Couples Coaching and Family Mediation – Annie Hall Revisited and EDA (Early Dispute Avoidance)

Couples Coaching and Family Mediation
Paul Sandford
Paul Sandford
Mediator and
Tribunal Judge

In the course of reading an article in the London Magazine, Time out, which comprised of a sequence of potted, very well-written reviews about films with a Valentine’s Day type theme*, I was delighted to chance upon an appraisal of Annie Hall which is possibly my favourite film of all time and which featured in one of my earlier blogs.

The film basically documents a relatively short-lived romance between an angst ridden Alvy Singer played by Woody Allen and an equally angst ridden  Diane Keaton who plays Annie.

I remember it particularly for the quintessential Woody Allen jokes and wisecracks, his elegant repartee and the strong element of “will they, won’t they” and the inevitable failure of the relationship.

The Time Out reviewer focuses more on the Alvy/Annie relationship and looks beyond the romance and passion that one commonly associates with Valentine’s Day.

The reviewer writes:-

“… It shows us how difficult communication is. It also shows that two people being passionate about each other is not enough for everything to work out.

A long-term relationship is far more complex than that. It has to do with compromise and empathy and acceptance of your partner’s shortcomings”.

This very incisive piece of very well written prose could have been written by a mediator or couples coach.
It is not uncommon for mediators to become involved at the end of the relationship when passion has presumably died and communication has broken down.

This of course accentuates the difficulties for the parties and can make it even harder for them to resolve matters. However, understanding these issues is centrifugal to the mediator’s role and being both neutral and empathetic and particularly as the mediation process is conducted in a safe, confidential environment, he or she will be very placed to assist.

Interests and concerns about the past will be identified but the emphasis will be very much on helping the parties to move forward.

My favourite part of Annie Hall is the psychiatrist scene in which each protagonist in a clearly failing relationship gives his or her own subjective view of matters to their respective analysts.

One cannot help that the analysts accept these subjective positions without question, thereby reinforcing each person’s resentments about the other.

There is no mention of anything other than these subjective standpoint and, rather ironically, the analysts who are purporting to help, serve only to reinforce division and contribute to a process of inevitable decline that makes the already very unhappy Alvy and Annie even more miserable and depressed.

What would have happened if Alvy and Annie had either contacted a mediator before they reached the stage of standing in their front room arguing about which book or record belongs to whom? Perhaps more pertinently, what would have happened if they had jointly contacted a couples or relationship coach? 

Couples coaches are skilled professionals who, rather than taking sides, adopt a neutral but empathetic standpoint and rather than two people Alvy and Annie effectively voicing their concerns in a one-sided vacuum, facilitates discussion and will help them to understand, not only themselves little better, but also to at least acknowledge the other’s point of view?

One cannot say that a relationship such as Alvy and Annie’s will be saved, but in the spirit of EDA**, facilitated talking before the point of inevitable decline will often help the protagonists to focus their minds and work out what they want.

At the very least, a couples coach might have helped Alvy and Annie to realize that their relationship was doomed and save them all a great deal of unhappiness. At best, they may have been able to identify some common ground in order to continue their relationship, focus on the positives and coexist harmoniously. 

In some such instances it may be appropriate for an informal agreement to be formulated but as with family mediation, the beauty of couples counselling is that although the counsellor facilitates, it is the parties themselves who are in control of the process and the outcome thereof. This in turn means that they can draw strength both from the counselling process itself and possibly from one another. 

However unwittingly, the above-mentioned analysts disempowered their respective patients. Couples and relationship counsellors and family mediators whose professional charges are very modest do the exact opposite.

Thinking ahead to Valentine’s Day 2018, how about Woody Allen making Annie Hall 2 in which some of the issues raised in this blog are explored, perhaps with a happy ending to counterbalance the very unhappy ending in the original masterpiece?                                               

* “Love In the Movies” – Time Out London, February 14 – 20 -“Annie Hall” is reviewed by Sarah Stein Lubrano, The School of Life.

** see the section on the ASM mediation website which covers EDA( Early Dispute Avoidance)


Paul Sandford is an accredited civil mediator,  family mediator and Tribunal Judge

He mediates for a leading UK charity, has been appointed a governor/mediator at a London Secondary School and has the benefit of having worked as a solicitor for around 25 years.  He has also worked as a trainer and university lecturer and has considerable experience of working with people who are disabled or who do not have English as a first language.

As well as being Regents University accredited, Paul recently completed ADRg civil/commercial and family training and is working towards becoming an accredited family mediator.

He has particular  knowledge and experience of housing, property/commercial, medical and public law issues and employment, workplace, family and educational disputes. He is a member of two mediation panels: Clerksroom, which has excellent conference call facilities, and the Business Mediation Group. In his spare time Paul enjoys cooking, football, test cricket and listening to the blues, and fundraises for his school.

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