Human relationships take on many forms. When we first meet a new person, we are acquaintances. Perhaps we later become friends. Maybe we have a professional relationship, as colleagues, customers, contractors, consultants, you name it. We could even go into business together as partners or co-owners. Or we could start dating, get married and have children together.
When a married couple decides that they are going to separate and possibly divorce, it’s important to identify each layer of their association and determine how the decisions being made correspond to the different relationships between the spouses. Let’s call this “a relationship layer cake.”
When the adversarial approach of our court-based legal system is avoided in favor of a more respectful and dignified mediation divorce process, the marital contract can be ended while preserving those relationships that continue to connect both spouses.
Separation and divorce, at a minimum, involve an “unwinding” of an economic partnership that is recognized in legal terms as beginning on the date of marriage. In a short, childless marriage, the decisions being made by my clients could be confined to the division of their marital property, leaving them to go their separate ways with no further personal contact. They may have no interest in remaining friends or being otherwise associated with each other.
But more often, especially in marriages of more than a few years and that include children, the decisions can cross many layers of relationship. Co-parenting and the development of a Parenting Plan acknowledge what we all know as parents—we will be the parents of our children for the rest of our lives. And so from here we can understand that our children will continue to have two parents, hopefully long into their adult years.
When the adversarial approach of our court-based legal system is avoided in favor of a more respectful and dignified mediation or collaborative divorce process, the marital contract can be ended while preserving those relationships that continue to connect both spouses, whether they be:
• personal (still friendly or at least cordial but no longer married).
In the kitchen of mediation, you can hopefully take the “marriage layer” off your cake while baking a better tasting new confection for the future.
At its best, marriage is a partnership that nourishes the individuality of each to blossom into fully self-expressed humanness. A marriage that allows for growth while retaining underlying connection and intimacy can be very powerful.
And yet, in some marriages, people often work toward their personal evolution at different rates or not at all. Sadly, this presents challenges that may be insurmountable. Trying to meet the expectations of a spouse that don’t match who we are can prevent us from becoming who we want to be.
Regardless of our religious or spiritual beliefs, most all traditions point to the need for the individual to grow. As with nature, without growth we wither and die. Personal growth helps us to thrive.
While the painful circumstances of a marriage that is ending pose a personal challenge, they also offer a great opportunity for growth.
While the painful circumstances of a marriage that is ending pose a personal challenge, they also offer a great opportunity for growth. Instead of feeling the pressure to meet the expectations of a spouse, we can move toward discovering who we really are and what’s possible for us. For many, this can be a profound experience that redirects our focus into the future.
Maybe it involves participating in a sport that the ex-spouse had no interest in. Or a pursuit in the arts, joining new groups or meeting new friends. Sometimes it may involve taking a risk that would not have been tolerated in the marriage.
The end of a marriage is the beginning of a new chapter in the journey of life—recognizing the freedom to live on our own terms may just be the first step in continuing to grow to our full potential.
David Louis suggests an interim plan: To bring some short-term clarity and understanding, the mediation process can provide an opportunity for couples that are trying to establish a temporary “equilibrium” as their transition progresses.
We are currently living in times that don’t match up to anything that any of us has ever experienced. The uncertainty of how long the impacts of this COVID-19 will last weighs heavily on all of us.
I am left to think about those who, already finding themselves in the confusion of life transitions, now have the weight of this global health crisis piled on. None of us truly can yet know what this will mean for our economy, both in our nation and in our homes.
None of us truly can yet know what this will mean for our economy, both in our nation and in our homes.
Several clients have contacted me to postpone their mediation sessions. While we don’t have to meet in the office and can do so by video conferencing, the truth for these families is that they are faced with economic uncertainty, which impacts their ability to make long-term decisions. Some are seeing their retirement accounts taking big hits; many are concerned about their jobs and future economic wellbeing. It’s hard for anyone to make important decisions when the facts are not clear–in separation and divorce, this dynamic is magnified and can actually be paralyzing.
I can also imagine that those who are in the early stages of discussing separation and divorce are faced with a similar dilemma, which can include questions as to whether it actually makes sense to move forward.
And yet, for those who have started the process of ending their marriage, and others who are ready to begin doing so, the underlying reality that the marriage cannot or should not continue is not disappearing.
To bring some short-term clarity and understanding, the mediation process can provide an opportunity for couples that are trying to establish a temporary “equilibrium” as their transition progresses.
This can actually be very similar to a discussion that often takes place at a first mediation session, namely, what interim plans and agreements are needed so that you can both feel comfortable and stable while engaging in the mediation process?
Given the circumstances and challenges facing us now in the spring of 2020, this conversation may precede the commencement of the divorce.
In the longer term, the essential question underlying the mediation process is, “What are we going to do about where we are?” But in the present circumstances, addressing the short term, the question is being transformed into “What are we going to do for now?”
Here are some examples of topics that can be covered in an interim plan:
For some of my clients, the interim arrangements can be a “test drive” for longer-term agreements. For others, it’s just a plan for now so that life can go on with a minimum of disruption and conflict.
Now, as much as ever, the chance to talk about how to cope with a changing world is what mediation can offer–a bridge to a future that is under development.
For many, the ending of a marriage is filled with a range of emotions that may be as broad as the menu at a good diner. In my divorce mediation and collaborative divorce practice, I observe this variety of feelings by one or both spouses. Most often, I see fear and anger.
A typical client consultation will include this statement: “I/we have never done this (divorce) before.” For the unwilling spouse, whose world has been rocked, a commitment to a lifetime of marriage is on the verge of dissolving. For both spouses, there is often an underlying current of uncertainty. The uncertainty about living on their own, questions about future resources, and concerns about parental roles and access can create a deep sense of fear.
The spouse who “did not sign up for this divorce” often expresses anger. Even when there is acceptance of the inevitable, there is often a deeply held grudge.
Yet, on another level, it’s clear that anger is a part of the process and to be expected during such a major life transition as divorce. In fact, anger is a manifestation of underlying uncertainty and fear.
Most of my clients who come into mediation or collaborative divorce feeling angry or afraid seem less consumed by these emotions at the end of the process. While the passage of time may be a factor, to a larger extent the mediation or collaborative divorce process gives the couple the ability to come to their own shared decisions on parenting, division of assets and debts, and financial support. This clears the fog of uncertainty regarding these key elements.
As the uncertainty about the future is reduced, there is less reason to be afraid. If there is less reason to be afraid, one of the underlying causes for anger is neutralized. By recognizing that fear and anger are “kissing cousins,” we can use the mediation process to help open a dialogue and move through these feelings into a more certain future.
The divorce mediation process creates a special opportunity to provide couples with information that will facilitate their decision making.
Couples often come with limited knowledge regarding specific topics under discussion. More often than not, I hear my clients say, “We’ve never done this before (get divorced), so we need help to understand the steps we need to take to end our marriage.” Fortunately for them, the mediation process offers a classroom to facilitate the beginning of a transformation from uncertain and under-informed to informed and confident as a decision maker.
Becoming fully informed can be especially critical for divorce mediation clients who choose not to utilize consulting attorneys before or during the mediation process.
In a consultation, I explain that there are at least two ingredients to making informed decisions:
Mediators are often asked questions related to fact or process, like mortgage refinancing. More importantly, many questions are an invitation for the mediator to explore the reason for the question as a means of a client’s coming to a better understanding of her/his priorities and needs.
For example, when a client asks about whether a child support agreement can be modified at a later date, it offers me a chance to explore what the parent’s concerns may be about future financial arrangements for the children.
The mediation “classroom” promotes discussion of the resources available to assist a couple in making informed decisions. This can include written resources, Internet resources, or professionals in specific fields whose expertise is needed for a more complex matter beyond the skill-set of the mediator. Sometimes, specific information will be needed from a specific source, like the current mortgage lender or retirement plan administrator. During mediation, we can frame the questions to be asked so that the appropriate information can be acquired and reported back at the next mediation session.
Our classroom is also used to promote brainstorming of ideas where we learn from each other about the possibilities coming forward from within ourselves. When asked, I will use this opportunity to share ideas that other couples I’ve worked with found useful to resolve a particular issue, and encourage the couple to develop their own list of options that may work best for them.
As a mediator I take on numerous roles, acting not only as a neutral who helps couples plan for their futures apart, but also as educator to give clients the information they need to be able to make decisions they can be comfortable with.
As a mediator, I am trained to be self-aware, to understand how I may be affected by what I see or hear in my work.
This same kind of self-awareness is extremely helpful for divorcing spouses in mediation so they may focus and communicate effectively, which in turn can help them in making important decisions affecting their futures.
Relationships are filled with history—in a marriage that is ending, this usually includes repeated episodes of individual behavior or words said to or about each other that create tension.
These words or behaviors are typically described as “triggers.” They’re reminders of things that affect us negatively, causing us to react inappropriately and lose focus and control of ourselves when that focus is most needed.
In collaborative divorce cases, and in some mediation cases, I meet separately with each spouse to understand their needs, interests and expectations. We will usually discuss triggers for both of them, so that we are both aware of them. Making a list of triggers, even possible ones, is a good way to support awareness and increase one’s emotional preparedness.
Since mediation and collaborative divorce are designed to be transparent processes, sharing concerns about triggering words and behavior with the other spouse can also help. It’s so easy to be unaware of how one’s words or behavior can affect others.
During a mediation session, it’s still likely that triggering words or behavior will occur. Knowing what works best to reduce stress in the moment is essential. It could be as simple as deep breathing, taking a break, or having a safe phrase to repeat to oneself silently.
An important goal for the mediation process is for participants to be at their best under challenging circumstances. Being aware of our triggers and having a game plan to manage them is a big step forward in achieving this goal.
I am very sensitive to the fact that the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak is disturbing and is creating significant disruptions in all our lives. In the midst of a very challenging situation, I want my clients to know that I am taking your safety extremely seriously. All appropriate measures for cleaning and disinfecting my conference room are happening before each client meeting. And there is very light foot traffic at my offices.
However, if you feel more comfortable meeting via video conference, I can offer that as well, using a video platform known as Zoom. It is user friendly, and couples can participate from different locations in a group video conference or from the same location. Video conferencing has been an option I’ve provided for clients for many years. We can meet face-to-face or remotely, whatever best accommodates your needs.
May you all be safe and well.
We can all look back on stressful times in our lives and feel pangs of regret for our own poor behavior. Who hasn’t wanted to take back words and acts that have been hurtful to others? We can make choices that turn out to be unwise. We are left with the consequences of our decisions.
The process of separation and divorce can be stressful, and that can impact decision-making skills.
Many divorcing spouses don’t recognize the level of stress they themselves are under during the divorce process. They may not even realize how they were affected until much later. Most are not thinking as wisely as they usually do. In addition, the overwhelming majority of people believe they ARE thinking wisely, when, in fact, after the dust has settled, they know they could have made better choices.
As a mediator, I am trained to help clients recognize needs and interests that may be obscured by emotion and avoid stress-based decisions.
Consider these “danger areas”:
When the stress of divorce is combined with the shock and numbness that lead to irrational decision making, things can backfire with long-term and even life-long negative consequences.
The mediation process acknowledges the presence of emotion within the participants and in their conversation. In mediation I help my clients look within themselves to find the needs and interests that are being held in the emotions of the moment.
While other processes, like litigating a divorce, may throw fuel on the emotional fires of a client’s heart, mediators can use empathy and understanding to assist emotional clients in navigating gently through a difficult transition. With a mediator’s eye on maintaining focus and purpose, I strive for a more positive outcome through honest dialogue rather than a negative backlash from emotionally impacted behavior and speech.
The start of winter is defined by more darkness than light. So can be the emotional weather of those experiencing separation and divorce. Like the proverbial winter, sadness, uncertainty, fear and anger represent the dark emotions.
Yet as the New Year turns the corner to the end of January, we notice the light of each day is with us a little bit longer. The brightness of morning comes earlier, and nighttime is later.
In the same way, the transition through separation and divorce can be a light to a new chapter in life. The challenge of sadness can be the light that transforms into the opportunity for freedom from a marriage that did not work at its core.
Mediation as a process is the chance for planning to overcome uncertainty and assist both spouses to define future realities. Each decision made by a couple is a building block in their new separate roads, while maintaining connections that may be defined, such as parenting. While some spouses see the end of a marriage as the end of a personal relationship, others strive to remain connected personally, even beyond a lifetime parental relationship.
In the mediation process, the possibilities are defined by the two spouses who are deciding their futures with the help of a neutral who offers a safe and respectful space for exploration and planning.
Just as each day of winter is taking us to the light and promise of spring, my desire is to bring more light and hope to clients who are seeking to come out of darkness. This happens one conversation at a time, one decision at a time.