The New Year is finally here, and many people are more than ready for a new start. If your new start includes moving forward with your divorce, it might be time to take a look at the level of conflict between you and your spouse. High conflict can make mediation less successful, but there are some ways to address this. If your conflict level is high, it might be worthwhile to consider what lies beneath that conflict. Is it based on rational disagreements? Or is it mainly fueled by anger and blame? Once you have answered these questions, you can consider whether or not there are steps you can take to reduce the conflict. Start by asking yourself where you fall on the following spectrum:
- Low conflict
- Neither of you blames the other for your marriage ending, and
- You agree about all or most aspects of your divorce settlement.
- Moderate conflict
- One or both of you may blame the other for the divorce, but neither of you believes that this should impact your divorce settlement in any significant way, and/or
- You have some disagreements about your marital settlement plan, but they are minor, and you believe that you can work them out.
- High conflict
- One or both of you blame the other for the divorce, and
- You have marked disagreements about your post-divorce parenting arrangement, your property distribution plan, and/or the need for one of you to pay spousal support to the other.
How Conflict Affects Mediation
While it is true that high conflict can make mediation less successful, it is also true that the process itself tends to reduce conflict. Starting off with relatively high conflict, therefore, does not necessarily mean that you should give up on the idea. If you can succeed in lowering the temperature of your interactions, you are likely to benefit from the lower expenses, faster time frame, and vastly reduced stress that mediation can offer. How can you do this? The first step is to look more closely at what is going on. Notice that the categories above identify two distinct types of conflict. Differentiating between these is often the key to success.
The Cycle of Blame
The first kind of conflict is interpersonal and is based on blame and anger. Couples who have low or moderate conflict overall generally understand that blame in a divorce tends to be counterproductive. Even if one spouse did, in fact, do something egregious, the other does not want to focus on this and prefers to focus on the future instead. Couples in the high conflict category, on the other hand, tend to actively blame each other. Typically, one spouse believes that the other cheated on them, lied to them, or abandoned them in some way, and uses this to deny parenting time, demand more alimony, deny alimony, or complain about the division of property. The blamed spouse reacts defensively to these provocative moves and tries to turn the blame around onto the other spouse.
Sometimes both spouses blame each other from the outset. Regardless of how the cycle begins, however, it tends to escalate once a divorce is in progress. One spouse might file a fault-based complaint alleging that the marriage failed due to the other spouse’s misconduct. Proving this requires producing evidence of the misconduct. Even if the complaint does not specifically allege a fault ground for the divorce, there are likely to be affidavits full of aspersions against the other spouse. Once the mudslinging has begun—even if it was justified at the start—it becomes hard to stop. The cycle feeds on itself.
Resolving the Cycle
The point is not that blaming your spouse is “wrong.” In many cases, blame is justified. The point is that holding onto the blame is likely to be counterproductive for you. If all you want is for your spouse to acknowledge that they wronged you and apologize, then by all means, ask for that. If you speak authentically from your heart, you might even get it. Or you might not. Either way, the next step is to ask yourself what is best for you. If the answer is that letting go of your anger will benefit you, but you just can’t seem to do it on your own, then individual therapy can help.
If your spouse is the one caught up in blame, you have a harder task, but there are still things you can do on your own. Therapy might help you limit your reactivity and learn better responses to the escalation of conflict. It can be surprising how much a mutual cycle of reactivity can change for the better even if only one party decides to change.
Separating Rational Disagreements from Blame
The second kind of conflict is different. It is based on realistic disagreements with the other spouse. Couples experiencing this kind of conflict usually understand that the division of property should be fair, that support payments should be based on one’s party’s need and the other party’s ability to pay, and that parenting agreements must be based on the best interests of the children. They simply disagree on what is fair, on who needs what, or on what is actually best for those children. Simply having many disagreements about these types of issues does not make mediation a poor choice. In fact, the more complex your divorce is, the more you stand to gain by staying away from the high expenses of the courtroom.
The problem for many couples is that the two types of conflict tend to intersect. If you are focused on blaming your spouse, it can be difficult not to see everything the spouse proposes through a lens of feeling victimized or of wanting to punish the spouse. Couples who are not focused on blame find it much easier to commit to keepings things amicable and fair.
If you are having a lot of trouble coming to an agreement, it might be time to reassess the degree to which blame might be coloring things. You can then take steps to move forward.
Considering a Structured Process
If, in spite of all your efforts, you and your spouse seem hopelessly locked into anger and blame, you still might not have to give up on mediation entirely. You can look into trying a more structured mediation process. Start by finding a mediator who has experience working with high conflict couples. Look for someone who:
- Offers or encourages pre-mediation coaching,
- Promises to insist that participants stick to ground rules,
- Will keep participants focused on making proposals and counter proposals that address well-defined issues,
- Is willing to meet separately in caucus with each participant as often as necessary,
- Understands how to help correct any pre-existing power imbalances, and
- Is comfortable with higher attorney participation if that should prove necessary.
Pre-mediation coaching can improve your communication skills and ability to maintain composure under emotional stress, as well as to set and stick with firm personal boundaries. Ground rules and caucuses exist to help participants move forward without getting caught up and bogged down in emotional turmoil. Attorney participation can help everyone focus on the law and separate real issues from reactive responses.
Are you wondering whether or not divorce mediation is right for you? One of our caring and experienced mediators can help you decide. Contact us today for a free consultation.