Addressing Bad Behavior in Divorce Mediation

bad behavior in divorce mediation

Last month we talked about some of the personality traits that can lead to bad behavior in divorce. Divorce mediation can be difficult or impossible when your spouse resorts to tactics like unfairly blaming you for everything, using the kids as pawns, or overwhelming you with extreme emotional reactions. The situation can be even more dire if your spouse is financially dishonest or physically or emotionally abusive.

Not all bad behavior results in mediation being unsuccessful, however. In some cases, controlling your own responses or putting appropriate guardrails in place can rescue an otherwise untenable situation.  Here are a few examples:

Anxiety or Borderline Behavior

Highly anxious people sometimes take rigid positions and have trouble compromising. At the root of this is fear—fear of losing their lifestyle, their financial security, or their relationship with their children. Spouses who exhibit borderline behavior—such as constant emotional outbursts or vacillating between trying to get you back and trying to destroy you, for example, are also acting out of fear. In the latter case, it is the fear of abandonment. Being separated from children, even for short periods, can be a strong trigger for this kind of fear. Seeing you with a new romantic partner can also be a trigger—even if your spouse no longer wants to be with you.

Understanding that someone is afraid, rather than just trying to take things from you for no good reason, can make it easier to feel empathy.  Being empathic, however, does not mean sitting silently while your spouse screams at you or hurls accusations. You have the right to a civil exchange, and a good mediator will insist that both parties stick to this.

Once firm ground rules and boundaries are in place, employing active or reflective listening will let your spouse know that you truly hear what they are trying to say. If you are unfamiliar with this kind of communication, you may want to practice with a personal therapist or divorce coach. It can be hard to get used to at first, especially if the other person is not reciprocating, but once mastered it can be very effective.

Boundaries are not just important during sessions, but also between them. If your spouse texts or emails constantly, let them know that you cannot always be expected to respond immediately but will try to respond within a reasonable amount of time, such as the same day or early the next day. If your spouse comes to your residence unannounced, let them know that they are only allowed to visit with a prior appointment. If these intrusions seem to center around anxiety over the children, assure your spouse that you will contact them immediately if there is a problem. Project a calm and confident demeanor and reassure your spouse that you know what you are doing and have good parenting rules in place. You do not necessarily have to follow the same parenting rules in each household. If there are differences, let your children know that you expect them to respect such differences.

Narcissism or Vindictive Behavior

Narcissists are among the most difficult people to negotiate with because they think the world revolves around them. They believe that they should always win because other people’s needs are less important than their own. They crave admiration and are perfectly okay with making you look bad if they think it will make them look better. A person does not have to be a narcissist, however, to be obsessed with winning at all costs. Some people are simply intent on getting revenge for perceived wrongs in divorce. A spouse who is vindictive, for any reason, will not be interested in mutually beneficial solutions, which is often the kiss of death for a successful mediation.

If narcissistic or vindictive behavior is not too extreme, however, it can be worth trying mediation to avoid an expensive and drawn-out court battle. But first, you must learn how to manage the natural emotional reactions that this type of behavior can provoke. The number one rule is to stick to facts. Remember that personal attacks are intended to manipulate you and have nothing to do with who you really are as a person. Do not bother arguing or even expressing opinions unless an opinion is absolutely necessary. Narcissists love to trap you in debates and will persist in knocking you down until they feel that they have regained control. Sticking to facts and employing pure logic can circumvent this. A therapist or coach may be able to help you refine and frame your demands, as well as learn how to stick to them under pressure.

Dishonesty, Domestic Violence, or Abuse


If your spouse has been dishonest about personal matters—if they hid an affair, for example—it can make mediation challenging, but not impossible. If they have been financially dishonest, this is even more serious. Financial dishonesty is difficult to deal with in divorce under any circumstances, but if your case is in the court system, there will be certain safeguards available. These include formal discovery, including things like third party subpoenas, professional asset tracing, and requests for sanctions if appropriate.

There are fewer safeguards available during mediation. On the other hand, the mediation process requires face-to-face interaction, and the parties sign an agreement pledging honesty during the proceedings. These features can encourage people to be more forthcoming from the outset than they might be in litigation. If you do not trust your spouse 100%, the most important thing to do first is consult with an attorney. Be frank about what your fears are and how much you believe may be at stake.

Domestic Violence or Abuse

Many attorneys will tell you that mediation is never appropriate when there is a history of domestic violence or abuse. This is often true, but it is not quite that black and white. Because litigation can be so expensive and so stressful, there are some cases where mediation can still be a better alternative. It will require modifications, however, as well as a mediator with a lot of experience in such cases. At the very least, safeguards should include things like ensuring that you are never alone with your ex. In more severe situations, they can include things like meeting only by videoconference, or in separate in person meetings, and increased security and weapons screenings.

The bottom line is that some cases of bad divorce behavior can be adequately addressed in mediation, and some cannot. When in doubt, consult with a knowledgeable attorney. If you believe that mediation is right for your situation, contact one of our experienced and compassionate divorce mediators today.