Tailoring Mediation: Gerry and Beth

Today we will follow one more couple as they consider using the divorce mediation process. As we learned in our introductory post to this series, Gerry and Beth have been married for 35 years and have three grown children. While they once had a good marriage, they have pretty much led separate lives since their children left the nest. Beth, a 61-year-old teacher, wants to retire next year and move to New Hampshire to be closer to their oldest daughter and two young grandchildren. Gerry, who is currently 62, has no interest in either early retirement or the cold New Hampshire winters. He loves his job and wants to keep working until they have enough saved to maintain their current lifestyle. He is adamantly against the divorce, both because he does not want to lose Beth, and also because he believes it would be financially catastrophic for both of them.

As with our other couples, before we examine the significant economic issues this couple would need to resolve if they divorce, we will first look at whether or not they would be good candidates for divorce mediation.

Emotional Readiness for Divorce

In any situation where only one spouse professes readiness for divorce while the other is highly resistant, it is worth taking some time to consider whether or not the marriage might still be saved. Let’s start by looking a little more closely at this couple’s situation: When Beth told Gerry that she wanted a divorce, he took her by surprise by saying that he still loved her and still had hope for their marriage. He said he had no objection to her retiring and spending a few months a year in New Hampshire, but he didn’t think that meant they had to divorce. What if instead, he proposed, they start trying some new things together? For example, hadn’t she always wanted to try ballroom dancing?

Beth did not quite know how to respond to this. She had already made an appointment to meet with an attorney. She told Gerry that she was touched, but also that because he had seemed so distant and disinterested in their life together for such a long time, she wasn’t sure that things could change enough for her to feel committed again. Also, she wasn’t sure that a couple of months a year in New Hampshire would be enough. What she really wanted was to be close to the grandchildren year-round while they grew up. Gerry told her he understood, but asked if she would at least consider marriage counseling before making a final decision.

Considering Marriage Counseling

Beth promised to think things over. Meanwhile, she went ahead and met as scheduled with the divorce attorney, Kyla White. Ms. White reviewed the many benefits of divorce mediation, but she also warned Beth that attempting mediation before both spouses were committed to divorce could sometimes derail progress. The spouse who has not accepted that the marriage is over, she explained, might end up delaying decisions simply due to a lack of emotional readiness.

Eventually, Beth decided that she owed it to Gerry and their long marriage to at least try marriage counseling. She attended the first session thinking that she was mainly going along with it to help Gerry accept the truth about the end of their marriage. Instead, she found herself deeply affected by several things he told her, and she left feeling far less certain that a divorce was what she really wanted.

Suitability of the Divorce Mediation Process

Beth and Gerry’s chances of saving their marriage are up in the air right now. If they do go on to divorce, is mediation the right process for them? At this point, there are no apparent reasons why it would not be. In general, couples who are willing to try marriage counseling tend to be good candidates for mediation. Participating in marriage counseling first can even help couples improve mediation results by helping them develop better communication skills. In addition, while neither Gerry nor Beth has ever been particularly good at communicating within the marriage, they do at least have the minimum level of trust in each other that is necessary to effectively resolve critical issues like the division of finances and property. Neither of them harbors the kind of ill will that can sometimes stand in the way of mediation’s collaborative goals.

The Potential Impact of a Financial Imbalance

If Gerry and Beth do eventually try mediation, it will be important to look at any power imbalances between them. Unlike Eva and Eric, they do not have personality conflicts that raise red flags. Like both Eva and Eric and Katherine and Julian, however, they do have a fairly significant discrepancy in their annual incomes. This could put Beth at a bargaining disadvantage. Beth is not particularly concerned about this, however. She believes that Gerry will have to pay her a substantial amount of lifetime alimony. She also assumes she would receive half the value of their home and investments, and part of Gerry’s retirement accounts.

Upon hearing Beth’s expectations, attorney White urged her to slow down and think about the financial situation more carefully. Beth admitted that she had not needed to worry much about money since the kids were little. Even then, she said, Gerry took care of most of the financial matters. Ms. White pointed out to Beth that quitting her job before full retirement age could affect her alimony payments. She advised Beth to make a detailed financial plan. Where would she live, and what would the rent or mortgage and utility bills be? What kind of health bills might she have? How about the cost of food and entertainment? Was it important that she have enough money to be able to buy things for the grandkids occasionally? Ms. White directed Beth to the  New Jersey Family Part Case Information Statement for assistance in preparing a detailed budget.

After the attorney consultation, Beth realized that their financial issues might be more complex than she had originally believed. In our next post, we will highlight some of the things she and Gerry would need to resolve if they were to divorce, and how they might accomplish this in divorce mediation.

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