The Decision to Divorce: Use a Counselor or a Mediator?
As a family mediator specializing in divorce, I have had many clients who contact me for help with the decision to divorce or separate. Why do people seek help from a mediator with this divorce decision instead of a therapist or counselor? Clients contact mediators for three primary reasons:
1. You have had negative experiences or assumptions about couple’s counselors,
2. You are concerned a counselor or therapist will persuade them to remain married with consistent long term counseling
3. You are uncertain about the decision yet also want to explore what divorce would look like.
Many counselors and mediators feel strongly that this decision is better left to marriage therapists. Yet, in the words of one of my clients, “If we stick together we will need a therapist – each of us has a lot of growth to do, but we just need help right now making the decision.”
I have also had clients who had met with other family mediators, and did not receive help with their marriage dissolution decision. The mediators told the clients “When you are ready to start the divorce, give me a call.” Yet, mediators assist people every day in making difficult, financially significant life-altering decisions; why would the decision to divorce be any different?
A Mediator’s Role in the Decision to Divorce
The mediator’s role is supporting a couple with the divorce decision is similar to the mediators role with any disputed decision:
· Explore and help you each clarify and understand each others underlying fears, motivations, and needs (interests) for both getting divorced and remaining married.
· Help you assess the pros and cons of each option, including how to minimize the downside and maximize the upside of each option.
· Once the underlying needs/goals are clear, assist you in “expanding the pie”; brainstorm new creative ideas for the structure of your relationship.
· Encourage you to consider the impacts your decisions might have on others, your finances, your physical, mental and emotional health.
· Assist you in establishing a clear criteria, timeline, steps and process for making the decision.
By establishing mutual understanding and ownership over the decision, couples have more ease, focus and confidence with either the divorce or the work of re-committing to the marriage.
Assessing and Resolving Ambivalence in the Decision to Divorce
Nearly every decision we make in life has some amount of ambivalence, some inner conflict between our motivations for and against a particular outcome. A common mediator mistake is to overlook these subtle signs of ambivalence and fail to “reality test” the consequences of a decision. With the decision to divorce, assessing and helping parties resolve their ambivalence is an especially crucial.
A surprisingly large amount of people get married because they are too afraid to pull the plug. Similarly, a significant amount of people finalize their divorce because they are embarrassed to change their mind. They have already invested in the story of their partners’ fault, a particular unmet demand, or telling their family and friends that the marriage must end. Therefore, I find it helpful to think of a divorce decision as three mediations in one, which includes mediating between the voices of inner conflict within each spouse.
Here are some ways I test or observe the degree of ambivalence with mediation clients:
- During a normal divorce mediation intake, I ask you each separately: “Between 0%-100%, how certain are you about ending the marriage? Have you done everything you can? What part of getting divorce might you regret?”
- If I am mediating the decision to divorce, I might ask you each separately: “What % of you is leaning towards divorce and what % is leaning towards working on your marriage? What is a piece of your truth that are you reluctant to tell the other party, for fear of how they will react?”
- During and between sessions I notice and sometimes inquire about the practical signs of ambivalence. Are you each actively making, negotiating and accepting proposals? Are you scheduling and punctually showing up to meetings? Are you completing the agreed upon tasks or next steps?
I believe that this function of assessing and supporting you in resolving their internal ambivalence is not only an important task, but the professional responsibility of a divorce mediator.
Ambivalence During the Divorce Process
This ambivalence continues during the divorce process. I like to directly acknowledge and normalizing the differences in difficulty between the spouse who initiated the divorce and the spouse who is merely accepting it. Often each of you are in different stages of the grieving and acceptance process. Directly naming this can go help dissolve the resistance (in the form of excess struggles around parenting and financial decisions) of the spouse who would not have chosen and does not want the divorce.