“Can mediation work for my divorce?” The answer to that question will vary, depending upon who you are and whom you ask.
When I hear this question as a divorce mediator, I take an optimistic approach— informed by my experience in working with hundreds of couples over the years. I strongly believe that mediation can work in most cases, and I also acknowledge (albeit with regret) that mediation does not work in all cases.
… I invite new clients to meet with me for an initial consultation appointment. This creates an opportunity to discuss realistic expectations before starting mediation itself.
Interestingly enough, most cases that are not well suited for mediation never get started. That is one of the reasons why I invite new clients to meet with me for an initial consultation appointment, at a reduced fee. This creates an opportunity to discuss realistic expectations before starting mediation itself.
A mediator works within his/her own particular process. In my mediation work, I set goals. These goals establish expectations that, if met, can support a successful resolution. If they cannot be met, they create an early warning indicator that mediation may not be the right process.
Goal One: Establish the opportunity for each participant to express her/himself and be heard:
In mediation, I am hosting a conversation with two spouses who are attempting to plan a future apart. Both have a stake in this process, and, therefore, each needs a chance to speak. What one spouse says will not necessarily be agreed upon by the other spouse, but each needs to express personal needs and fully participate. This lays the groundwork for exploring options to meet both sets of needs. That conversation provides the catalyst for envisioning a path forward. If that exchange cannot happen, because one or both are absolutely unwilling to engage each other, then mediation may not be the best course for resolution of the divorce. Others may need to be involved to do the hard work of negotiation and decision-making.
Goal Two: Assure the decisions made by the participants are mutually acceptable:
Whether we are talking about parenting or finances, every decision is important. In mediation, part of my role is to check in with both participants when they are poised to make a decision on a proposal, to make sure that this proposal is something they can fully accept. It is one thing to come into mediation with the idea that a resolution requires a degree of “give and take” based on principles held in good faith. It’s something completely different if coercion and bad faith are present—another clue that other professionals, like attorneys, should be present at the mediation sessions to support the participants, or perhaps a different process may be needed.
I want to emphasize that, fundamentally, for most clients who have engaged my services, mediation has been a good choice. Knowing what is expected to order to participate successfully in mediation can help those who are skeptical to make the best decision for their unique circumstances.
In a recent divorce mediation session, my clients were discussing a real estate matter. After one spouse spoke, the other exclaimed, “This is the first time I’m hearing you say that!”
In that moment, the conversation stalled, while both processed what had been said. They were surprised. But from my perspective, informed by experience, this encounter was quite normal.
The idea that you always know everything that resides in your partner’s mind is idealistic—not typically based in reality—especially when you are on the verge of ending a relationship that is failing as a result of poor communication.
The idea that you always know everything that resides in your partner’s mind is idealistic—not typically based in reality—especially when you are on the verge of ending a relationship that is failing as a result of poor communication (one of many possible reasons for a marriage or relationship to end).
There’s something else to consider. In any marriage, healthy or not, you will evolve in your behavior, your priorities, your values, your needs, your opinions. So will your partner. You don’t stand still. You will change and likely recognize that this is happening, but your spouse (and/or you) may not see it. Acceptance and understanding of change are very important to the health of a marriage, and I would argue that they are just as important when spouses are planning for how to move forward at the end of a relationship.
What I find particularly interesting about these spoken “surprises” is that they are often a catalyst for a process known as “brainstorming,” which is key to the facilitative approach to mediation that I apply in my work. In brainstorming, the participants in a mediation (you and your spouse, in a divorce) will address a topic/issue/problem by offering up any conceivable option for consideration, no matter how far out. This process maximizes the choices available for addressing the matter at hand.
More often than not, a statement by one of you that is surprising to the other opens up possibilities that neither of you may have considered before. This new information can serve as a pathway to further discussion and, in the end, can result in an unanticipated solution.
A surprise in the moment, therefore, can be the first step toward building an agreement for the future.
In many divorces I have mediated, one or both spouses talk about feeling trapped in a marriage.
Perhaps you are feeling that you’ve been unable to pursue an opportunity and have lost ground in your quest for enrichment or fulfillment.
I often wonder how much of what is being experienced by a “trapped” spouse is related to questions about identity. Do you feel that your marriage is preventing you from continuing a journey to be who you want to be, and to be seen by others as the person you truly are?
Unfortunately, when you are not seen by your spouse the way you want to be seen, this can affect self-esteem and create a sense of unhappiness. You turn both inward into yourself and outward into questioning the future of the marriage.
This circumstance may be resolved by the spouses through counseling or other processes that can help save a marriage. And yes, mediation itself can be a very effective way for couples to take a future focus that includes keeping your relationship intact. But if issues are not resolved, the marriage will usually end.
Divorce inevitably involves a sense of loss, pain and, often, other emotions that are associated with uncertainty (fear and anger, to name two).
If you are leaving a marriage out of a sense of being trapped in an unhappy situation, this is an opportunity to consider what to do with the freedom that is associated with not being stuck, at last!
At the same time, if you are leaving a marriage out of a sense of being trapped in an unhappy situation, this is an opportunity to consider what to do with the freedom that is associated with not being stuck, at last! Who is the person you really want to be? How do you want to be seen by others? What will it take in personal terms—whether it be education, job change, new living situation, etc.—to achieve your desired identity?
The end of a chapter may include regret; the beginning of a new chapter can also bring promise and hope. A good starting point in the transition between chapters is to focus on who you are and who you want to be, and then be that person.
In any life-changing experience, the support of friends and close family is not only important—it is cherished. This is especially true in divorce, when you are encountering the emotional upheaval of change, uncertainty, loss—there is so much to process!
This emotional support can serve as a strong foundation to reinforce your self-esteem and provide strength to withstand the challenges faced in creating a new beginning. This is all good, and those who have these resources are blessed.
I often encounter mediation clients whose well-meaning friends and family members cross an imaginary boundary between offering support and offering advice as to how you should proceed in your divorce settlement.
However, I often encounter mediation clients whose well-meaning friends and family members cross an imaginary boundary between offering support and offering advice as to how you should proceed in your divorce settlement.
Mediators encounter this dynamic situation frequently, and it is commonly referred to as the “Greek chorus.” One dictionary has a definition that reads:
“Greek chorus—a group of people who with persistence express especially similar views or feelings about a particular action or series of actions.”
It is one thing to offer support; it is entirely another matter when advice is being offered with a focus on what others have experienced and witnessed in their own lives. I am acutely aware of this distinction. I describe each divorce case I mediate as a “snowflake,” meaning that no two cases are alike. My clients are all different. And in any marriage that is ending, two individuals are involved, so each set of circumstances, while possibly similar in theme, is in fact unique.
Your divorce involves you—not your sister, not your friend, not your co-worker. While contemplating the decisions that will shape future plans, it’s important that the voices you hear be rooted in knowledge, whether it’s the expertise of an attorney, a financial advisor or a therapist. You can depend on these professionals not to base their input on their own divorce, but on the specifics of the circumstances facing you as an individual.
In divorce mediation, my goal is to encourage the one voice that, in my opinion, matters more and carries more weight than any other—that is your voice. You as my client are the only person who will be living in the future with the decisions being made now.
In divorce mediation I encourage divorcing parents to have a conversation about developing shared goals for their children.
From their birth, we want the best for our children and will willingly make sacrifices for them. This is an expression of our commitment to them—giving them the chance to see their dreams come true.
In our own lives, we try to set personal goals. For our children, this can be a more challenging proposition. What is the parental role in imagining goals for our children? Where does our goal setting encroach on a child’s freedom to become his/her own person?
This boundary between parents’ and children’s responsibility to set goals is an issue needing sensitivity and will vary, depending on the clients involved. Regardless, I always encourage you as parents to discuss your shared aspirations for your children.
Imagine that your children, as young adults, are everything you had ever hoped they would be. What words would you use to describe them?
In approaching this conversation, I find it most constructive to keep the focus on a broad, high-level vision of the children’s future. I introduce this discussion by asking one simple question:
“Imagine that your children, as young adults, are everything you had ever hoped they would be. What words would you use to describe them?”
This invites you as parents to share your goals for the kind of person you would like to see your children become. Some words I often hear are “confident,” “curious,” “independent” and “well educated.” There are no wrong answers, and most parents in my mediation practice can usually agree on a shared list.
After we have created this list, I acknowledge that a child’s ability to become the adult who exemplifies these qualities will be partly the responsibility of the child in his/her own process of growing up.
However, I believe that there is also a significant parental role to be played in shaping a child’s character. So I explore this by asking a second question:
“Over the years, from now until your children are adults, what can you as parents do to help them become the persons you described in your envisioning exercise?”
As clients discuss their response to this second question, we begin to establish a shared framework of how parents can work together after a divorce. Living in separate households, there is absolutely still the opportunity to give your children the love, attention, guidance and nurturing that will allow them to envision their own goals, receive your love and support, and climb that ladder to reach for and grab their dreams.
With Father’s Day approaching, I’ve been thinking about my dad, who is no longer with us except for fond memories of his life.
When I was growing up (1960s and early 1970s), most fathers were the primary earners in a family, and ours was no exception. My dad worked long hours, including a difficult commute into New York City from our suburban home.
So our time together was mainly on weekends and vacations. Dad did his best to make weekends fun. As a teenager especially, we played a lot of tennis, a sport we both enjoyed. (I still play with passion, thanks to him.)
I was fortunate. I grew up in a two-parent household where my parents worked together to create a healthy childhood experience for my siblings and me.
The end of a marriage often requires a reevaluation of each parent’s role in the future co-parenting relationship—a relationship that will unfold in two separate households.
In a family that is facing a divorce in current times, circumstances can be much different. Either parent may be the primary earner, and either parent may be the primary caretaker. Or both may work full time, and childcare may be handled with hired assistance (an expense that may not be as possible in the divorced circumstance). The end of a marriage often requires a reevaluation of each parent’s role in the future co-parenting relationship—a relationship that will unfold in two separate households.
In the wake of a divorce, I’ve often heard a parent in mediation question the other spouse’s ability to change his or her way of demonstrating commitment to caring for the children. There is often a built-in (negative) expectation that the other spouse is incapable of change. It’s my feeling that, while it can be true that a spouse may not be willing to change to save a marriage, that same person may respond very differently to the challenge of becoming a co-parent. Parents may “step up,” based on a desire to reinforce love and concern for their children, even as they are choosing to relinquish the commitment to their marriage.
In divorce mediation, we create a parenting plan that defines how children will be cared for, post-divorce. Included in that agreement can be an exploration of how each parent wants to respond to the challenge of change. There is discussion of expectations (each parent’s expectations for the other) and an expression of the willingness of each to meet the other’s needs as they commit to creating an ongoing and successful co-parenting relationship.
On a final note, as I think about my dad and my own experience as a parent (of now-adult children), I realize I feel myself to be as much a parent today as I was when my children were younger. When I grew up and left home, I’m sure my own parents felt the same way. Parenting is a lifetime experience—a joy and a challeng—that involves an evolving job description as both parents and children grow older.
In a recent online discussion among attorneys who are also mediators, this topic was raised: When neither spouse is currently dating or otherwise involved romantically with another person, what protocols will be followed for the children when someone new comes into the picture?
In planning for futures after divorce, mediation clients often struggle with this question. In my own mediation sessions, I encourage clients to explore the following with regard to new romantic relationships and their effect on children:
Based on the collective wisdom and preferences of the parents, making a plan for something that could likely happen in the future will reinforce the foundation of effective co-parenting.
Arguably, it may be difficult to legally enforce any of the protocols agreed to in mediation and incorporated into a parenting plan. However, I endorse the concept that children benefit from a strong co-parenting relationship. Based on the collective wisdom and preferences of the parents, making a plan for something that could likely happen in the future will reinforce the foundation of effective co-parenting.
In the dialogue that followed this question on my online call, what I found to be particularly interesting was how differently professionals viewed the question of how parents should approach this topic.
One mediator (with extensive experience in working with children of divorce) spoke of the divorce establishing an opportunity for children to have an improved individual relationship with each parent. In divorce the parents both have a renewed focus on their children, instead of on their failed marriage. A new significant other could impact this strengthened relationship and may shift the parent’s focus off the children. That shift may in turn affect the child’s opinion of the new person and perhaps create a loyalty conflict for the child, if there is hostility expressed by the other parent.
Another mediator contributed a different viewpoint, from personal experience. While agreeing that there should be some reasonable time period for the new relationship to have gained a suitable level of significance, the mediator spoke of the work done with the other parent. Together they promoted an environment of acceptance of a new significant other by the children. The positive results for this family included a new person to love the children and an enrichment of the family structure.
What effect a new romantic relationship will have after divorce is something that cannot be easily answered, and, certainly, the answer will be unique for each family. The mediation process embraces the particular circumstances of each couple’s transition and poses hard questions with an aim to create a thoughtful approach to future developments.
Marriages end for many reasons. In some cases, the causes are extreme enough (infidelity, dishonesty, abuse) to undermine any sense of respect between spouses. In other situations, the choice to divorce stems from different factors that may not erode respect.
Mediation is intended to be a civil and respectful process. Because the emotions associated with ending a marriage can often trigger disrespectful statements and behaviors during mediation sessions, one of the roles of a professional divorce mediator is to facilitate open and honest dialogue—while at the same time maintaining a safe environment for everyone.
The principle I endorse is that you don’t have to respect someone in order to be respectful. As a mediator, it would be unacceptable for me to require that my clients respect each other. Yet I feel totally comfortable in actively encouraging respectful behavior.
I realize how hard it can be for one or both spouses to feel that they can respect each other, given the circumstances that bring them to divorce. The principle I endorse is that you don’t have to respect someone in order to be respectful. As a mediator, it would be unacceptable for me to require that my clients respect each other. Yet I feel totally comfortable in actively encouraging respectful behavior.
So here are some ways in which you can be respectful in mediation, whether or not you feel respect for your spouse:
Fortunately, many of my clients have ended their marriages but have not stopped having respect for each other. They have just grown apart, or realized that their expectations for each other are no longer in sync. Or perhaps they have lost the basic ability to be happy in their marriage. Regardless of where you lie on the spectrum of respect for one another, consider these suggestions about respectful behavior to help you both as you navigate the transition toward ending your marriage.
What can you do to further the process of reaching agreement before or during divorce mediation? My clients frequently ask me that question.
When you engage my services as a mediator, I have no expectation that you will have discussed any of the aspects of your divorce ahead of time... [But] if you and your spouse have worked out some agreements on your own, that is commendable, as this can often reduce the time we spend in mediation.
When you engage my services as a mediator, I have no expectation that you will have discussed any of the aspects of your divorce ahead of time. Interestingly, you may think you need to have agreements BEFORE you begin mediation. But that is not the case.
On the other hand, if you and your spouse have worked out some agreements on your own, that is commendable, as this can often reduce the time we spend in mediation. Since a goal of our process is informed decision making, I will review your areas of agreement, with the intent of exploring any logistical considerations and confirming that the plans are workable.
While I would not seek to undo anything that you’ve agreed to, decisions that can be implemented successfully and hold up over time are the ones that will usually best meet your expectations. In reviewing what you have come to, together, I may highlight concerns that an attorney or a judge may raise when there are differences between the terms of your agreement and legal guidelines. This applies especially to the financial support of children.
During the mediation process, the intervals between mediation sessions also create an opportunity for you and your spouse to have discussions. Having that time is a key advantage of the process. I’ve been told about attorneys in divorce litigation who create firewalls between their clients. Not so in my process—I encourage an open door for communication, with certain guidelines.
For example, any constructive dialogue that leads to exploring settlement options and weighing the pros and cons can be helpful. At the same time, any hint of conflict should be seen as a warning to press “pause” and resume the conversation with me as mediator. Remember, I am a trained conflict resolution specialist.
You will ultimately be the ones who can best determine your ability to work on your own to either start mediation with a foundation of early agreed upon decisions or further the progress made in mediation by working toward agreements on your own. As long as you see this as an opportunity and not as an obligation, expectations can be met, both in the mediation room and outside it.
This is our dog, (Sir) Winston and our cat, Thundercloud. They are camped out in my home office. Our human children are grown and off on their own, so these guys are the “kids” in the house. And we love them very much (almost as much as our real children).
After all, who doesn’t love their pets?
For years, it seems that the legal system has viewed pets as property, while, in reality, our pets are much more to most of us than possessions.
This is why any divorce mediation I conduct includes a discussion about pets. For years, it seems that the legal system has viewed pets as property, while, in reality, our pets are much more to most of us than possessions. They live and breathe; they require love and attention; they require food, shelter and trips to the veterinarian. Sounds like children to me, except for the clothing and perhaps the attitude (although Thundercloud has more attitude than our kids ever did, combined).
Any conversation about pets is likely to include these questions:
In some states, like Illinois, the ownership of and responsibility for a pet who was adopted or acquired during the marriage can be decided by a court, awarded either solely to one spouse or jointly to both. In making these decisions, the well being of the pet is considered.
Because pets matter, and because they deserve thoughtful planning just like all the other aspects of divorce, mediation creates a neutral setting where these decisions can be discussed, taking into account the needs of the spouses and the needs of the pets.