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The "Aunt Lucy’s Quilt" Effect in Divorce Mediation

People who are going through a divorce usually have many emotions in common – anger, depression, denial, confusion, sadness, fear, apathy, guilt, pain, and a loss of self-confidence, all making for this being a “crazy time”. They also have some behaviors in common. One of them, I call the “Aunt Lucy’s Quilt” syndrome.

Couples who have many thousands of dollars in net worth or couples who have a small, or negative, net worth, can get stuck in their decision making while in divorce mediation. When deciding who will get what item of marital property, they sometimes ignore items of real monetary value in order to fight over a relatively insignificant item. I call this the “Aunt Lucy’s Quilt” syndrome.

“She was my Aunt Lucy!” angrily proclaims one of the parties, “I should get her quilt”. “Well, she liked me better than she liked you, so I should get her quilt!” responds the equally angry spouse. “Should”, “shouldn’t”, “mine”, “mine”, “you never used it”, “I took good care of it”, “mine”, “mine”. And on and on, bringing up every grievance, resentment, or grudge each spouse has against the other. The argument escalates, and it becomes obvious that they are not really talking about the quilt. (I have also observed this behavior in a couple arguing over Tupperware lids! Or, in another couple - frequent flyer miles!)

All the anger, bitterness, and hostility between the parties center on the quilt, or other similarly minor asset, and they ignore, for the time being, the more valuable house, retirements, or brokerage accounts.

As a mediator, I need to allow them to vent their feelings before they can get down to the more important decisions. This is sometimes difficult to do, as the spouses try to get the mediator on “their side”, or they direct their vitriol towards the mediator. A calm and tranquil attitude on the mediator’s part and a refusal to become triangulated are essential to move them past the anger and towards rational discussion.

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