Marriage Counseling and Divorce Mediation

Over the past few months, we have been following the stories of three couples considering divorce mediation. Two of them, Gerry and Beth and Katherine and Julian, decided that they wanted to pursue marriage counseling first. Today we are taking a closer look at marriage counseling. When is it appropriate? How is it different from mediation? Is there such a thing as “divorce counseling?” Many people find themselves confused by a variety of options that all sound somewhat similar.

Divorce Mediation versus Marriage Counseling

Kara was taken by surprise when Matt, her husband of eight years, told her he wanted a divorce. When he suggested they go to divorce mediation, Kara had hope. Matt had already seen an attorney, who described mediation as a process that would help them “talk to each other and work things out together.” When Kara heard that, she agreed to go. At their introductory session, however, she was disappointed to learn that the mediator assumed that both of them were ready to divorce, and that they would not be spending any time exploring whether or not they might be able to save the marriage. When Kara abruptly left the session in tears, Matt was confused. He thought she had agreed to the divorce and was ready to move forward.

Kara isn’t alone. Many people confuse divorce mediation with marriage counseling. They may have heard about a couple who went to mediation and then reconciled. While reconciliation does occasionally happen during mediation, it’s rare, and it isn’t the goal. Mediation is for couples who are ready to divorce and want to reach a legal agreement about things like dividing their assets and debts, post-divorce parenting, and alimony payments.

Marriage Counseling versus Divorce Counseling

If you are discussing divorce with your spouse and one or both of you is not ready to make the decision, then before talking about mediation, you may well want to consider marriage counseling. The primary purpose of marriage counseling—also known as couples counseling, or marital therapy—is to help couples stay married. They learn to communicate better with each other, confront issues in their marriage, and strengthen their emotional bond.

Some couples attending marriage counseling continue to struggle and eventually make the difficult decision to end their marriage. If this happens, the counseling may transition into “divorce counseling,” with a focus on helping the couple amicably divorce. Couples also sometimes choose to begin with divorce counseling when they already know that they want a divorce, but they wish to remain friends. This can be especially helpful for parents with young children, or for couples with close ties to each other’s extended family members.

Divorce counseling provides couples with emotional support while they discuss some of the same issues that come up in mediation. It does not, however, take the place of mediation or legal advice from an attorney. For couples who are already somewhat amicable, divorce mediation alone may provide them with sufficient emotional support while they work out their legal options. Mediators are trained to help couples work collaboratively and reduce the conflict between them.

Appropriate Situations for Marriage Counseling

Marriage counseling is often a good starting point, but like mediation, it isn’t right for everyone. It’s generally appropriate for couples who face common issues like money management, parenting styles, or intimacy in the marriage. The couples from our recent series provide two examples: Gerry and Beth had grown children and were nearing retirement age. They had drifted apart and Beth thought she wanted a divorce. She agreed to try marriage counseling first after Gerry convinced her that they might be able to make a fresh start together. Katherine and Julian, a couple in their early thirties, were struggling with the aftermath of Katherine’s affair. Julian initially demanded a divorce, but after hearing Katherine’s heartfelt repentance and her insistence that she still loved Julian, he reconsidered and opted to try marriage counseling first.

When Marriage Counseling May Not be the Best Choice

Marriage counseling is likely to be a poor choice in the same types of situations in which mediation is not generally a good idea. These include scenarios involving domestic violence or substance abuse, as well as those in which one spouse has not demonstrated any capacity or willingness to address his or her own contributions to the dysfunction in the marriage. If you find yourself in one of these situations, you are more likely to benefit from individual therapy. If you aren’t sure which category you fall into, an individual therapist can help you explore your options.

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 an initial consultation.