Over the next few months, we will follow three couples attempting to mold divorce mediation to their own specific needs. First, we’ll look at Katherine and Julian, both 33 years old, and married for 6 years with no children. When we met this couple in our last post, their marriage had broken down, at least in part due to an affair Katherine had recently revealed to Julian. She insisted that the affair was over and that she wanted to try to save their marriage. Julian, however, was not receptive. He felt hurt, and angry, and wanted only to move on to divorce.
As we saw in our initial post, if this couple proceeds to divorce, they will have significant economic issues to resolve. In our next post, we’ll examine these issues and discuss ways they might be resolved through mediation. Today, however, we are going to consider a more threshold question: Are Julian and Katherine good candidates for mediation?
Emotional Readiness for Divorce
The first issue a couple must address when considering divorce mediation is their emotional readiness for divorce. Divorce mediation is not marital therapy. Occasionally, a couple begins the mediation process and then decides that divorce is not the answer. The purpose of mediation, however, is not to help couples reconcile. It is to help them divorce as fairly and peacefully as possible.
When we introduced Julian and Katherine last month, they expressed different feelings regarding the potential end of their marriage. Although Katherine had created a serious rift by engaging in an affair, she wanted to stay in the marriage. Julian, on the other hand, was not only not interested in saving the marriage, he did not want to consider mediation. He wanted to go straight to court.
Some additional information may shed light on whether or not this couple is really ready to divorce. Julian learned of Katherine’s affair only two weeks ago. He immediately left the family home and is currently staying with a friend. He told this friend that Katherine’s news came as a total shock, because he had believed they were happy. After Julian walked out, Katherine left him several messages expressing regret and asking him to please consider seeing a couple’s therapist with her. Two days ago, Julian returned her calls and agreed to therapy. This decision means that it is too early at this point to be certain that this couple will proceed to divorce.
An affair is not always the end of a marriage. Some couples manage not only to survive an affair; they emerge from it with a stronger bond. While we wish our fictional couple the very best with their marriage counseling, if they do go on to divorce, the next issue will be their emotional readiness for mediation.
Emotional Readiness for Divorce Mediation
The simple fact that both Julian and Katherine are willing to proceed with marriage counseling before finally calling it quits is a sign that they would very likely be good candidates for mediation. At this point, there is a lot of anger, hurt and distrust between them, so it cannot be said that they are amicable. However, even if marital counseling doesn’t result in reconciliation, it may help them defuse their anger and learn better communication skills. Even the simple passage of a bit more time could put them back on a more even keel. They would then have a good chance of reaching a level of cordiality that would predict success in mediation.
The reality is that very few couples enter mediation as friends. Lack of trust and impulses to retaliate for perceived wrongs can sabotage mediation. To be good candidates, couples need to trust one another to at least be honest regarding finances. They must also be able to let go of anger, as well as of any desire to hurt the other person. The bedrock of mediation is a willingness to work to maximize results for both parties, not to play a zero sum game where one party wins and the other loses.
The Potential Impact of Power imbalances
As we have discussed in previous posts, power imbalances between couples can sidetrack mediation. Two common kinds of imbalance are personality differences and financial discrepancies.
Personality related imbalances can occur when one party is more conflict-oriented or more assertive than the other. A very assertive party can mow right over a more conflict-averse party in negotiations, unless the latter takes precautions. At the most extreme degrees of personality conflict, mediation will not be an appropriate venue. Usually, however, a skilled mediator, sometimes with the help of a good divorce or pre-mediation coach, can help restore balance. This kind of severely unbalanced personality dynamic does not appear to affect Katherine and Julian. We will, however, see it play out later with one of our other three couples.
With respect to financial power imbalances, we have already seen that Julian is at a significant disadvantage. He is not on the same kind of unequal ground as, for example, an unemployed stay-at-home-parent might be, but he still has reason to exercise caution. Where one party has greater financial resources, it can sometimes be difficult for the weaker party to hold ground. The stronger party has the ability to create financial uncertainty by drawing out proceedings or staking out nonnegotiable bottom lines. Given this discrepancy, Julian would be wise to hire a good consulting attorney to help define and maintain firm positions.
If Katherine and Julian do eventually decide to divorce, they seem unlikely to confront any prohibitive obstacles to mediation. In our next post, we will walk through what a hypothetical divorce mediation might look like for this couple.
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.