An Open Letter to Professionals Regarding Mediation Being a Matter of Timing
MEDIATION IS A MATTER OF TIMING. DEATH, DIVORCE AND MEDIATION: Why Some Couples Choose Mediation While Others Do Not.
Choosing to mediate a divorce case is seemingly a no brainer. Why? Well, if you can keep from spending years in a public court, avoid the stress of being in litigation, save thousands and thousands of dollars, avoid having a judge tell you how often you will see your children, how much money you will pay and which of your assets you’ll keep or sell and if you can prevent severe emotional and psychological damage to your children, spouse and relatives – why wouldn’t you mediate?
Assuming the couple knows that they can choose mediation to end their marriage in an amicable, private, quick, less expensive and less painful manner – choosing the path of a litigated divorce probably means that one or the other (or both spouses) are stuck in one of the stages of loss and grieving, which is governing rational thought.
Over the years, I have heard many reasons why either or both spouses want to divorce: infidelity, boredom, financial irresponsibility, lack of companionship, midlife crisis, the spouse has changed, alcohol or drug abuse, they no longer have anything in common, sexual incompatibility, intolerable alliances with nuclear family, emotional abuse, lack of respect, etc. No matter what the reason for the divorce, the effect is the same: there is a death of the marriage and there are big changes ahead for the family.
Divorcing with children? Read more about co-parenting schedules.
The severity of the emotional roller coaster accompanying the pronouncement of the end of the marriage depends upon the length of time the other spouse has been aware that the marriage was in trouble. If the news of the death of the marital relationship comes as a shock to the other spouse, a grieving process will surely follow. The divorce is the death of a marriage. It is a death that must be dealt with before the marital partners can move forward.
Among the many stages of grief which often occur when there is a death, a particularly relevant stage in a divorce is fear. Fear can be one of the following: fear of the unknown, fear of being alone, fear of being destitute, fear of losing children, friends or status. Fear can be paralyzing, keeping the spouse from taking any action.
In her 1969 book, “On Death and Dying,” Swiss-born Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross outlined five stages of grief – but also instructed that each person’s grief is individual, not everyone goes to the stages in any particular order. She describes her categories of the grieving process as “… tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling.“
We can’t expect that both spouses will have made it completely through a grieving process (in whatever order they go through it) before seeking and or filing for the divorce. We can acknowledge and explain that what they may be feeling is normal for their situation and refer them to mental health professionals. These explanations may help them avoid the scorched earth litigation path upon which so many angry individuals embark.
The five stages of loss and grieving over the death of a loved one, identified by Dr. Kubler-Ross are:
Other experts have expanded on the Kubler-Ross model to acknowledge other stages of grief, including:
- Profound sadness
Simply saying that a divorce “is a crisis” in one’s life is an understatement, because a divorce often includes the top three stressors in life:
- Death (of the marriage)
- A move
Professionals in this field understand there is a grieving process when a marriage ends. Mediators try to recognize stages of grieving for each of the marital partners, because those feelings can be a good indicator of whether or not either or both partners are ready and able to mediate. A spouse who has passed through the denial stage, but is stuck in the anger stage, may be incapable of going through mediation at that time. The level of anger of either or both spouses will often determine whether mediation will be successful.
A lawyer mediator or layperson mediator is ill-equipped to help the individual address emotional pain of any of the stages of loss. Such mediators should make referrals to mental health professionals for the two marital partners, and their children. The children often suffer losses as great, or even greater, than their divorcing parents. Their lives are also turned upside down; forever changed and they often feel tremendous guilt – like the divorce is entirely their fault! They are helpless and powerless and either suffer in silence or act out (or manipulate), often secretly wishing their parents would reunite.
Helping the couple understand that the grieving and loss process is natural and re-focusing them on the emotional difficulties being experienced by their children (or even by each other), is the first step toward helping the healing process. Once they can manage their emotions or have reached the acceptance stage in the grieving process – mediation can help get them through this, without the casualties of a contested divorce case.
Sometimes starting a litigation or contested divorce action while either spouse is in a heightened anger stage seems to lock them in that stage for years. The contest appears to feed the anger so that the spouses do nothing but battle one another for years, spending thousands of dollars, depleting their assets, and devastating their children, relatives and friends. They don’t even appear to recognize that they have been excessively toxic and angry for years. They are unable to move on, often unable to find or keep new, healthy relationships and become increasingly more toxic until they are emotionally and physically exhausted.
This is the reason we need to educate separating spouses and ourselves about what they may be going through, to acknowledge it and urge them to get help. We need to refer them to mental health professionals, urge their spouse to get help and obtain counseling for their children. The emotional upheaval of the separating spouses is what we call the emotional divorce. If either spouse allows an out-of-control emotional divorce to drive the legal divorce, they will likely end up as described above. Educate and assist the spouses to identify the stages of grieving and urge them to get help from their mental health professionals. This will help them to either manage their emotions or move into acceptance. This is when they will be emotionally ready to address the legal divorce. That is the time when mediation becomes an excellent alternative to a contested divorce.
In the acceptance stage, they can treat one another as they would treat a business partner, with honesty and respect. They can think, they can ask questions. They can listen, they can emphasize. It is when both spouses are in the acceptance stage that they can resolve the legal divorce in an amicable, fair, businesslike fashion, crafting their own agreement and having control over their own lives.
Not all marital separations are clouded with mind numbing emotion. Some couples went through a grieving process for the death of their marriage years before they made the decision to physically move apart and commence the dissolution process. These couples usually come into the divorce with quiet resolve – they are sad or neutral, not angry and want to get through the divorce process efficiently and fairly. Individuals who have already processed the emotions of the failed marriage are very good candidates for mediation.
Mediation is the alternative to the traditional contested divorce, but both spouses must get to the acceptance stage, acknowledging that the marriage is over, for it to be successful.
Previously in the Preparing for Divorce Mediation Series: Why Choose Mediation Over Going to Court?
Next in the Preparing for Divorce Mediation Series: Defining “Mediation”
Click here for a Full Summary of the Preparing for Divorce Mediation Series.