On many levels, divorce is a transition. One day you are living with someone you once thought you’d spend the rest of your life with, and the next day that person is living elsewhere.
One or both of you were working to pay the bills and save for the future, but that has changed. Each of you is now financially responsible for your own residence, doing it on your own income, with whatever support you are receiving from your ex. If you are the one paying, your income is now reduced to help your ex.
Perhaps the most difficult transition for some is realizing that your family routine has changed. Specifically, you probably don’t see your children every day, because they are living in two separate households.
Regardless of how you divided responsibility for the care of your children while you were married, divorce requires some big adjustments.
The Mediated Parenting Plan
In mediation I begin with these acknowledgements: You, as parents, have your past parenting experience to help guide you in planning for how you will co-parent your children after divorce. Also, while not able to sustain a marriage, many of you will recognize that you have done a good job at parenting and are raising your children to be responsible and successful adults.
When I am helping parents to create a parenting plan for their future in two households, I begin with these acknowledgments:
There is emotional turmoil in divorce, and even reluctance to accept that your children will most likely not live with you 100 percent of the time. Still, a thoughtful parenting plan, developed in mediation, is an important first step in creating a healthy transition for your entire family.
Envisioning Your Children as Adults
In the early part of mediation, I ask you two simple questions to help keep you focused on your children’s future amidst the changes you are experiencing:
This introduction to a visioning process for children can lay a foundation for constructive co-parenting, where you can determine how decisions are made, how time will be allotted between parents, and the co-parenting guidelines for communicating and setting expectations.
More Things to Consider
Here are a few other issues to be mindful of, as you think about how to manage the changes in your parenting process:
Unlike the court system, where a judge has to referee and decide for parents how they will move forward, mediation offers the chance for you to set your own rules and expectations for co-parenting. When you do this well—and I assure you that many do—your children will carry with them the memory of parents who navigated a difficult transition with love and concern for their well-being.
In our best version of ourselves, we can be not only self-aware, but also prepared to listen carefully in a non-judgmental way to what others are saying. In conflict situations, however, it’s a significant challenge to be at our best and be open to what others are communicating.
When a marriage is ending, the roots lie in conflict between the spouses. In some cases, that conflict can be extreme, including abusive behavior and actions. More often, difficulty exists in a more subtle yet significant form between clients I work with as a divorce mediator.
As I learn from those who have studied and written about conflict theory, I am recognizing my own reactions. When I find myself in a conflict situation, my behavior is shaped by a defensive response to what I am hearing, interpreting it as a threat to something that matters to me. I respond with defensive statements; often this will set off the same triggers in the other person. This cycle is a major barrier to meaningful communication.
Using this knowledge, I am deepening my own understanding of what impedes your engaging in meaningful dialogue that will support making the important decisions surrounding your divorce.
The mediation process creates a unique opportunity for a conversation in which I can help you understand each other better and avoid the possibility of mistakenly interpreting the behavior of your spouse as a threat to what is important to you.
Most are looking to find the quickest and easiest path to ending a marriage, but the enormity of the decisions plus underlying conflict may obstruct this goal. The mediation process creates a unique opportunity for a conversation in which I can help you understand each other better and avoid the possibility of mistakenly interpreting the behavior of your spouse as a threat to what is important to you.
By exploring what matters to you and how you see this being challenged, you are available to a deeper conversation in which there will be less need to defend and more chance to acknowledge each other’s priorities. Then you can address the gap between the message intended by the speaker and the message heard by the listener.
Listening can be hard. The mediator’s job is not only to be a good listener, but also to help clear the roadblocks so that you are a better listener. With listening and understanding, the foundation is set for progress.
Many marriages are fueled by dreams. Some of these dreams are about the near term—maybe a special vacation, purchase of a second home, or something else that both spouses envision with excitement.
Other dreams are longer term—imagining what will happen when parents become “empty nesters” or making retirement plans for exotic travel or a move to a new place.
Dreams reflect hope and vision. They provide clarity, and they fuel focus and motivation.
Knowing all this, it’s totally understandable that the end of a marriage feels to many like the earth moving underneath them, creating an enormous sense of imbalance. After all, the dreams shared in a marriage are suddenly jeopardized, if not essentially cancelled. Hope for the future is transformed into a sea of uncertainty, perhaps creating a sense of hopelessness.
Yes, a divorce will call shared dreams into question. And especially for those who are older, what was once seen as a comfortable retirement may become more challenging.
Your dreams don’t have to end with your divorce, especially those goals that were not shared with your spouse. It’s even possible that, in a civil and respectful divorce, your soon-to-be ex-spouse will support your plans.
However, your dreams don’t have to end with your divorce, especially those goals that were not shared with your spouse. It’s even possible that, in a civil and respectful divorce, your soon-to-be ex-spouse will support your plans. Just because a decision is made to end a marriage does not mean that you cannot wish happiness for each other. Granted, in the moment, it may be hard to see happiness in your future, but a supportive ex can make it easier.
A case in point. Anne and Chris are two recent divorce mediation clients. Anne is an extremely talented designer who recently started her own business. For many small businesses starting out is hard, and making a living is even harder. In mediation, Chris has made it clear to Anne that he will continue to provide her with financial support for longer than might otherwise be required under the law. He specifically told her that he believes in her and will do what it takes to help her realize the dream that arose during their marriage.
Even when your marriage is ending, you can still have dreams, and it’s always possible that the person you are divorcing will still believe in you and your capabilities. It’s such possibilities that reinforce my belief in mediation as a process that can end a marriage without poisoning the relationship.
In my own divorce mediation practice over the years, I’ve found that most clients who start the mediation process with me stay with mediation and keep me as their mediator until a complete agreement has been reached. That’s probably true for most mediators.
Sometimes the fit between mediator and clients is not a good one, and this may not be discovered until the process has already begun.
Occasionally, I’ve started mediation with clients who choose to move on to another mediator. Sometimes the fit between mediator and clients is not a good one, and this may not be discovered until the process has already begun.
I’ve also noticed that the timing of taking up mediation in the divorce process may influence whether a couple stays with their original mediator. The earlier that you find yourself in the divorce process, the more likely it is that one or both of you will decide you are not yet ready to focus on the hard work of making a plan for moving forward.
As time passes, and readiness for both of you improves, emotions surrounding an early encounter with a mediator may cause the couple to reset with a new mediator. I’ve learned to accept this reality, both as one who has seen clients move on to another mediator, and as the mediator who has been engaged by a couple that had previously worked with another professional.
Recently, a couple sought me out because of dissatisfaction with their current mediator. In our consultation, I learned from them about mediation sessions being arbitrarily rescheduled by the mediator, a sense of not being “trusted” by the mediator, a lack of responsiveness and a lack of transparency.
Admittedly, I don’t know what the other mediator would say in response to those claims. What I do know is that the values that were missing in the mediator these clients originally chose are exactly the values that I (and most mediators) stand behind— building trust, being flexible, being available, being responsive, being transparent. I want my clients to know who I am, what I do, how I do it, and why I do it.
While I accept that, along the way, I’ve seen clients move on to a new mediator (and surely this will happen again in the future), I am hopeful that those decisions will be based on factors that are beyond my control.
Agendas can be very useful. In meetings, whether mediation sessions or divorce sessions with a collaborative divorce team, an agenda keeps us focused on the topics to be addressed.
While I am prepared to structure each and every mediation session, I want you to know that I will always be ready to help you with what is most important to you in mediation discussions.
As a mediator, my tendency is not to provide a formal agenda for a mediation session. That way I am honoring the wishes of clients, leaving things open to discuss what you want to address at a particular session. While I am prepared to structure each and every mediation session, I want you to know that I will always be ready to help you with what is most important to you in mediation discussions.
While an agenda that represents a structure and a plan for discussion can be constructive, bringing “one’s own agenda” to a mediation session or collaborative divorce session can be risky, if not dangerous.
Why risky? Whether it is a professional—a mediator or collaborative divorce attorney or neutral—or a client who comes with “an agenda,” that gesture can often be perceived as an effort to “control” the conversation or impose a set of your own values, beliefs and needs on others. Instead, honestly sharing about what is important to you is an entirely appropriate way to ask for understanding.
If a mediator or collaborative facilitator imposes an agenda on the process, this can result in the conversation, and even the outcome, taking a direction overly influenced by the professional. What is preferable is engaging you as the clients in a process that empowers you to have a constructive dialogue that will promote understanding and resolution of the difficult issues involved in a divorce.
If you, as a spouse in a divorce mediation or collaborative divorce process, put forth your agenda, then your spouse may very well see this as a set of demands. I’ve found that when you shift your focus from “demands” to “proposals,” your spouse sees an invitation to consider an idea, instead of feeling pressured into an outcome that may not want be wanted.
Agendas, like mediation, work best when they function as neutral.
As an individual, I would be the first to admit to being a private person. While I may share personal details with friends, I am less inclined to do so with those I don’t know so well. While I own a personal Facebook account (I even once posted on Instagram!), my activity is limited to mostly acknowledging the kind birthday wishes of others and offering news regarding the accomplishments of my children and grandchildren. (Yes, I am a proud dad and Papi!)
I have a completely different perspective when it comes to my work as a family and divorce mediator. I want you to know as much about me as you want to know, whether it’s about how old I am (see above—I’m old!), my life experience, even my thoughts when it involves the legal system that applies to divorcing couples. (Those are not particularly positive.) Mediation requires serious conversations that consider very personal topics. Your choice of a mediator is an important personal decision that you need to be comfortable with. When I am engaged to mediate, I take this as a symbol of trust based on your deciding that I’m a good fit for you and your spouse.
Just as I see transparency as being essential to how I present myself to you, the mediation process itself must be transparent and open.
Just as I see transparency as being essential to how I present myself to you, the mediation process itself must be transparent and open. This often begins with sharing my goals for the mediation process:
One of the key components of informed decision making is full financial disclosure. This aspect of transparency is not negotiable in my mediation practice. A marriage is, on one level, an economic partnership, and you both need to share with me and with each other the details of your financial circumstances. This transparency creates a level playing field, which reinforces my neutrality and ensures that financial decisions, like dividing your assets and debts, and creating a financial plan that establishes two sustainable households for you and your children, will be made under a bright light where we all see the same information. And can make the most appropriate choices.
Learning is both rewarding and challenging, especially when one is acquiring new skills. This year, I am exploring new techniques to incorporate into my mediation style—techniques that are focused on enhancing the ability of clients to learn from and understand each other.
The emotions surrounding divorce, whether manifested as anger, fear, sadness, or concerns around the underlying uncertainty of one’s future, often translate into behavior that can block meaningful dialogue. When clients cycle into a conflict pattern of persuasion, justification, repetition, withdrawal or other defensive behaviors, the road to eventual resolution is blocked.
To counter patterns of conflict, I seek to promote a mediation process that leads to understanding through constructive dialogue. Granted, understanding does not equal agreement, but it can form a foundation for considering ways to approach the difficult decisions that divorcing couples face.
To counter these patterns of conflict, I seek to promote a mediation process that leads to understanding through constructive dialogue. Granted, understanding does not equal agreement, but it can form a foundation for considering ways to approach the difficult decisions that divorcing couples face.
Each of us has values and beliefs that matter greatly to us, whether it is stability for our children, personal independence, effective and cooperative co-parenting, financial sustainability, or maintaining healthy relationships. If we perceive that any of these values are being challenged by the actions or words of others, there will be a tendency to push back. Usually our resistance will face equal resistance from the other person in the conversation.
And so if you find yourself in that difficult conversation, going nowhere, I want to be there to help you both see what matters to the other, to ensure that you are interpreting accurately what your spouse is saying, and to help you share your vision of what can come out of a meaningful and constructive dialogue. My aim is to give you the freedom to create your own pathway to understanding each other better.
As I endeavor to build on my mediation skills, I hope to expand the educational aspect of mediation to include your chance not only to learn from what I do, but also, more importantly, to learn from each other.
When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s (yes, I am a “boomer”), journalism was seen by most as a profession with integrity. Unfortunately, not everyone feels that way anymore. But you can count me as one who still appreciates journalism that is based on diligent research and facts that uncover the truth.
For clients in my divorce mediation practice, our work together to craft a plan for the future has a lot in common with good journalism—in a word, my goal is to be thorough.
For clients in my divorce mediation practice, our work together to craft a plan for the future has a lot in common with good journalism—in a word, my goal is to be thorough.
Just like a news reporter, the elements that describe “thorough” are simply inquiries that cover all the bases:
In making your plan, it’s important to be clear about who will be responsible for carrying out a specific task. Without designating the responsible party, we miss out on accountability. Without accountability, cracks can form in any plan.
As you are thinking about what will be done, the details matter a great deal. The more specific you are, the less chance there will be for a misunderstanding down the line. When future disputes do occur, you are forced to revisit a difficult time of your life—and no one desires this.
Considering when something will happen is essential to making sure that expectations are met. I encourage you as my clients to set timeframes and deadlines, partly to avoid unnecessary pressure amidst an already stressful time, but even more to prevent either of you from feeling that the other is stalling or won’t live up to a commitment.
Where things will happen is particularly relevant in parenting discussions. Often this relates to how children will transition from one parent’s care to the other’s.
Finally, the why of any plan may not always make it into words, but a reason is there. I find clients may need to go through a process of self-examination to be at rest with a particular decision being made. Namely, “Will this address what I need to happen,” “Will this achieve something that I care deeply about,” or “Will this help both of us move forward?”
As your mediator, I am committed to the same standards as a good journalist—to report on what you’ve agreed to with integrity and accuracy.
As a solo practitioner, I carry my business cell phone with me, whether I’m in the office, at home, doing errands or living my life.
When the phone rings, I answer if I can. I’m somewhat surprised when the person at the other end expresses some amazement that a human answered. I guess we’ve come to expect that communication by voicemail, email and text messaging is the norm. My disposition runs counter to that understanding. As a mediator, I’m contacted by people who are facing challenging circumstances who deserve my attention—even if it’s only to say that I’ll call them back when I have more time if I’m otherwise busy.
Of course, I don’t always answer, and you may get my voicemail. However, I can assure you that, whether it’s a voice message, email or text message, a quick response will follow, even just to acknowledge you.
I believe that responsiveness is a simple act of respect. It validates you as being important to me, because what you are calling me about is usually very important.
I believe that responsiveness is a simple act of respect. It validates you as being important to me, because what you are calling me about is usually very important. The sooner you have a chance to share with me your needs and concerns, the sooner you will feel heard.
Just as I put a priority on being responsive as a crucial element in crafting a strong professional relationship with a current or future client, you can do the same in your relationship with your spouse and co-parent.
Communication at the end of a marriage can often be tense, and there is a tendency to avoid contact. Nevertheless, your ability to provide a timely response to a question or request is truly a visible sign of respect. In most cases, your future communication will revolve around your children, and you each deserve to be heard by the other, regardless of whether you agree. Think of it as a contribution to maintaining a civil relationship. The beneficiaries may very well be your own children.
Imagine going to a restaurant and looking over the menu. Just as you are thinking of placing your order, the server says, “The chef will decide what you will be having for your meal.” For most of us, this would not be acceptable; and yet, this is what can happen if you litigate your divorce and leave it to a judge to decide your future.
Let’s go back into the same restaurant, where the menu choices don’t fit your dietary restrictions or preferences. You know that the kitchen has the ingredients to make a dish for you that is not on the menu. You think, if they can make this for you, it would be a wonderful meal.
This has happened to me more than a few times, and quite often, the chef is happy to accommodate a special request. These are the restaurants where I’m likely to return. Why? Because I appreciate their willingness to work with me in being creative to prepare the meal that will be most satisfying.
Unlike the traditional litigation process, divorce mediation offers the same opportunity for creativity. Like a restaurant server, I work with clients who want to explore the options that others have chosen in other cases. Sometimes you will determine that one of those choices will work best for you. However, when you and your spouse are exploring a different way to decide a particular issue through the mediation process, I support your desire for creativity. After all, this is about what will work best for your future, and I believe that you deserve to control that outcome on your own terms.
As you approach a difficult decision involving the end of your marriage, give yourself (and your soon to be ex) the freedom to brainstorm any and all possibilities.
As you approach a difficult decision involving the end of your marriage, give yourself (and your soon-to-be ex) the freedom to brainstorm any and all possibilities. Then we can evaluate objectively the advantages and disadvantages of each option and ask as many questions as needed to fully understand what each would entail—whether in relation to parenting, finances or logistics.
Using mediation to foster creativity is how you can improve the chances of getting the result that will work best for both of you and your futures.