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How Transformative Mediation Can Help Divorcing Couples

When a divorce occurs, a family’s life changes forever. Divorce creates a feeling of change and lack of control for every member in the family. Individuals lose their identity as a wife/husband, couple, and family—everyone must let go of old roles and construct new roles.

The impact of conflict on divorcing couples is especially tough when you take into account all the changes that occur at the same time—the end of a marriage, break-up of a family, and the impact on children. Spouses know each other’s triggers and may press those hot buttons many times during the divorce process, which may exasperate an already stressful situation. With any divorce, couples not only struggle with coming to grips with the end of their marriage, but they also often wrestle with the beginning of their life as ex-spouses and co-parents.

Transformative Mediation Can Help

Conflicts involving spouses, children, and families are good candidates for transformative mediation. Transformative mediation holds the potential for helping couples turn a disorderly separation into an orderly, constructive separation. According to Thoits (1995) and Wheaton (1990) the negative impact of a divorce can actually be minimized if couples make an effort to resolve the problems that plagued them in their marriage during the separation process. Family relationships are on-going, even though the marriage is over, so couples that are able to spend time in mediation preparing, discussing, and planning how life may be after the divorce will minimize the stress and conflict often associated with the separation process.

The experience of conflict that occurs for each person in the family before, during, and after a divorce cannot be overlooked in mediation. Conflict generates a sense of our own weakness and incapacity, a sense of a lack of control over our situation, accompanied by confusion, doubt, uncertainty, and indecisiveness. At the same time, conflict generates a sense of self-absorption, each person becoming more focused on their “self” alone, more protective of their needs and concerns, and more suspicious, hostile and closed to the perspective of the other person. Simply put, conflict diminishes our sense of self (“I feel bad”) and disconnects us from others (“You’re a jerk”). Transformative mediation is conducive to working with family issues because it is based on a “relational” world view—the belief that we all have a dual sense of individual autonomy and social connection to others. Absent of conflict, couples spend most of each day trying to balance their needs with the needs of their spouse and children. However, when the relationship falls apart, the conflict that the couple experiences represents a crisis in their interaction and relational world—a change in the relationship that is marked by a universal shift in how we see ourselves and experience others (i.e., “I feel bad; You are a jerk”).

According to transformative theory, what bothers people most about conflict is that it causes them to become self-absorbed and lose sight of others, causing a rift or change in their interactions and relationships. Even in the case of a divorce, where the relationship is over, there still is an inherent desire for each person to say what they want to say and be understood by the other. Transformative mediators know that the relational components of their conflict are essential to help the couple emerge out of crisis and into a more constructive interaction.

Transforming the Interaction, Not the People

The goal of transformative mediation is to transform the quality of a conflict interaction from negative and destructive to positive and constructive through empowerment and recognition (Bush & Pope, 2002). Transformative mediators are not there to change the people in mediation nor the situation. The idea here is that if interactions change, people will be able to work with each other as they can when they are not in conflict.

People who come to mediation are looking for, and valuing, more than an efficient way to reach agreements on specific issues. They are looking to have a conversation, an opportunity to say what is important to them and try to understand the other person’s perspective. Mediation should offer something different than traditional advocacy and advice. Transformative mediation provides a unique opportunity to have a conversation with the support of a mediator.

As you have probably guessed, there is no magic wand to wave over people to transform their interaction for them—transformative mediators believe that “people have what it takes” to transform their own conflict. Even though transformative mediators believe people have what it takes, they do not sit idly by hoping that the parties will just “figure things out.” Transformative mediators are very active in the process as conversation facilitators. It is the mediator’s job to facilitate the discussion that the parties choose to have, allowing parties to discuss and process their conflict experience in their own way. Trying to get each person focused on tangible issues and decisions too early in the process is not helpful to having a constructive conversation. Rather, transformative mediators let parties discuss their conflict experience at their own pace as the mediator pays attention to what each party is really saying so he/she is able to:

  • provide an environment that is conducive and comfortable to having a very difficult conversation;
  • listen intently so as to capture opportunities for empowerment (i.e., clarity and choices) and recognition (i.e., perspective taking and understanding);
  • respond accurately to parties’ emotional expression;
  • highlight areas of agreement and disagreement; and
  • make reflections and summaries that facilitate their decision-making process

Transformative mediation does not ignore the significance of resolving specific issues or reaching agreements, but it is believed that if mediators’ do their job (as described above) the parties will likely make positive changes and find resolution for themselves (Bush & Pope, 2002). As parties gain strength in the clarity they achieve, the options they become aware of, and the course of action they freely choose (i.e., empowerment); they then begin to develop a fuller perspective of the world around them to the extent they consider the point of view of others (i.e., recognition). As people experience empowerment and recognition shifts (i.e., they find their own voice and are able to understand the other person’s perspective) they naturally begin to problem-solve on their own. When this occurs, even divorcing couples, who may at first seem at odds, are able to make decisions regarding how they want to work through their divorce and make plans for the future.

It is easy to view couples going through a divorce as incapable to making “good” decisions for themselves, but the experience of conflict causes them to be at their worst (i.e., lack of empowerment and recognition). As they talk and recover from the conflict experience, they become more rational and better able to make decisions. As transformative mediators, we enter into the life of each conflict for only a moment, so to think that we can and should direct parties, even subtly, assumes that we know more about the situation and issues than they do.

Setting the Stage for Constructive Interactions After the Divorce

Many researchers have found that it is not the divorce itself that causes children’s problems, but rather it is the quality of the relationship and parenting by custodial and non-custodial parents after the divorce that has the greatest impact. The presence of children requires that divorced parents restructure their lives in ways that allow children to continue their relationships with both parents. Each parent must find new ways of relating independently with the child while they also develop new rules and behaviors with each other. Parents who are able to agree on the roles, rules, and boundaries between the different homes typically find that the children are able to flourish and make better transitions.

Transformative mediation provides a process and model for resolving conflict that can occur before and after the divorce is final. If a couple chooses to mediate their differences instead of using litigation, they are less likely to escalate the family’s stress. Litigation can have the opposite effect. Litigation is a “win-lose” situation that can prevent parents from working in the best interests of their children. Mediation can help parents work together in the best interests of their children and can help lay the ground work for positive interactions for the future.

As transformative mediators, we are most effective when we can support their conversation and allow them the time and space necessary to figure out how life will be after the divorce. Only then, will couples be able to think beyond their own needs and concerns and make decisions for themselves and their children. The reorganization of the family is not easy, but if parents are able to work through their divorce without placing the children in the middle of their conflict it is very possible that the children will survive the divorce with few long-term effects.

Mediation may not resolve all of the parents’ issues, but it can help parents focus on parenting and ease the transition for their children. As you might expect, children also experience conflict in many of the same ways as adults. Children, however, depend on their families to help them through these feelings and if their parents are having difficulties coping, they may not know what to do. This can often result in greater use of negative coping strategies and a higher incidence of emotional and behavioral problems (Kurdek & Sinclair, 1988; Rogers & Holmbeck, 1997).

Mediation can serve as a catalyst for positive interactions and communication that lasts long past the mediation session. If parents are able to take steps to minimize the conflict during and after the divorce they can help their children through this transition. A divorce can negatively impact a child, but in the end it is how the parents handle their divorce and their relationship with their children that can determine how children experience the divorce.

Every conflict has the potential for transformation, and if a mediator focuses on opportunities for each party to get clearer and find their strength, there is always the chance that they will experience some understanding and perspective taking. To ignore this experience may only exasperate a tough situation and further their feelings of weakness, self-absorption, and lack of understanding. Mediators can do more than push for quick agreements. They can help people have the conversations that they so desperately need to have. Hopefully, in the end, each party is able to make informed decisions and come away with an understanding and a lasting road map for the future.


Bush, R.A.B. & Folger, J.P. (2005). The promise of mediation: The transformative approach to conflict (Rev. ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bush, R.A.B. & Pope, S.G. (2002). Changing the quality of conflict interaction: The principles and practice of transformative mediation. Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal, 67 (3), 67-96.

Kurdek, L.A., & Sinclair, R.J. (1988). Adjustment of young adolescents in two-parent, nuclear, stepfather, and mother custody families. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 56, 91-96.

Rogers, M., & Holmbeck, G.N. (1997). Effects of interparental aggression on children’s adjustment: The moderating role of cognitive appraisal and coping. Journal of Family Psychology, 11(1), 125-130.

Thoits, P.A. (1995). Stress, coping, and social support processes: Where are we? What next? Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 36, 53-79.

Wheaton, B. (1990). Life transitions, role histories, and mental health. American Sociological Review, 55, 209-223.


Daniel Bjerknes

Daniel Bjerkness has a Masters Degree in Counseling from the University of North Dakota and a BA in Psychology from Concordia College in Moorhead, MN. Dan serves as a Conflict Management Consultant and Mediator for the Conflict Resolution Center (CRC). He is an Associate of the Institute for the Study of… MORE >

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