By Dan Blair, a marriage counselor and family counselor.
Would you say your “soon-to-be-ex” is reasonable? Can you talk to your “ex” about a problem and focus on solutions instead of blame? If so, especially at the earlier stages of divorce, you may be in the minority. Divorce magnifies communication problems in the relationship at the time of divorce due to the perception of threat and stress. Many rely on attorneys, and rightly so, to do their communication.
Divorce mediation, on the other hand, can work hand-in-hand with attorneys. Many times mediation can resolve issues that can be resolved without attorneys. Attorneys are recommended to review all agreements. Divorce mediation focuses on interest-based proposals and counter-proposals; attorneys also focus on protecting and arguing for legal rights. Litigation can be time-consuming and expensive, though may be necessary.
A skilled divorce mediator gives two people the chance to make agreements while the mediator serves as guardian of the communication process. While a mediator does not take sides, make decisions, or advise clients, a divorce mediator does not allow poor communication and problem-solving get in the way of potential agreements. Mediation values confidential self-determination based on full disclosure of all relevant information. Without these elements, one has to resort to the legal system.
How to Communicate
Arguing points and counter-points tend to generate more heat than light. Mediation involves each side stating the facts they believe are true, but debate is limited. Anticipating anger is important in controlling temper.
One or both sides can be exasperated by the other person’s position, and hearing unworkable proposals, but if the goal is not to change the other person’s position, and instead make counter-proposals based on the other’s interests, more solutions are possible. The response to a proposal is either “yes,” “I’ll think about it,” or a counter-proposal. Questions are welcome; personal attacks are not. Self-confidence is needed to reduce defensiveness. Patience is needed for a good outcome.
Other communication rules include “Refrain from blame,” and don’t interrupt, raise your voice, or point fingers. Avoid “You” statements, such as “You always…” or “You never…” Use “I” statements. Ask to take breaks, to feel refreshed or get advice.
Divorce mediation is associated with positive outcomes. It can reduce the negative effects of divorce on children. Children are most affected by parental unhappiness, conflict and anger. Making decisions in the best interest of children is a protective factor from the harm that can come from divorce.
Mediation is also helpful for the participants, and with agreements comes increased satisfaction with the outcome on both sides, compared to litigation alone. Mediation also reduces the chance of returning to court after divorce, and overall cost.
Mediation can be used for all or part of a dispute. Mediation may also be the most flexible way to customize agreements based on your unique situation.
Mediation sessions aim to resolve:
Child(ren)’s living arrangments
Parental decision-making process
Child(ren)’s activities and costs
Insurance and medical expenses and other child-related issues
Property Division (including house, cars, etc.)
Assets and Liabilities
Any other issues of concern
One of the primary decisions made in the best interest of the child involves sole or joint custody. A sole custodian means that the relationship between the parents is too conflicted to make decisions in the best interest of the children.
A joint custody arrangement means that co-parents can generally work together. Parents need to work together to determine the needs of the children, like appropriate medical care, child care, parenting time, use of holidays, vacations and other special times, location of the parent’s homes, and educational and religious training. Expenses need to be agreed upon like medical bills, child support, school fees and extracurricular activities, and saving for college.
Protecting the children from the harmful side of divorce is often neglected, sometimes unintentionally. The goal should under most circumstances should be consistent and calm involvement from each parent in each child’s life. Most children on some level wish for a relationship with both parents. Each parent can take part in not only providing financially but also providing influence on moral, social and educational development. Ideally, contact and affection would be unhampered and each parent would not get in the way of the child’s own developing sense of perception, and feelings about the other parent. Parents would not criticize each other within hearing range, or to put the kids in the middle by making them messengers (delivering positive or negative messages can feel like a burden to kids, when the responsibility to communicate belongs to the parents). Another rule to follow is to not tell the kids about future plans that will affect the other parent without talking to the other parent first.
The other area of importance is the financial side. Many decisions have to be made including the value and disposition of the marital residence, vehicles, bank accounts, retirement accounts, stock options, bonuses and other investments. Each participant should gather information from an attorney or tax accountant specializing in divorce to understand the implications of one’s financial decisions, for example, on tax filing. Mediation is not a substitute for independent legal, financial or other professional advice and all parties are encouraged to be fully informed about the decisions for which they are ultimately responsible. All terms of a settlement are non-binding until they are put into a written agreement, usually by an attorney and entered by the court. One can go to the self-help office of the court and file pro se, but it is not usually advised. Divorce mediation allows for direct problem-solving with a neutral party, focuses on effective communication to make parenting and financial decisions that benefit both children and parents, and aims to reduce repeated visits to court.