day when the Child was with her other parent;

Giving each child a special ornament to hang on the tree and then presenting them with “their” ornaments when they move into their first place.

“Panic to Action” Leads to Poor Outcomes

Calm Panic Buttons Show Panicking Or CalmnessWhen conflict hits it can feel like a crisis urging us to act quickly. That makes sense because adrenaline and other stress hormones flood our body and brain preparing us to take flight or fight. This can lead to heroic acts like lifting a car off a trapped person, but in our daily lives it more often leads to a panic to action that causes all kinds of bad decisions and outcomes.

This is especially true when going through a divorce because there are so many unknowns: What will we do about the children? Where will we live? Will I be able to afford to retire in the future? Will I have to pay support? Will I receive support?

Yet, reflection, not reaction, are needed when working through a difficult situation. Take the time you need to think things through. If your spouse is pressuring you to act, reassure them by giving them a timeframe when you will give them answers or schedule an appointment with a mediator. Say something like, “This is really important and I don’t have the proper time to deal with it now. I will have more to share next week.”

Although divorce may be the last thing you want to be going through, ask yourself, if this situation worked out perfectly, what would the result be? This often leads to an immediate sense of calm because you are shifting your brain’s attention away from panic and focusing on a positive outcome. Next, ask yourself why that particular result is important.

Discovering why we want an outcome helps us to understand how we are feeling and what we are needing. Let’s say I am a parent and the best outcome for me would be to keep our current home and have the children spend weeknights with me. I could be feeling anxious because I have a need for security for my children. Or, I might be feeling scared, because I have a need for support from my neighborhood friends. You get the idea.

I may not get everything I want, but identifying how I am feeling and why I want an outcome helps me to regain a sense of control and opens up options to get to my needs met. For example, I may come to the conclusion that visiting my doctor and discussing medical marijuana, and how something like these fat buddha glass bubblers will allow me to consume the product in the best way to get the most out of it. This solution won’t come to light unless you seek out the answers to lead a better, more controlled life. It really is that simple. Operating out of pure emotion without understanding what is driving me will often lead to hasty decisions to make the bad feelings go away. For help through divorce, contact a mediator today at 585-244-2444 or [email protected].

Parenting Teens After A Divorce


Teens are a tricky age group. They are by nature pushing boundaries and wanting autonomy and freedom. Finding the right balance of setting limits and giving them responsibility for themselves is tricky in general, and that can be compounded with the added pressures of co-parenting from two different households.

Although they may not express it, divorce can have a de-stabilizing effect on older children and young adults. Teens need to understand that the relationship between you and your spouse is the only one that has changed, and that each of you continues to have the same relationship with them as their parent.

The more both parents can work towards creating the same expectations for the children in each household, the better. Sometimes, due to different parenting styles, the need for both parents to work full time, the amount of conflict between the parents, or other reasons, there can be very different rules in the two households.

In that situation, parents should strive to work together to instill in the children respect for the rules of each household. The more parents support this, the more the children will feel compelled to follow them. Don’t try to gain your child’s favor by commiserating with them about things they don’t like at the other parent’s house. Helping them to think through situations that challenge them, and encouraging them to talk over with their other parent any issues they have, will show them that you care, help them feel heard and work toward actually solving their problem.

When teenagers understand clearly stated rules that each parent expects them to follow, the less license they will have to ignore or circumvent them, and the more secure and grounded they will feel. Teens need to know that their parents are paying attention to where they are and what they are doing. As annoyed as they may act, they know it means you care.

If I don’t trust my spouse, how can I mediate?

Erasing Fear

Mediation requires that parties are willing to make a good faith effort to negotiate an agreement which both believe to be fair. It can sometimes be hard to imagine how you can have any faith in a process when you have no faith in the party you need to negotiate with.

Yet, people who have very little trust and even those who hate each other negotiate agreements every day. How do they do it? By focusing on the outcome they hope to achieve.

In divorce mediation, most people have the important goal of minimizing the impact of the divorce on their children. Many also hope to come to a financial agreement that ensures everyone, especially their children, will be alright. Most want to end up with a fair amount of the marital assets and liabilities. With these goals in mind, no matter how emotionally difficult it might become, with the assistance of a skilled mediator most people can arrive at agreement.

Distrust is sometimes simply because one or the other party has not been involved in the day-to-day finances of the marriage. In mediation, parties must agree to provide all financial information. The mediator helps to facilitate the conversation and ensure all documentation is gathered so that both parties can satisfy any questions or concerns they may have. If either party is unwilling to do so, mediation is terminated.

If you do not trust your spouse because you are afraid he or she is going to harm you or your children, you should trust your own instincts and ensure your own safety. If you are in immediate danger, you should call 911. You can find resources to assist you with housing, counseling, and legal services by calling Alternatives for Battered Women, which offers services to both women and men, at 585-232-7353.

Getting Your Needs Met

It can often be difficult to express what you want in a way that the other person can hear your request. Very often, especially when we are upset, the person we are talking to hears our request as a criticism or a demand and they become defensive. Here are a few suggestions about how to communicate your needs in a way that might be better received.

First, practice what you want to say in advance, where and when you will say it. The more prepared you are for the conversation, the less likely it is that it will degenerate into an argument. Next, spend some time thinking about how you feel and take responsibility for your own feelings. Feelings are emotions–not accusations. “I feel sad” is different from “you disappoint me.” Identifying and stating your feeling can help the other person to empathize with you because we have all felt sad, afraid, or angry. Then, identify what you need. Needs are universal. All of us need food, water, air, and shelter, but we all also need connection, meaning, autonomy, and a sense of well-being. Again, if you can articulate your need, it is more likely the other person will relate to you, rather than rally against you. Finally, make your request.

Here’s an example. After practicing and deciding that right after work, while the children are out of the house and they won’t be interrupted, a wife approaches her husband. “I would like to talk for a minute, if now is a good time?” Getting agreement, they sit down at the table together. “I have been feeling irritable lately because I have a need for intimacy. I am wondering if you would be willing to schedule two nights or days each week with me that we could have time alone, without the children, to reconnect physically?” There is no guarantee that her request will be met, but it could begin an honest conversation that will help them both to clarifying more deeply what they each need from their relationship.

To learn more about these techniques, you might want to read Non-Violent Communication: A Language of Life, by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D. You can also contact a mediator who can help you facilitate an honest conversation that might feel to difficult to have on your own. Mediators offer support and help to manage strong emotions as they arise. For more information, email [email protected] or call 585-586-1830.

Most people do not listen

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”—Stephen R. Covey

Think back to your recent conversations. How many times have you listened to your friend, co-worker or family member talk, all the while formulating your response?

As your good friend speaks about her latest frustration with her husband, are you readying an empathetic reply, all set to agree what a lousy thing her husband did? As your teen expresses anger over not being allowed to do something ‘everybody else’ does, are you rehearsing your defensive ‘we’ve got our own rules’ response? As your co-worker worries about an upcoming project deadline, have you already pro-actively thought of five ways she could improve her chances of meeting that deadline?

You may have the best of intentions when doing this, but you are cheating the person you are listening to at the same time. When people are speaking with you, the most validating thing you can do is to give them your full attention. Hold eye contact with them. Listen quietly without interrupting until they are finished. Don’t be afraid of not having an instant answer—did they even ask you a question? A few moments of silent reflection on their words is ok! It shows that you heard what they were saying, value their thoughts, and are open to what they need and want from you, if anything, beyond listening.

One way we can show that we were truly with them when they were speaking is to reflect back to them what they said. Restate what they said, using some of their own words: “So you felt that Dan was not following through on agreements you made to share the work of keeping the house clean.” Name the emotion they had as they spoke: “It sounds like you are feeling untrusted, and that makes you angry.” “Your deadline is next week, and you’re worried you won’t be ready.” Ask them if you understood them correctly.

Then gage whether or not they want your judgment, ideas or sympathy. If they do, this is a great time for that part of the conversation—when someone feels really heard by you, they are the most open for constructive dialogue.