The (Dubious) Beauty of the Mexican Standoff

One concept taught In Mediation 101 that’s useful when it comes to writing romance novels is that the toughest conflicts to negotiate are two-party, single-issue stand offs. The media tries to present us with these all the time, because they are inherently dramatic: The Lady or the Tiger, winner take all, do or die, or—dare I mention—Republican or Democrat.

The forced choice or zero sum game will sell a whole lot more ads than a scrimmage, a compromise, an exhibition game that can’t go into “sudden death” overtime. As a writer, I look for those seemingly impossible situations where my characters cannot compromise. Anna Seaton either fled the Earl of Westhaven’s home or accepted his protection, Emmie Farnum either told St. Just the truth of her situation or went haring off to Cumbria with the Kissing Vicar.

As a mediator, I approach the proverbial Mexican standoff one of two ways. I can try to add parties to the conflict, or I can add issues. While either might seem initially to complicate the conflict, these measures can also assist with its resolution. By (carefully!) bringing older children into a custody discussion, for example, the parents are reminded that the parenting schedule is not about them, and a child—particularly a teenager—is in a position to sabotage any decision the child doesn’t like. (Emmaline Farnum found out that even a five year old wields that power effectively.)

In my books, the characters will at least start out wanting to keep the solution to their difficulties simple and simplistic: The other guy or gal needs to get a clue or leave town. Again, we hear a lot of rhetoric to this effect from the media because it’s emphatic, sometimes pathetically so. Whatever foreign power is misbehaving, for example, needs to just stop, regardless of food shortages, lack of infrastructure, nasty neighbors, and so on. We want our troubles to disappears with a magic word, just as badly as a romance hero wants his to evaporate by page thirty.

Hah. What the hero and heroine learn, what most of us have learned, is that good solutions often take time, courage, and creative thinking. They may even take team work and open-mindedness. They certainly require that each party to the conflict be honest with themselves about their motives and to some extent, honest with the other parties.

This is hard, hard work, but I guarantee you, when done well, it will keep you interested for 400 pages. I’m waiting for the day when the news media discovers that it will also keep us interested for an entire 30-minite broadcast.

We all face disputes, squabbles and conflicts every day. What skills and rubrics do you keep in your back pocket for when they arise in your life?

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10 comments on “The (Dubious) Beauty of the Mexican Standoff

  1. Usually the conflict I have the most is with my mother. I have adopted a “Do the best I can for her and if it doesn’t please her she is more than welcome to find someone else to help her” method” I try to put as much space between her & me as possible. I have learned just because my mom doesn’t like me doesn’t mean I am bad.The reason I still make an effort with her is because I promised my grandma I would before she died.

    • Gail, good for you for having a boundary. You promised grandma you’d make an effort not become a martyr to mom’s issues. I have friends in the same position and an “armed truce” is the best they can hope for. Still, it’s sad when you have to protect yourself from your parents, no matter your age or theirs.

  2. I think for me when talking with people be it friends family or clients, I don’t always know what happened 10mins before they called, so their frustration or anger probably comes from that, not with me. Most of the time if I just give them my full attention, let them say what they need to they will typically calm done and we can get on with the conversation. I think most of the time they just need to vent and have someone listen to them.

    I often tell myself, “This to, shall pass” and it 5 minutes it will be the past and I can either learn from it and do better next time or have a good cry (on the inside) and have a piece of chocolate to feel better.

    • Lindsey, that little comment about “listening with your full attention” says a lot. Don’t people, and children in particular, just seem to know when we’re mentally wandering, and doesn’t it irritate the living peedywaddles out of us when people do it us?

      And yet, it’s hard when we’re the listener, not to be formulating our reply–our rebuttal–before the speaker is even done talking. Remind me to call YOU the next time I’m steamed up,

      • I’d welcome a phone call! I know sometimes it’s hard, but really, what alternative do you have? If you really want to make an impact and help, you hat to listen. Of course…it’s always easier said than done.

  3. One of the most treasured gifts from our wedding is a sampler a very good friend stitched for us … which includes all of the Corinthians verse defining what Love is and isn’t. It’s really hard to maintain a righteous rage when being reminded that love is not selfish and does not insist on its own way. It used to hang at the top of our stairs in our old house, and it would stop me when I’d be marching up to our room, all set to slam doors. Sometimes, it’s good to remember that love listens and is kind, and does not need to insist on Being Right.

    • My mother’s rubric is, “he’s doing the best he can or I’d have to kill him.” I’m pretty sure my dad has reached the same point from time to time, and 66 years later, they’re best friends. I like your sampler better!

    • My husband and I had that some Corinthians verse read at our wedding, and I have it engraved on a bracelet. It is so powerful and true.

      “Sometimes, it’s good to remember that love listens and is kind, and does not need to insist on Being Right.”

      I couldn’t agree more…

  4. All good comments and solutions! I often find myself tied up in knots due to internal conflict/stress that mostly comes from placing too many demands and expectations on myself. This is silly, but I leave myself little notes reminding me to relax…for example, I have a note tucked in my desk drawer that says: take 10 minutes to read a book you like. I have another note tucked in my planner that says: enjoy a cup of tea slowly. These little reminders help me step back, take a breath, and make the worries I had let grow too monstrous shrink back down to manageable size.

    • How did life go on before 3M invented sticky notes by accident (they were messing around with improvements to adhesive tape)? I’ve heard of people leaving notes in the lunch box for their children, their spouses, their roommates… I like this idea, Melonie.