I love my job. When I tell people what I do for a living many express concern about how difficult it must be to work with families in conflict. I don’t see it that way. Divorce mediation can be challenging, especially when it involves children, but I have also been excited, inspired and/or moved by the experience. Just because it can be intense doesn’t mean it has to be difficult.
Families are complex systems that require an inordinate amount of attention and care to keep them functioning at an optimum level. When I meet clients who are separating, I often see a family system that is overwhelmed and the people within the system have lost sight of where to direct their care and attention and how to get the system back to a somewhat functional level.
As a mediator, let me share a few tips that I have found helpful over the years.
- To go fast is to go slow. Spouses don’t always move through the emotional stages of divorce at the same pace. I usually get a sense in my first phone call with individuals at what stage they are at in their journey through the process of the separation/divorce. Couples are seldom at the same stage. More often than not, one of the parties has ‘checked out’ of the relationship long before talk of the relationship ending has been initiated. By the time the initiator contacts me, that person is looking for a speedy outcome. Meanwhile, the responder is still trying to make sense of how they got here. I caution people that to go fast is often counter-productive. Rushing to engage in a process when one of the parties hasn’t had the time to come to terms with the emotional realities of the situation is not helpful. The more the initiator pushes for settlement, the more the responder resists under the pressure. The resisters aren’t necessarily trying to be difficult; they are more likely trying to catch up. Being at different stages is an obstacle to making good decisions and, in turn, to making progress. Resistance can range from emotional distancing to outright warfare, neither of which is conducive to negotiating a settlement in good faith. It I notice the difference in stages during my initial conversations or at anytime during the process, we may need to hold off or take a break from mediation especially if it’s getting in the way of making progress. I often recommend relationship coaching or individual therapy to ensure that both parties are accepting the realities of their situation, are able to come to the table and are at their best.
- Reduce some of the anxiety. It is common that both spouses feel anxiety (some more acutely than others) throughout the complex process of divorce. For most of my clients, this is the first time they are going through it and making sure that they have as much information ahead of time, but not so much that it becomes overwhelming, is important. I have a basic information sheet that I provide to them after the initial contact that outlines the things that they should be thinking about and questions that may be asked at the initial individual meeting. I use that first meeting to build rapport and educate the individuals to seek out the resources (i.e. accountants, lawyers, counselors, etc.) they will need to make informed decisions in the joint negotiations with their partners. Once the parties have a common understanding of their rights and obligations, it increases the likelihood that they will have the confidence to negotiate an agreement that they deem to be fair and equitable.
- Leave room for emotions. From my perspective, trying to mediate in separation/divorce situations without exploring emotional factors limits the parties’ abilities to work through impasses. It is often the emotional, not the substantive/legal issues that help bring spouses to resolution. People want to feel heard and understood and if emotions are stifled or discouraged, the process can quickly stall out. As a mediator, I have to recognize the emotion, acknowledge it and be ready to deal with whatever the parties present. I’d much rather help the parties work through and express their emotions than let them ‘become’ their emotions.
For most people, divorce can be tremendously stressful, chaotic, disruptive and scary. With appropriate care and attention, mediators can play a significant role in helping couples navigate the process of divorce and to get the re-organized system back on track.
Did I tell you that I love my job?!