Healthy Divorce is a Common Goal
Professional family Mediators and therapists have several fundamental goals in common: to foster better communication and understanding between family members, to create a more functional family environment, and of course, to help solve problems. While spouses work toward reconciliation with the help of a couple’s therapist, family Mediators guide couples through the healthiest divorce possible when reconciliation proves to be impossible. Their objectives may differ, but the core techniques used by Mediators and therapists to achieve those objectives are virtually the same.
Behavioral Therapy examining past patterns to help initiate change, to eliminate or develop behaviors, to positively affect relationships. Mediation aims to improve communication and create an environment that facilitates better understanding, so that mutual agreements can be reached. Adherence to these agreements then leads to behavioral changes between the spouses.
Put simply, therapists work to uncover and address existing behavioral issues within marital dynamics, while Mediators work to uncover each spouse’s interests to best address and help resolve the immediate problems which are hindering the couple’s divorce. While these objectives are different, therapists and professional Mediators use several of the same techniques and strategies to meet their objectives.
People often ask me: “When spouses are worlds apart on an issue, how do you help them suddenly reach an agreement that they each support?” The answer is simple: “the magic of mediation” While it is obviously not real magic, it can certainly feel like it. The honest answer is “through utilization of the following techniques and some keen judgment, a professional Mediator creates the space necessary for spouses, even those with high levels of conflict, to develop and find agreements.”
It is essential that the Mediator establish that the problems the spouses are facing are normal and resolvable. First, the Mediator acknowledges their feelings regarding past behaviors and actions, and then assures them that while those feelings may seem totally unique and impossible to work through, they are actually quite common and do not have to serve as a roadblock to reaching agreements.
By simply informing the clients that whatever may be the cause of their anxiety or conflict it is not unusual, the Mediator immediately lowers their stress as they trust that the Mediator has dealt with similar issues.
Clients often feel hopeless and fear that their mediation has no chance of success given their level of conflict and the complicated issues they are facing. A Mediator who senses this may state plainly to the clients: “I sense there is conflict here. You two wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t. In all my years of mediating divorces, I have never sat across from clients who didn’t have something they fought about. But conflict between you does not mean you aren’t able to reach thoughtful, mutually-beneficial agreements regarding your children. Your mediation can be a success regardless of the conflict that has happened in the past.”
Acknowledging that the difficult feelings the spouses are experiencing are common brings them a great deal of comfort and reduces feelings of loneliness. The Mediator provides reassurance that everyone coming to mediation has similar feelings and levels of conflict, and the vast majority of them reach agreements. Just those few sentences from the Mediator, can diffuse stress and renew the client’s confidence in their ability to be successful in mediation.
Normalizing specific circumstances can help avoid an explosion of conflict. The last thing any Mediator wants is for the divorce to become a war. Therapists are also interested in preventing battles, and thus also seek to normalize specific circumstances which are often related to how the spouse’s children are behaving in response to the divorce.
Such an issue usually plays out like this:
Dad: The kids just aren’t ready to stay the night at Mom’s house. Whenever I drop them off, they always cry and say they don’t want to go, and they even refuse to get out of the car. They clearly want to stay with me.
Mom: Okay, but once they are in the house and hanging out with me, they never want to leave! I’m telling you, the other day, they said, “Mommy, can we please stay with you a little longer? We don’t want to leave already.”
Dad: Oh, come on. That’s not true! They want to be with me.
Mom: Oh yeah? Fine, let’s ask them! Then we’ll see who they would really rather be with.
Although it may appear that spouses are spiraling toward destroying their chances for a healthy divorce, this is a rather common interaction in mediation. This scenario can be diffused with a brief lesson on thoroughly researched child coping behaviors provided by the Mediator. Learning how common it is for children to exhibit seemingly contradictory behaviors during the divorce process helps lower conflict in the moment and going forward.
Children often try to protect each parent’s self-esteem by comforting them through the toughest times of the divorce. While the children do feel love and empathy for their parents, this is typically prompted by fears of emotional abandonment. A child will try to boost and protect the self-esteem of a parent so that the parent continues to love and value the child.
Hence, a child may tell Dad that they want to live with him, but then turn around and tell Mom they want to live with her. While this is a very standard coping mechanism exhibited by children during divorce, it can be confusing and worrisome for parents. Awful child custody battles often rage on in court due to each parent mistakenly believing that the children desperately want to only live with them.
When a child mistakenly believes it is impossible to love both parents, if they no longer love each other, they may engage in behaviors to prove their loyalty. The child may sacrifice their relationship with one parent in an attempt to prove their loyalty to the other. The childlike reasoning ability tells them that if Dad is angry at Mom because Mom hurt Dad, Dad will be mad at me too if I want to be with Mom half the time?
Worried they risk losing both parents if they maintain their love and need for each of them, a child may subconsciously elect to cut one parent off and side entirely with the other. When the adults misunderstand the child’s intense behavior, they may begin to fight for full custody which may lead to a long and painful court battle.
It is important for parents to know that many children exhibit separation distress when they are being exchanged between parents. A child may scream, cry, or refuse to leave a parent, signifying an emotional loss suffered by leaving the parent. This may appear to Mom as evidence that the child does not want to spend any time with Dad, while a frustrated Dad may wrongly assume that the behavior is a result of Mom putting him down and working to turn the child against him. These false beliefs lead the parents to demand more parenting time and sometimes fight for sole custody.
Some modest normalization of these typical child coping behaviors can have an enormous impact on parents and on their divorce process. In mediation, parents are directed away from blaming each other and toward collaborative problem solving.
In order to help spouses recognize common interests, a Mediator may use a technique called mutualizing. By framing or reframing statements in a way that highlights the interests that prompted them, spouses may appreciate their mutually shared interests and find it easier to reach agreements.
While on the surface Mom’s and Dad’s positions on an issue may seem very far apart, the Mediator can mutualize, showing them their shared interest in reaching an agreement.
Dad: The kids need their Father!
Mom: No, what they need is their Mother!
Mediator: I’d assume that the children need and love both of their parents.
When first discussing parenting time, many parents struggle to find common ground.
Let’s imagine a scenario where:
Mom would like a 2-2-5-5 schedule, with Dad having parenting time on Mondays and Tuesdays, Mom having parenting time on Wednesday and Thursdays, and the two alternating the weekends.
Dad, on the other hand, would prefer a “1-week on, 1-week off” parenting time schedule.
How can the Mediator mutualize the stances to show the parents where they agree?
Mediator: Dad, is spending the entire weekend with the children, rather than splitting the weekend parenting time with Mom, important to you?
Mediator: Mom, isn’t spending the full weekend with the kids also important to you?
Mediator: Good, so a full weekend with the children is important to you both. Got it.
Mutualizing the issue helps the parents see that while they may feel nowhere near an agreement, each of their proposals has something in common: they share a mutual interest. Psychologically and substantively, this small shared interest may bring them to an agreement.
The hope is that as shared interests are uncovered, the agreements start to snowball. As the Mediator continues to dig into what each parent thinks is important for the parenting plan, more and more shared interests—predictability, limited physical exchanges, etc.—are revealed.
A brief discussion which brings to light the parent’s mutual interests makes for an easier and more efficient path to full agreements. By beginning the formation of their parenting plan focused on the interests they share, the Mediator has laid the groundwork for a successful mediation.
Another technique for focusing the conversation is summarizing, where the Mediator identifies issues upon which the spouses agree, and then describes where they may be close to agreement, and where they may not exactly agree. Spouses get a feeling of accomplishment when they hear and understand how far they have come in the process, while concentrating on the issues where they still have disagreement, rather than on each other. Spouses can become lost and overwhelmed by the mountain of issues to cover in mediation. Summarizing helps keep the process in perspective while also providing the Mediator the opportunity to ensure understanding of the agreements.
Let’s imagine a scenario where:
Dad says he wants parenting time every Sunday and Monday. Mom says that’s fine, so long as she can bring the children to church with her every Sunday morning. Dad sighs and rolls his eyes and Mom quickly snaps back.
Strategically, the Mediator then takes a moment to summarize by stating, “From what I’m hearing, Mom and Dad, you each agree that Dad can have Monday parenting time and at least some Sunday parenting time, but we still need to find an agreement on exceptions to the daily parenting time schedule, like church and extracurricular activities..”
Summarizing inherently involves the technique of “reframing,” where the Mediator or therapist reflects the essence of the speaker’s message back to them but in the professional’s own words. The professional’s reframing should accurately mirror the emotion and content of the original message, but also be strategically filtered in a way that better enables the other spouse to hear and understand.
Reframing demonstrates that the Mediator has been listening carefully and properly understood what the spouse meant to communicate. It helps reduce conflict and confusion by focusing on the true meaning of the message. Given how beneficial effective reframing can be for the quality of the process, Mediators are always attempting to reframe—sometimes sentence by sentence—to keep the process moving forward.
Husband: (Wife also present) Giving her alimony is so messed up. It doesn’t feel fair. I didn’t even want this divorce and now I’m paying for it! For our entire marriage, while she stayed home with the kids, I worked like crazy to provide for them. Arrgh!
Mediator: What I think I’m hearing from you is that spousal support is going to be a challenging issue. While it frustrates you, you understand that since Wife worked for many years inside the home, some spousal support is likely necessary so that you each can be financially stable after your divorce.
Husband: Yeah, I guess so.
Although they basically said the same thing, Husband and Mediator differed greatly in their delivery. The Mediator’s reframing both tested a hypothesis about the essence of Husband’s message and packaged it in a way that was far more workable to the progressing conversation. Husband felt understood, both emotionally and substantively, and his subtle acknowledgement that spousal support will be paid to some degree is addressed more directly by the Mediator to reinforce a foundation for a future discussion on that issue.
The Mediator’s reframing, before the Wife jumped in, eliminated her need to defensively respond, as she was able to understand Husband’s message to mean he was not refusing to pay spousal support. The Mediator’s reframing of her contributions to the family as “working inside the home” restores her dignity and helps balance the power dynamic. Also, the Mediator’s summary mutualized how important it is for each spouse to be financially stable following the divorce.
Additional normalizing throughout the process can build trust and confidence that the issue is solvable:
Mediator: Alright, to be blunt—spousal support is typically a sensitive topic. I can’t remember a single spouse who felt totally comfortable discussing it. Support has parts to it that both the payer and recipient aren’t a fan of. The reality is that the well-being of your children depends on you both being financially stable, so let’s acknowledge that and try to navigate through this uncomfortable conversation for their sake.
Reframing involves calculated decisions about how to filter or reword each communication. The speaker needs to feel heard, while the other spouse needs to understand the message in a way that helps them feel comfortable responding. While the Mediator may focus on communicating what information they believe to be important to the conversation, they must be careful not to omit or change what was said in a way that twists the message’s true meaning. Defining a mutual problem helps the Mediator guide the spouses toward a mutual agreement. Therapists must also artfully reframe communications to improve complicated family systems.
Family Mediators and Therapists not only share many techniques used in helping their clients communicate more effectively, but also share a common goal for their clients: to give them hope.
While Therapists give their clients hope that their marriage may be salvaged, Mediators provide hope to their clients that they can be effective co-parents and secure single individuals. Together, these professionals each support healthy outcomes for families.