Choosing Mediation in a High-Conflict Divorce

Frayed Rope about to BreakHave you been considering divorce mediation for a while, but you just aren’t convinced that you and your difficult soon-to-be-ex would make good candidates? Attorneys and judges don’t always recommend mediation for couples who have experienced high levels of relationship conflict. There is a risk that one or both spouses will not approach the process with a collaborative attitude, and will instead refuse to compromise on anything, or worse, will just use the mediation sessions to vent anger and frustration.

Sitting down in a room to hash things out with someone you can’t seem to talk to all without arguing can be a daunting prospect. Turning everything over to a judge may initially sound like a good way to avoid confrontation. The truth is, however, that entering a courtroom often makes an already difficult situation even worse. Court procedures have a way of increasing feelings of powerlessness, loss of control, and anger. Minor disagreements can turn into major power struggles when emotions are raw. While you can try to avoid interacting directly with your spouse by letting your attorneys do the negotiating, this won’t make it any easier to hear that your spouse is not willing to take any steps toward settlement, especially with bills from two attorneys escalating every day.

Couples who are separating amicably and have always had relatively good communication skills can usually step directly into divorce mediation and move forward smoothly. If you aren’t one of these rare couples, however, this does not mean that mediation won’t be successful. Sometimes a desire to see things resolved and move on as quickly as possible can carry participants through the process in spite of some lingering feelings of animosity. For those with more serious communication roadblocks, additional preparations and precautions may be necessary, but mediation is often still the best alternative.

Structured Divorce Mediation 

In an effort to provide the benefits of mediation to a broader range of participants, some mediators offer a more highly structured process. If you have a spouse with a difficult personality; if you feel your spouse has more power in the relationship (as the sole or much higher earner for example); or if you and your spouse have simply never been able to engage in conflict without disintegrating into yelling or name calling, then this process may be for you.

You will want to begin by looking for a mediator who has experience working with high conflict couples. It’s essential to interview mediators ahead of time to learn exactly how they will adapt their process to fit your situation. Experience is key. It’s a good start if a mediator states a willingness to try a structured process, but if at all possible, find someone whose skills have been battle-tested. High-conflict mediation is extremely stressful for mediators as well as for participants, so it’s important for your mediator to be seasoned and able to understand and anticipate the many potential triggers and landmines. When emotions inevitably flare, you will want someone in the room who can stay calm and centered, always bringing the focus back to the facts and issues at hand.

Look for a mediator who:

  • Offers or encourages pre-mediation coaching,
  • Will 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.

Even with the safeguards offered by a highly structured process, anyone who is considering entering into the conflict-resolution arena with a difficult partner needs good communication skills, an ability to maintain composure under emotional stress, and firm personal boundaries. If you would like to try mediation but you feel that you need some work in one or more of these areas, then you may benefit from pre-mediation coaching. We’ll talk about this more in an upcoming post, so stay tuned.

Are you interested in talking to one of our experienced mediators about your divorce? Contact us today for an initial consultation.