“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.