Marriage Mediation: What is it? Do I need it?

Marriage Mediation: What is it? Do I need it?

Many people have gone through, or at least heard of, divorce mediation. In that process, parties try to reach agreement about the division of property, spousal and child support, custody and visitation. Of course it doesn’t solve everything. All of these ideas are fairly familiar.

But have you ever heard of marriage mediation, also known as mediation for people who want to stay married? Marriage Mediation is a conflict resolution process for couples who are experiencing destructive conflicts but are committed to remaining in their marriage.

Anyone who has made it past the honeymoon stage knows that being married is full of conflict, as people used to thinking of “I” and “me” learn to think of “you “ and “we” users of marriage mediation are taught to handle disagreements constructively, finding practical solutions to real world problems. The participating couple learns to distinguish interests from positions, to brainstorm, negotiate and work out solutions to conflicts.

How does Marriage Mediation work?

Marriage mediation doesn’t dig deeply into the past or directly address the relationships or psychological issues of participants. It focuses on current disputes, not their underlying causes. A marital mediator helps couples develop concrete plans and workable processes to address the issues driving conflict.

The mediator uses dispute resolution techniques to help define the issues, uncover hidden interests and teach methods for breaking impasse. The mediator also emphasizes improving interpersonal communication about needs and expectations. He or she facilitates discussion so the parties can set future goals and objectives together.

Should I see an Attorney Mediator or a Divorce Attorney?

A marriage mediator is often also a licensed attorney. An attorney/mediator can tell participants what will happen if they file for divorce. In contrast, a divorce attorney often provides a “worst case scenario” so clients can make decisions to clients can protect themselves. An attorney mediator understands what happens to families after divorce, in litigated cases as well as during mediation or collaborative divorce proceedings. Often, divorcing parties lament, “we don’t know how we got here”. A torrent of emotion and miscommunication puts couples on a certain path to financial drain and emotional chaos.

When most people are having marital problems, they immediately think of divorce, because that is what they see around them. Divorce has become our culture’s default option.

Dispute resolution skills can be taught and learned. The difference between a marriage in conflict that lasts and one that doesn’t is largely the willingness and effort put forth to learn the skills of dispute resolution and communication. A marriage mediation teaches these skills.

Many marital problems flow from financial insecurities. Mediators who are practicing attorneys are usually helpful in analyzing finances, understanding legal options, and helping the parties find practical solutions to their financial problems.

When should I see a marriage mediator who is a mental health professional?
Mediators with backgrounds in psychology can be extremely helpful in assisting couples in distress. Effective marriage mediators are usually experienced in divorce mediation. Often a couple will see a mediator at the same time they are seeking therapy or counseling, whether jointly or individually. If a technique is helping, participants in marriage mediation should continue to use it during the mediation process.

Some mediators work very closely with mental health professionals in mediation, collaborative divorce or dissolution litigation. This partnership between professions allows couples to simultaneously learn coping and conflict resolution skills.

Why see a mediator rather than a mental health professional?

It is a mistake to think of marriage mediation as an alternative to therapy or counseling — the processes are different and may be used in tandem. A couple may discount the source of conflict in marital therapy. How to concretely and constructively address that conflict will be taught in marriage mediation.

A couple in conflict but committed to saving the marriage should use all available resources to keep their family together. If one or both of the parties suffers from mental health problems, individual counseling should be sought. Couples can also benefit from marital counseling, even if previous marital counseling efforts have not borne fruit.

A martial mediator is not a counselor. He or she offers a practical approach to conflict resolution. Working with the parties to identify the current issues in dispute, the marriage mediator helps develop options for resolution, teaching brainstorming and other skills applicable to any conflict, in any situation, at any time.

Will mediation teach us new ways to relate to each other?

Many couples in divorce mediation say that if they had known about conflict resolution while they were married, they would not have needed to divorce. As marriage mediation progresses, participants learn to cope with conflict in their marriage and create options for resolving disagreements. The parties will become better at dealing with conflict in their marriage and in their relationships with others.

What issues can I resolve in marriage mediation?

It’s too limiting to call marriage mediation “mediation to stay married,” as some people do. The topics that can be covered include anything that is causing conflict (or has the potential to cause conflict) in a marriage. The only limits are imposed by the willingness of the parties and the mediator to go through the process.

Certainly, financial issues are a common topic of marriage mediation. “How are we spending our money?” Is a purely factual question. “ How should we be spending our money?” Is it different thing altogether, and is at the root of many divorces. Some experts recommend that couples discuss approaches to money even before they get married. So marriage mediation will almost inevitably address financial issues. Who controls what aspects of the household budget? Is separate property truly separate, or do the participants treat everything as joint property? Should the couple be saving for retirement? Buying a house? All of these questions can produce conflict. Even if the parties are doing fine financially, things change. Economic downturns, job loss, bankruptcy, or one spouse’s voluntary exit from the workforce can all break previously successful patterns of behavior and cause new disputes. Counterintuitively, so can new success, an inheritance or a lottery win?

Some practitioners recommend entering mediation before inevitable conflict arises. Should a couple buy a big house with a big mortgage? How will they pay for it? If they both are going to need jobs, does that mean putting off kids? “Looking at the price tags“ of things before we do them can stop conflicts before they start. Everything we do has some cost, because we can’t do everything. Doing one thing means giving up another, and deciding without conflict which things to do takes communication skills mediators can teach.

Because mediators are adept at diffusing strong emotions, even things that seem more appropriate for therapy or counseling can benefit from marriage mediation. “You cheated on me, how do we move forward? Or don’t we?

Should I get information about divorce?

For people determined to save a marriage, divorce is the elephant in the room, the thing no one wants to talk about or look at. But as the alternative to success in marriage mediation, it is worth being realistic about divorce.

A divorce can have a huge financial impact. The average divorce in the United States is between $15,000 s $20,000 per person. It could be significantly higher If there are complex or contentious property division or custody issues. That doesn’t count spousal or child support obligations or the added cost of maintaining separate households.

Divorce is very difficult emotionally. Though everyone says not to, many parents can’t resist the temptation to bad-mouth their ex-spouse or use the children of the marriage in an emotional tug of war. Your friends and family will probably “choose a side”— not necessarily your side. In divorce proceedings, your financialInformation will no longer be private. Things will not necessarily be better with another spouse or romantic partner. You will still have to work on your new relationship.

Unhappy marriage vs. happy kids? Why make the choice?

Although it is sometimes absolutely necessary to leave a marriage, as in cases of abuse, people can and do change. You are not the same person you were 10 years ago. In most cases, it is better for everyone in the family if parents can fix their marital problems and stay together. Generally, the children of married parents are physically and mentally healthier, better educated and more more successful. Divorce lowers a child’s standard of living, because children of divorce do not have the time, attention, social and financial resources of both parents.

Relationships between children and noncustodial parents are damaged when custody is not equally shared. Children in blended families and single parent families are more likely to experiment with cigarettes, alcohol and drugs than children in more stable settings. Children of divorced parents are nearly twice as likely to engage in sex at an early age.

There is hope for those who choose to fight for the marriage. Marriage researcher Linda Waite found that 86% of couples who reported their marriage as “unhappy”later reported improvement in their marriages.’Sixty percent reported five years later their marriages were “quite happy” or “very happy”. She also reports that permanent marital unhappiness is rare among couples that remain in the marriage.

Do you need Marriage Mediation?

Given the tremendous financial, social and emotional impact of divorce, mis is worth trying. Even if your marriage is stable, going through marriage mediation before major life decisions can clarify the costs associated with our choices, help set our goals, and reduce the stress associated with constant conflicts.

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Scott Van Soye
Managing Editor - Scott Van Soye is the managing editor of ADR Times. He is also a full-time mediator and arbitrator working with the Agency for Dispute Resolution with offices in Irvine, Beverly Hills and nationwide. He is a member of the California Bar, and practiced real estate, civil rights, and employment law for over twenty years. He holds an LL.M. in Dispute Resolution from Pepperdine University, where he is an adjunct professor of law. He welcomes your inquiries, and can be reached at [email protected] or (800) 616-1202, Ext. 721

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