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This article was written by Eileen Coen, an attorney/mediator located in Bethesda, Maryland.
One of the first questions I ask my clients is “Has there been a decision to divorce?” I ask because couples seek help at various stages of their marriage crisis. Sometimes both people are quite sure they’re ready for divorce. Often, only one person is.
And sometimes, neither party is sure they want a divorce, but they do know their marriage is in crisis. In that case, I will ask them if they have any interest in trying to repair their marriage if it were possible. Sometimes people say “yes!”
How can mediation help in those instances when couples want help restoring their marriage? What is the difference between mediation and therapy in that case?
Distinguish from therapy
While both marriage counseling and mediation may help couples open their lines of communication and improve interactions, there are some distinct differences. Couples therapists generally employ psychotherapy to diagnose personality and relationship dysfunction and to establish new patterns of behavior to revive the marriage.
In contrast, mediators help couples resolve disputes and solve specific problems. They are forward-focused and do not analyze the past. A mediated conversation can guide couples to find shared values and devise helpful guidelines to make their family life run more smoothly.
For example, a mediator may assist a couple to identify and resolve disagreements and misunderstandings around finances, parenting and division of labor. Mediation can effectively engage most family conflicts, including questions of career changes, school choices, how to cope with a child’s special needs, and how to manage extended families, in-laws and stepfamilies. Often, finding effective ways to negotiate these issues paves a way forward in their relationship.
Usually, mediation results in a written agreement or post-nuptial agreement.
Sometimes, couples determine that they would benefit from the help of other professionals in conjunction with mediation. As a mediator, my resource database is an invaluable tool for referrals to therapists, child specialists or other professionals who can offer specialized assistance.
Can the marriage be revived or is divorce more appropriate?
Mediation offers a structure for having the difficult conversation about whether and how a couple might be willing to reconcile. For example, the pair may explore whether they want to try to renew their marriage after an infidelity, or how to come to terms with a partner’s substance use or physical or mental disabilities.
If a couple is uncertain about divorce, these are the kinds of questions I might ask:
- Under what circumstances could you imagine trying to restore your marriage?
- What might make you feel hopeful about your marriage?
- If you believed it was possible to resolve your concerns, would that make a difference?
- What things do you think are likely to improve with a separation? What likely challenges do you foresee?
- What might you be willing to try in order to get clarity about your marriage? – couples therapy or intensive therapeutic couples program — or a substance abuse program? Or would you want to engage the services of an appropriate professional – financial, therapeutic, medical, legal, etc…?
When a Separation Makes Sense
A trial separation is often helpful for couples who are uncertain about divorce, providing some space and reprieve from day-to-day conflicts. It also helps to take a look at how things might look if they were to divorce. We then engage in the same mediation process that folks going through divorce go through – exploring options for how to divide assets, manage expenses and schedule time with their children, as well as consulting with an attorney for legal advice along the way. This gives most folks confidence that they will be able to make wiser long-term decisions based on information and experience.
Many of my mediation clients tell me they find the process to be more effective than other interventions they have tried. Sometimes they say it is because they’ve focused on solutions rather than on fault and blame. Sometimes they acknowledge that it’s the first time they have ever effectively had conversations about these topics. Once engaged in the process, people are surprised to find how much they actually can agree upon – regardless of whether they choose to stay together or not.
To contact Eileen, email email@example.com
A book, “No Cheating, No Dying: I had a Good Marriage. Then I tried to Make it Better”, resulted from Elizabeth Weil and her husband, Dan Duane’s work on their marriage, after a full-length article about her seeking for marriage improvement published in The New York Times Magazine on December 6, 2009. Weil and her husband went the rounds — putting techniques from reading into their marriabe, followed up with a psychoanalytic couples’ therapist, who after two sessions, called her husband “neurotic” and deemed their marriage possibly beyond repair.
Then Weil and Duane signed up for a marriage education class, “Mastering the Mysteries of Love”. There were exercises in empathy. For instance, a spouse was ito tell a childhood story and other the spouse was repeat it, mirroring the feelings the story evoked. They then proceed to an Imago therapy workshop where they worked on their families of origin issue. What they experienced was “marriage improvement” fatigue.
It would be nice to know what Elizabeth and Dan’s thoughts of marriage are, now that they are in their second decade.
Laurie Israel, one of the active practitioners of marital mediation (and co-founder of this website) was one of the six debaters asked to participate in the New York Times “Room for Debate” column, which was published in the New York Times on March 22, 2013. The topic was Prenups. The questions asked were: “Should everyone have a prenuptial agreement? Do they really mean anything?” Each of the six debaters wrote a 300 word response. The views on the topic ranged widely. You can access the debate from this link. Laurie’s response notes the problems that prenups generally pose in first marriages. This was Laurie’s response in the debate. Brad Wilcox, of the National Marriage Project located at the University of Virginia also weighed in on the topic.
We just heard about this proposed act. It was formulated by a team of experts. The Parental Divorce Reduction Act requires parents with minor children to attend marriage education classes, and to take an eight month “time out” to consider their decision to divorce.
The Coalition for Divorce Reform is the organization that formulated and is promoting the Parental Divorce Reduction Act. Divorcing couples (with children) would be required to participate in 4- 8 hours of divorce education, providing information on the effects of divorce on children. The classes would also teach “research-based” communication and other relationship skills that help strengthen marriage. The Coalition for Divorce Reform bases this approach on recent studies that find that about one-third of divorcing couples report an interest in reconciliation.
My Mediator is Not an Attorney? Is That a Problem/Martin Rosenfeld
I once participated in a study which involved mediators who were attorneys and mediators who were non-attorneys. The study concluded that the mediator-attorneys tended to view the issue at hand in legal terms while the mediators who were non-attorneys tended to view the issues more in interpersonal terms. Attorneys have different training than do other professionals and hence it is not surprising that their approach to mediation will reflect their specific training and expertise. Is it an advantage to have a mediator who is an attorney? I believe the answer to this question is the following: “that depends!”
With any professional, the most important concern is whether they practice their skill with proficiency and exactitude. A non-attorney mediator who is proficient in mediation theory will outperform the attorney-mediator, and vice-versa. The first question to ask therefore must address mediator competence and professionalism. This can be ascertained by reputation, referrals, examination of their writings, etc.
However, in truth, each mediator “category” brings important strengths to the mediation process. An attorney-mediator will have broad experience in Court procedures and practice. She will know what agreements fall outside the pale of normative behavior. She will have the insights garnered from seeing hearings, motions, trails, etc conducted before experienced judges. She will be aware of legal trends and developments. All these will be of great benefit to the client.
On the other hand, the non-attorney mediator may well have greater insight into the interpersonal dimension, into human behavior and needs, and into non-legal aspects of divorce. Divorce Law is more that legal directives. It involved feelings, emotions, needs, and aspirations. To ignore this aspect of the divorce process is to miss arguably the most important aspect of the divorce process.
There are advantages and disadvantages to different types of mediators. Ultimately, the choice of the mediator is a very personal one based on a comfort level and confidence. Do you feel at ease trusting your mediator with your confidences and vulnerabilities? If you do, all else will likely fall into place. Mediation is a challenging process. Choose the mediator who enables you to maintain the fortitude and conviction to see the process through.
To overlook the legal component of divorce law is to miss the “big picture”. To overlook the interpersonal component is to fail to pay homage to the need of the human to feel safe and directed at a time of potential trauma and hurt. Make your choice after soul-searching and careful deliberation.