In our house, we keep a shopping list for the next person who goes out to buy groceries. I’m not the best at putting things on that list, and so when my wife has returned from shopping and something I needed wasn’t purchased, I have only myself to blame—how could I expect her to read my mind about something I wanted?
When I am meeting with clients in divorce mediation, I encourage them to make their own list of personal needs as they plan their futures. More importantly, I urge each to be certain to speak up about any specific request that will require a spouse’s agreement.
When divorce mediation ends, a legally binding document spelling out all agreements on parenting, division of property, child support, spousal support and related financial issues will be prepared and signed. This is a final agreement. It can only be changed if both agree to do so, which may or may not happen, depending on how each feels about the proposed change.
Don’t be the person who forgot to ask. Your spouse is probably not a mind reader, and neither is your mediator.
I want my clients to get it right the first time—and part of getting it right is knowing what you want and asking for it. I’m not saying that you’ll always get everything you ask for, but I do know that you probably won’t get anything that you don’t ask for.
Don’t be the person who forgot to ask. Your spouse is probably not a mind reader, and neither is your mediator.
Here are some examples of needs you may want to include on your personal list:
I am a family and divorce mediator. I also play tennis. In fact, I play a lot of tennis—three to four times a week (when not sheltered at home).
So why would I write about tennis and mediation in the same article?
The answer is simple—playing tennis and participating in the divorce mediation process require similar skills.
1. Focus Under Stress
A good tennis player maintains concentration in the face of physical stress—running down an opponent’s good shot, returning a blazing fast serve. This requires immense concentration.
Your ability to focus will allow for the best possible decisions to guide your future.
In divorce mediation, under the emotional stress of a life in transition, your ability to focus will allow you to make the best possible decisions for your future. A skilled divorce mediator creates a safe space to promote concentration and focus.
2. Confidence and Control
The best tennis players are able to play with confidence and control their minds to achieve the concentration and focus that are necessary to win matches. As an intermediate player, when things aren’t going my way, it’s easy to lose confidence, and I often can feel the match getting away from me.
In divorce mediation, it is easy to be distracted by uncertainty, fear, anger and sadness. As a divorce mediator, I strive to bring a positive attitude and energy to share with my clients to help them feel as comfortable as possible. I aim to promote their self-confidence and belief in themselves, thereby fostering their ability to process information and make appropriate decisions.
After two hours of tennis, win or lose, I look back on the time I’ve spent and feel rewarded by the exercise I’ve completed and my efforts to do my best. I am filled with a sense of calm and relaxation. At the same time, I’m aware of how dripping wet I am from the hard work of running all over the tennis court!
In divorce mediation, you get to feel the accomplishment of having participated in creating a plan for your future, a future that you and your spouse have decided for yourselves. You have transformed uncertainty into a clearer picture of what lies ahead. And like a tennis player finishing a match, you’re likely to be tired, because after all, it was hard work!
One last thought: in my best tennis matches, I’ve felt that I’ve worked harder than my opponent. In most successful divorce mediations, my clients have worked harder than I, since it is their lives and futures that are at stake.
Any divorce mediator or collaborative divorce professional who says that he or she is able to bring every case to a complete resolution is either dreaming or misrepresenting a performance record. The process is not perfect, and you have to expect bumps along the road. It’s extremely important not to give up hope. If every couple that felt their case was hopeless in any moment then chose to end mediation or collaboration, there would be a much lower rate of resolution. And there would be a lot more dissatisfied and frustrated clients.
As a mediator, when I hear the word “hopeless”, I think instead of the word “hope.” I remain hopeful that I can keep my clients engaged in a conversation that will help them to make mutually acceptable decisions.
Couples begin the mediation (or collaborative) process as their marriages are ending. Emotions are often running high. Just as one or both are thinking about how they were unsuccessful in marriage, they also may be convinced that they will be unsuccessful in coming to agreement on the decisions required to end their marriage and get on with their lives. Many choose to use lawyers to resolve these issues on their behalf rather than engage each other in conversation.
In several recent cases, my mediation clients were skeptical about being able to come to a full agreement, and, in at least one session, each couple thought their situation hopeless. And yet, in all of these cases, the clients succeeded in overcoming the challenges and reaching an agreement.
When faced with a difficult issue, many clients lose sight of the fact that they may have already made terrific progress on many other issues.
The divorce mediation process involves many decisions covering a range of topics. In some cases, agreement may seem elusive. When faced with a difficult issue, many clients lose sight of the fact that they may have already
]made terrific progress on many other issues. Or they may have narrowed their differences so that they have come closer to reaching agreement. In either case, I’ll be the first one to point out their accomplishments. I am not only a cheerleader for the mediation process itself, I am also cheering for the families in the process.
Here are some tips for seeing hope when feeling hopeless:
The end of a marriage and the underlying uncertainty and challenge to make agreements can lead to feelings of hopelessness. Yet, using divorce mediation or the collaborative divorce process may very well give you the best chance to overcome hopelessness and create hope for moving forward.
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.