During this cooperative, problem-solving process, an impartial professional — or a team in some cases — helps divorcing couples to clearly define the issues in dispute and to reach agreements that are in the family’s best interests.
In my experience, mediation is clearly a better way to go than the adversarial route for most people seeking a separation or divorce. I co-mediate with attorney Jill Sanders-De Mott, JD, and we have had very positive results doing team mediation. I have seen couples who started out in such a contemptuous manner that I never imagined they could mediate. Much to my (and their) surprise, if they persevered, kept chipping away at their differences, then their acrimony began to diminish. With their willingness to keep trying, and our help, they eventually completed their agreement successfully. Had they gone the adversarial route, I can only imagine what would have happened, but I’d guess they would have been in litigation for years.
Mediation is a voluntary settlement process giving you the opportunity to control the decisions that will affect your future. In mediation, you deal with the problems and issues of separation and divorce outside of a courtroom setting. As a result, mediation is often less costly — both financially and emotionally — than litigation.
“The biggest advantage of mediation is that it shelters and protects couples — and their children, if any — from the harmful effects of an adversarial divorce,” says Barbara Badolato, a Certified Social Worker (CSW) and the president of the New York State Council on Divorce Mediation. “You’re more likely to reach an Ôemotional divorce’ through mediation than a traditionally litigated divorce, because the mediation process doesn’t encourage polarization,” she continues. “Some people carry scars forever after an adversarial divorce.” One couple Jill and I mediated came to us after their divorce. They decided they had had quite enough dealings with the courts, and wanted to handle their lingering differences regarding parenting arrangements privately. Previously, they had only communicated through their lawyers, and rarely spoke directly to one another. By focusing on improved use of language (non-derogatory) and by coming up with creative solutions, we were able to help them settle their differences around visitation and child support in just two sessions.
How long does divorce mediation take?
Usually, divorce mediation takes about three to eight sessions to complete, with each session lasting about two hours. We have completed mediations in as little as one session, but this is unusual. In one instance, the couple’s children were grown, and they had already resolved most of their issues before they came to us. However, they were really stuck on a certain issue, but were able to work it out in just one mediation session.
At the other end of the spectrum, we mediated another couple who required more than ten sessions to resolve their differences. They wanted a very detailed and specific parenting plan, and hammering out an arrangement that left no stones unturned was really important to them. With our help and guidance, they created their parenting plan, and so it’s one they can both live with — as opposed to an agreement imposed upon them by the courts, which they would both have resented hugely. I’m confident that their arrangement — and the communication skills they learned while creating it — will serve them and their children well in the future.
Focus on the future
By helping a couple to focus on the issues to resolve for the future, as opposed to dwelling on their differences from the past, we find we can get a lot accomplished in a relatively short period of time. This is especially important when children are involved, as ongoing communication and cooperation between the parents is so important for the children’s well-being.
One of the principles of divorce mediation we strive to achieve is to help couples separate their spousal role, which is ending, from their parenting role, which is continuing. We often see couples in session “light up” when we ask them about their children. They may have many differences, but I have yet to hear anyone say he or she wanted anything less than the best for his or her child. If they have children, we remind couples of this common goal they share, which helps to keep them committed to the task of designing their custody arrangement and parenting plan.
Mediation isn’t magic of course, and not every mediation we start reaches fruition. However, most do, and even I am pleasantly surprised at times to see how well it can work. I am delighted to see mediation really catching on. I gain a sense of personal satisfaction through helping couples who have decided to separate to do so in a less stressful and more productive manner than slugging it out in the adversarial system.
Alan L. Frankel (CSW, BCD) is a psychotherapist and divorce mediator specializing in helping couples and families face the challenges of divorce. He is in private practice at Mt. Kisco, NY.