Why breaking up is hard to do

"I just didn’t want it to be like this” sobs Vicki, as she talks to the mediator about her best hopes for her six year-old daughter Rosalie as she and her ex-partner Jason try to make child arrangements following their divorce. Jason waits in another room because the couple cannot bear to be in each other’s company any longer. The mediator shuttles between the two, Rosalie’s future hanging in the balance.

The recent documentary Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator (9 pm, BBC2, 21 June, 28 June and 5 July 2016) showed vividly the pain experienced by people going through the breakdown of a relationship and the challenges faced by mediators asked to help them. The biggest problem a mediator has to deal with is not the different views expressed by either side on what arrangements to make for the children or how the finances should be divided, but the inability of the parties to have a rational conversation because of the emotional flooding that gets in the way. Anger, hurt, jealousy, resentment and shame all hinder the calm talking that is necessary to resolve complex issues.

With ironic juxtaposition, the documentary-makers made a point of showing how at one time the couples now separating had chosen each other as life-partners and in some cases to parent children together. Against images of wedding photographs, happy family snaps and the soundtrack to Love and Marriage we hear them reminisce. "We just clicked, something in us clicked” says Ben, recalling the early days of his relationship with Catia, who is planning to return to Portugal with their three year old daughter. "We just really loved each other” says Vicki about Jason, who’s checking his mobile phone in the room next door. Then Alan, soon-to-be ex-husband of Yvonne and father of two, asks "Where did all that go so sadly wrong?” Well, help is at hand.

Imago* theory explains why people select the partners they do, why relationships get into trouble and why conflict, properly managed, is a sign of a healthy desire to grow rather than a reason for breaking up. Grounded in developmental psychology, Imago explains why falling in love feels like meeting our "other half” and why, after an initial honeymoon period, a power struggle ensues as we resist integration of those aspects of ourselves which we were once attracted to in our partners. If not resolved by embracing the "other” within us, most couples experience a growing feeling of disconnection. Understanding that being in relationship is all about completing a process of self-development begun in childhood is vital if one is truly to appreciate the heart-rending pain of separation and the defences that are used to protect us from experiencing its full impact.

At the heart of the Imago process is a specific dialogue technique which provides a powerful and practical tool for people in a highly emotional state to communicate with each other. This can be used both with couples who wish to work through problems in relationship as well as those who have decided to separate but want to talk about the important issues that need to be resolved. It can also be used outside the family context, such as in the workplace, where difficult relationships can also arise. A mediator with some understanding of the psychology of relationships is ideally placed to guide people through the often painful journey of resolving conflict.

*Imago is a composite word for the combined image of our parents or early care-givers which we project on to our partners.

Iain Christie is a Certified Imago Professional Facilitator, a barrister and an accredited family, civil and commercial and workplace mediator. He will be making a presentation on Imago facilitation at the All Party Parliamentary Group on Alternative Dispute Resolution on 5 September 2016. Anyone interested in learning more about Imago theory or contacting a practitioner in the UK should visit www.gettingtheloveyouwant.co.uk