Ed is a Relate counsellor.  He writes from a personal view, not as a representative of the Relate organisation.

“Life’s not fair”. That’s the age-old response of an adult, a parent or a teacher, to the child’s wail: “that’s not fair”. It’s not a response that has ever gone down well with a young person.  The adults give an indulgent laugh when the six-year-old protests that his brother got the bigger toy or the 13-year-old says that all her friends are allowed to stay out after ten. The laugh turns to irritation quickly, though, and there’s a quick bid for silence after “Well, Life’s not fair”.

Whether or not Life is fair, that fierce sense of injustice is one of the most powerful feelings and it burns on from childhood through to adulthood. Among adults, it’s the injustice that blocks reconciliation or creative solutions to differences in a dispute.

In relationship or family counselling, it’s exactly reconciliation or change through creative exploration and novel perspectives that we’re after. But if the sense of injustice is the predominant feeling penetrating the atmosphere, it will block progress completely. Restoration of justice must come first.  This means that situations arise where mediation must come before counselling.

​​As a relationship and family counsellor I can give some illustrations of situations like this. The example I give here is based on real people’s problems, but I have disguised them to preserve complete confidentiality.

A couple in the retirement phase of their life had two adult children who had established themselves in their own homes.  The trouble was that the relationship between the older of the two offspring, a man, and the younger, his sister, was not good, and this connected to their relationship with their parents.  The daughter had a peaceful marriage and she and her husband had obtained a mortgage through their own efforts.  They visited their retired parents/in-laws regularly. In contrast, the son had had several messy relationships and failed to establish himself for some years. He had borrowed large sums from his parents (the Bank of Mum and Dad), making clear arrangements for repayment by the time his parents retired, in written notes.  These were not legally drawn up documents, just sentences on paper.  Now in his early forties, the son was apparently doing much better, renting a sizeable property for himself and his current girlfriend and driving an expensive car.  However, he seldom visited his parents and he had gone long past the agreed term of the loans without making any repayment. His sister was angered by this and his parents were in a state that mixed some anger with much bewilderment. His father felt that especially in the twilight of his life and now with some health problems he deserved freedom from financial strain.  He had made the loans to his son on clear conditions and his son was not meeting these conditions – he had only offered an endless series of vague and broken promises as well as his own anger and resentment, against both his parents and his sister.

All four members of this family came together to family counselling. At their initial consultation with another counsellor, and when all were in the room with me, the father said that what he hoped for from this process was that relations with his son would no longer be such a source of stress to him. He wanted peace and reconciliation.

During an hour the father held the floor most, repetitively making the same points: that this whole thing was getting him down and why couldn’t his son, whom he and his wife had nurtured through childhood, now make a payment and let him have some peace in his retirement?  His son interrupted with remarks like “I knew it would be like this” and “That’s what you always say”, but he did not make any offers of payment of his debt or any commitments to make a new agreement on repayment. His sister rolled her eyes and threw in a few verbal attacks.

As family counsellor, my role is to facilitate the conversation among the family members, often asking such questions as “If Father were to change tack here, and say to Son: ‘Let’s let bygones be bygones’, what would Daughter say to Son?”  Or even, exploring fantasy: “If your house could talk, what would it say?”  This approach is called Systemic and its aim is to open new perspectives on the family situation to individual members of the family. The family is treated as a system of relationships and the members are invited to explore how the inter-connections all work. With greater understanding should come greater harmony and less misery.

In this family, I saw no prospect of making this exploration of mutual feelings and relational effects until there was a resolution of the debt question.  This, unresolved, would always be thrown around, and this would recur again and again.  The sense of injustice would be inflamed and no discussion of any other feelings would be possible.  My view was that the family should first make a written agreement on the amount the son owed to the father and exactly how and when it would be paid, and all should agree to this and sign it.  If some of the debt was forgiven, well so be it, but that must be agreed and signed.  There would undoubtedly be residual resentment, but family counselling would help with that.  I said that the family should come back for further counselling after this agreement was drawn up.

In the next session no progress had been made.  There was no agreement.  The son was even angrier than before, and his sister’s efforts to get his answers on the debt question met only with expressions of unexplained anger and hurt against her and against his parents, with a complete refusal to address any concrete matters of repayment.  The father continued a low stream of talk, continually expressing his sense of injustice and hurt.

I told the family that a further family counselling session would be futile.  The father would do well to consult a solicitor, but it was a mediator rather than a counsellor or therapist that this family needed at this stage of their disharmony and distress.  If mediation were successful, then productive family counselling or therapy might follow.  Clearly, there were issues to explore, such as the root of the son’s resentment against his family who seemed on the face of it to have offered him such support, but a just and fair settlement of financial debt needed to come first in order to allow this.

Comment by Paul Sandford of Albert Square Mediation Limited: This article clearly explains what counselling is about and how it differs from mediation. It also demonstrates that in many instances the facilitated resolution of a particular dispute  through mediation could be the prerequisite to couples, siblings, work colleagues and friends resolving underlying difficulties that affect their relationship with the benefit of facilitation from a counsellor or therapist.