mediation and divorce

Posted on February 13, 2012


This is a piece in todays Times about Mediation and how it can help divorcing parents and their children. I am posting it on my blog so that those of you who do not get The Times can read it without having to pay Mr Murdoch £1……….

                                      My parents divorced nearly fifty years ago. I was so young I have few memories of them together. I do remember though how they argued about alimony and contact repeatedly in front of us as we grew up. They were vicious about each other’s shortcomings and heaved all of the blame for their marital breakdown onto each other. I felt continually torn between two parents I loved as well as a constant yearning for an adored father whose absence left such a large hole in my life.

                 I do not blame my parents. Let me make that clear. Divorce was difficult to obtain then and deeply shaming. Only the desperate were prepared to go through it. There was no Good Divorce Guide, no top ten tips to minimise the impact. Consequently my parents made many of the mistakes we now know can have a long term effect on children. But it was researching divorce for my book, Couples, that I discovered an entirely different approach to separation called mediation – a light-bulb moment. I could do this, I thought as I heard how mediators help separating couples. So I signed up for a National Family Mediation training course last year and am now building my practical skills working with highly experienced, and patient family mediators two days a week.

                 Family mediation does not, as the word suggests unhelpfully, bring couples back together. It enables them to separate their assets and make arrangements for their children in a series of 3 – 6 sessions with an impartial third party guiding them through the process. Relationship breakdown is often painful, an emotional vortex of anger, blame, shame and denial. The first call each makes is usually to a solicitor who then does everything to protect their client’s interests from a polarised position. ‘My experience of lawyers has been one where they protract things because they don’t necessarily have a vested interest in sorting things out,’ says Michele Poulton who is divorced with three children. ‘Their letters are aggressive and it’s such a stressful time that you easily get dragged down roads you don’t necessarily want to go as the lawyers end up running the show.’

          That can be very expensive, prolonging conflict for the children. ‘For most of us this isn’tHollywood. You are both going to be worse off and you can’t change that outcome,’ says Hazel (not her real name) who was married with one child for 13 years. ‘It wasn’t great news that he had decided to end the marriage but in the end fault is less important than what feels fair.’

           Mediation cuts neatly across other disciplines. It isn’t therapy but having the chance to speak and listen to what the other has to say can be deeply therapeutic. ‘I used to dread going,’ say Owen (not his real name) who went through an acrimonious separation after 15 years of cohabiting with the mother of his two children, ‘But at the end of each session I felt unburdened because I was able to get my point across and watching how my ex behaved convinced me that I was doing the right thing.’

              It isn’t a legally binding process, but we use exactly the same forms as solicitors to establish how much money there is and how that could be divided, fairly. That is then drawn up as an open financial statement which can be ratified through a lawyer. ‘Mediation put us in a place where we couldn’t argue. We had to be respectful and talk about every element,’ continues Hazel. ‘No amount of solicitors letters would have made him realise that I was entitled to half his pension for the years we were together because I was at home as a full time mother while his career blossomed. But he understood why that was fair because of the mediator.’

            When it comes to the children, mediation helps parents make practical arrangements over holidays, the weekends and come to some agreement over how to bring them up. ‘When we try and talk about these things on our own, they become contentious and we go round and round in circles.’ Says Michele Poulton ‘But with a mediator you have to accept that you won’t necessarily get everything you want but enough to agree on so that you can move on to point 2.’ 

              Mediation helps parents to draw a line under the past and establish a common front where the needs of their children, as children can be put first. It can reduce conflict levels at home and help children to adjust to the new status quo. Michele Poulton now uses mediation regularly to sort out their parenting arrangements. ‘Children’s needs change as they grow older. If we didn’t have children I would never speak to him again but we are parents for life and the mediator helps us to see that we always have to do what’s best for them.’

           The government announced its support for Mediation last year and more couples are being sent to us for (MIAMS) Mediation Assessment and Information Meetings by the courts. That number is likely to increase later this year as legal aid is withdrawn for all but the most extreme family disputes where safety is a concern. While any attempt to support more constructive ways of helping divorcing or separating couples has to be welcomed, there are concerns too. Training schemes are flourishing and there is a fear that there will be a flood of inexperienced cowboys inflaming highly difficult family relations. There is as yet no nationally recognised qualification.

             There are circumstances too when mediation is unlikely to be helpful – when one of the pair is extremely abusive or cannot accept that the relationship is over. If arguments over contact with the children have been going on for years, investment in hating each other is so great that any dialogue becomes a means of attacking one another. With such entrenched domestic warfare it feels more important to win than it is to ensure that their children are happy.

             I have been shocked by the amount of energy people are prepared to invest into hate and revenge, simply to avoid what they feel would be loss of face to someone they already feel they have lost too much. I have also been heartened by the way stereotypes of ‘dysfunctional’ families can be overturned. Countless young couples who were never really together, but conceived a child have been sent to us by the courts to establish a healthier dialogue over how they will raise that child as separated parents. Several of them who looked young enough to be my grandchildren, said things like ‘I just want to be a good dad/ give my child a good father because I never had one’. Mediation appears to have a hidden silver lining in bringing some couples together in a more healthy way as parents rather than helping them to separate.

           Divorce is now a fact of life. Our legal system may be good for solving financial disputes. But when it comes to family matters it often exacerbates highly volatile and complicated situations. We have to learn new ways to take responsibility for the way we separate so that those who have no part in our personal battles are protected. Children are not pawns. They are vulnerable and their interests have to be put first.  

                We have seen a revolutionary change in attitudes to divorce as it has become more common in the past 50 years. The stigma my mother lived with as a divorcee and single mother has faded. So, I am hopeful that in the next 50 years we will have seized the initiative as a society, with family mediation a key tool in the kit limiting the damage that family breakdown can have on the next generation. That way our young people are more likely to build a lasting, loving relationship for themselves.

                 And how am I doing with the training? Well learning a new set of skills in mid life isn’t easy, but I never doubt the value of what I am doing. I have come to know myself a little better – that I have a tendency to be the good Samaritan, to want to sort things out in a mumsy way when the true value of mediation lies in empowering others to sort things for themselves. I am learning to separate my experience and my emotions from those of clients which is hugely helpful personally. I feel calmer and less emotionally embroiled whenever those I care for are distressed.

              My own experience as a child of divorce means that I never shy away from bringing the interests of the children into the room. But I also understand now how crucial it is to see those who come to us for help as people first, not just parents, people with failed hopes, unhappiness and often a marked lack of love themselves. I understand my parents a little better too as a result. How difficult it must have been for them to separate our interests as children from their own at a time when there was next to no social support. And how much happier we all could have been if we had some of the resources that separating families have now.


COUPLES How We Make Love Last by Kate Figes is published by Virago at £9.99

Visit National Family Mediation on for details about your nearest service provider.