An Expert in Conflict

Written By: Julie Oliver
Copyright © October 26, 1997 The Ottawa Citizen

Richard Haney, Ph.D. (Counselling Therapy) is an expert in conflict. His expertise is drawn from life. He watched his father beat up his mother. He watched his neighbours battle each other bloody in gang fights. He watched his nation simmer and boil in the cauldron of the cold war, finally fleeing when it came his turn to fight, resisting the U.S. draft by moving to Canada in the late 1960s.

It’s no surprise, then, that Richard, a gregarious and spiritual man, makes his living battling conflict at the most elemental level — as a relationship mediator, a doctor of divorce (when necessary) and saviour of marriages (as often as possible).

Richard brings more than good-natured optimism to his calling. His walls are laden with evidence of his intellectual prowess: a BA in mathematics from Boston University; a Masters in education from Harvard, a PhD (Counselling Therapy) from Pacific Western University in Los Angeles. Before he began counselling in Ottawa, Richard had a successful career as an educator, teaching at private schools and founding the Inglenook high school in Toronto in 1973. He also started the Karma Natural Food Co-operative there and sat on the board of the Union of American Exiles.


You had a tough upbringing. Did that play a role in why you became a professional mediator?

We (my family) were extremely poor. I came from Roxbury, a ghetto in Boston. It was hell on earth. Almost everything I’ve done — starting co-operatives, starting schools, counselling couples — is a reaction against that upbringing.

An American ghetto is a very violent place. Violence, gang wars, in the night women screaming, husbands beating wives all over the place. There’s violence at home, violence in the streets and violence in the neighbourhood, violence on TV, violence in Vietnam (when I was growing up) and a violent country. Just violence at all levels.

You say there was violence in your home?

My oldest brother is in a mental hospital. I almost killed my father once because he was beating on me. I pushed him down the stairs. Father ruled the roost. Yes, my mother felt it too. He used to beat up on her as well. It seems uncommon if you’re from the middle class, but if you come from the ghetto, either you have a family like that or you know several of your friends who do. I try to tell my older brother that there is another reality, but he’s had so many drugs and so much electroshock therapy that I don’t think Denny can hear me anymore. My younger brother Bobby is a hermit. My younger sister is okay. So, two out of four did all right.

How has your own experience affected your counseling?

People will say, “You had two wives and now you don’t have any — and you’re a marriage counsellor?” My first relationship went sour after 10 very good years, and my second wife died of cancer. I’ve been through a lot. I’ve experienced extreme bliss and extreme tragedy. I know what (couples seeking counselling) are going through — but, of course, I don’t say that to them. My having been through it really helps me as a therapist.

What’s the most common reason for divorce?

Sex and money come out at the symbolic surface level, but it’s a lack of communication and negotiation at the deeper level. A couple can decide, for example, that they want to have children and a couple of years later one of them is feeling that they really can’t afford it. They’ve changed their mind, but they don’t dare tell their mate. It’s because there’s been a change in one person and they’ve let the communication plasticize and assumed that both people are the same as they were. So it’s important to have good communication and continually renegotiate. “Are you still feeling that way about having next summer’s holiday, about having a child, moving to a new house?” Sometimes it’s a good idea for a couple to have a checklist — an automatic review of where you’re both at.

Sex and money. These are symbolic issues, and if you talk to any sex therapist, they’ll tell you that maybe five per cent of the people that come to them are coming for sexual reasons. The rest are coming for communication reasons. If one person is not trusting the other person, for example, then their feelings get rigid. Then they start to get impotent or frigid.

What should you not do in a divorce?

Don’t poison the children against the other parent. Refer to everybody by their first name — not “it” or “that beast.” Involve a third party — a friend, if possible, at first — to get messages through rather than through lawyers or nasty answering machine recordings, etc.

Don’t use the children as messengers to carry messages back and forth. Keep it invisible to the children as much as possible until there are some small things that need to be known.

Just generally try to keep the lines of communication open. The more you can get people to sit down and talk, the more chances there are of offsetting the prejudices. What happens (otherwise) is when they get off alone, they start conjuring up stuff in their mind that the other person is a black beast. In fact, the other person is usually as scared and confused as they are, but they start projecting that the other person is an ogre. If they could just see that person and sit across the table or have a third party intervene, these projections could be diminished.

Recent research suggests that the seven-year itch has been replaced by a five-year itch. What do you think?

I don’t think it’s a five-year itch, either. It’s like the camel hump — two humps. Most separations occur before two years of marriage and after 30.


We have a remote (control) society now. If you don’t like the channel, blip, off to a new one. So a lot of people, after about a year, when hassles pile up, which is natural, say, “I don’t need this hassle,” and they push the button and out goes partner number one.

It’s like a new station.

There’s a chemical connection, too. The first couple of years are basically “dopamine chemistry” — infatuation. It wears off after two years, and the kind of rich deep relationships that evolve after that are endorphin-based. That’s where, for example, a little thing a partner does, like a hand on the shoulder, feels so good, but it’s not sexual in any way. With the early dopamine rush, it’s physically sexual. The later is deep, spiritual, psychological stuff. Some people never get to that, though. They’ve gone through maybe six relationships in a dozen years. The sooner the dopamine hits stop, they say, “I’m out of here.” They’re missing the depth. That’s the two-year hump.

At the 30-year end, the average age (of mortality) 100 years ago was 45. So, if they got to be 55 or 60 and the relationship stunk, then they thought, “this is terrible, but I’m going to be dying in a couple of years”. They don’t want to leave. They hang in there. But today, if they’re 55 — especially if they’re a woman — the average age (of death) is 84. And they say “I’m not putting up with this for another 30 years”. They could either have a whole new life or enjoy life on their own.

Recent statistics seem to indicate that marriage is losing its appeal, while common-law unions are on the rise. Why do you think that is?

Living common-law has increased dramatically over the last 10 years. The disadvantage of a marriage is if you separate … If two people have everything worked out ahead of time — who gets to keep the kids, what about the house — if you do all that work yourselves, and then you separate, then you just implement that plan. You don’t have to have lawyers, divorce courts involved. Basically, you just walk away.

Does marriage make less sense to you then?

It’s very complex, because the way that marriage has evolved goes back to a ragtag group of mythologies, back to the troubadours, when noblemen would hire men to play instruments extolling the beauty and the virtue of the nobleman’s chosen princess. The noblemen picked out the best buskers and then would give them musical training, put expensive clothing on them, give them good food and brand new instruments and stick them in the courts. That’s why it’s called courtly love. But it’s all power.

It isn’t about love; it’s about courtly love, which is power. It was a status symbol for the nobleman. Even today, you’ll notice a lot of the top politicians and businessmen have these trophy wives — big blonde-bombshell types. It’s alive and well, this concept. They dress them in fine clothes and jewelry and traipse them around for all to admire. But real love is not about status, pomp and ceremony. Another high-profile example would be Prince Charles. He chose Diana from the empire. He was looking for a childbearer and had Diana checked out to see if she was a virgin before he would consider marriage. And the whole process gets all the media playing her up. In the olden days it was the minstrels, playing songs about how gorgeous the nobleman’s woman was.

Why was that marriage a mistake?

Because Diana fell into the pattern of how marriage can be really bad. It’s status, power, trophy wives, trophy husbands. It’s a role relationship not based on love.

This is why there is a huge clash, rightly so, between feminism and the monarchy and the traditional status of a man and a woman in a marriage: Man owns woman, man owns children of woman.

It’s a chattel system. Courtly wives couldn’t answer back or express how they really felt.

They would have been beheaded. In the monarchy today, the wife is subordinate. The oldest male is the one who is the king. The only time there’s a female queen is when there’s no male around. So basically the whole thing was set up on a paternalistic model. So obviously when any two of them are marrying, the woman is subordinating herself.

Diana, I think was less capable of living that. She didn’t play the game.

You say the two most important things in life are home and a soulmate. How do you know if someone is your soulmate?

First of all, they are rare. Most people report having never had one. A few people report having two. Almost nobody reports having three or more. To start with, it’s the last face you want to see when you die. That’s a big one, believe me. A lot of people cry at that because they realize they were at work or busy with something when their loved one died.

No matter how much you want to fool around with other people, your mind always wanders back to that soulmate. That’s your home.

When there’s big fights and all is up in the air and things are bad for weeks, when the dust settles they’re still standing there. A person who isn’t your soulmate is gone.

When they leave, you have a little sadness — even when they’re just going for a couple of days. And whenever they return you feel good.

Intimate involvement with someone who is not your soulmate can be wonderful. It can be quite good. However, with your soulmate, it’s off the scale. It’s almost like nirvana. It’s not manipulative. It’s completely organic. There is a sense of deja vu — a feeling that the relationship is a continuation of a relationship that stretches beyond time and space and one’s own life span.

You don’t think lawyers should settle most divorces. Why?

There are five per cent of cases where having lawyers is a good idea, where people are at each other’s throats, where it isn’t possible to mediate them, or if there’s abuse. They might need the protection of the courtroom and the formality. Right now, though, only about five or 10 per cent of couples are accessing mediation.

It should be the opposite. Only five or 10 per cent should have litigation. They don’t need all that baloney. The average lawyer in Canada has had no courses in family therapy, no courses in child psychology. The vast majority of lawyers are trained in an adversarial system with winners and losers. Obviously, that’s not helpful.

Who do you most admire and why?

A South American social activist called Paolo Frere. He wrote a book called Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He was the kind of person who could get military leaders, company presidents, poor people, the church, all the parties to sit down at a table and work out water systems, parent-planning associations and all kinds of things. He taught poor people how not to be oppressed by the military juntas.

What is the last book you read?

The Six Pillars of Self Esteem by Nathaniel Branden.

What’s your favourite movie?

Dead Man Walking. It connects with the pedagogy of the oppressed. I like anything that shows seriously oppressed people connecting, in this case a death row prisoner with a nun, in others, poor people connecting with corporations. The whole idea of a person rising up in self-esteem.

What’s your biggest regret?

Not having known 30 years ago what I now know about love. I would have hurt a lot of people a lot less.

What quality do you least admire in women?


What quality do you most admire in men?


What trait do you dislike in yourself?

Also a hard question to answer, because I love myself. But I guess the odd occasion where I feel a little hopeless. I guess I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t feel that once in awhile.

What’s your greatest source of happiness?

Empowering. Being empowered and empowering people.

What do you fear the most?

A major ecological disaster. Dying is inevitable, but we’re causing so much disaster to the environment. It’s not just about myself, but my children — everybody. I have great concern about Canada’s emissions of (greenhouse) gases.