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Marital Mediation is Not Therapy

A Saga of a Couple Who Chose Marital Mediation to help save their marriage.

Joe and Marilyn Waters had been married for 15 years. 
They had two terrific kids.  Dara, who was 13, was a terrific athlete and student.  Of late she had become a bit rebellious at home especially toward her mother; not exactly an unusual complaint among parents of teenagers.  Then there was Ted, who was 9 years old.  Ted was a “go-with-the-flow” kid, as easy to parent, as Dara was difficult.  Yet the two parents could not really complain about their children; they did not get into trouble; their teachers raved about them; and they had lots of friends.  The kids were not the problem with the Waters’ home life.  The core of the dilemma centered on Joe’s and Marilyn’s relationship.  Although they cared about each other and truly believed that they loved each other, they were unable to be in the same room for more than a few minutes without disagreeing about something—the kids, their plans for vacation, their work day.  The subject was in some respects irrelevant. They argued about everything.  On the positive side about eight months ago the Waters entered marital therapy and things had improved.  They were beginning to communicate more openly, although talk continued to be contentious.

 Of late, however, the issue of finances had been raised by Marilyn in therapy.  She complained that Joe controlled the money and allocated a set amount for her to spend each week.  If she needed more money, she had to go into lengthy discussions as to why she needed the funds, a justification of sorts.  She, on the other hand, did not like the way Joe handled the money.  He determined how much they would spend on vacations and children’s activities.  Worse, he determined how much he would spend on his hobbies and interests—neither of which was shared by any family member.  The therapist had gently at first and then rather strongly suggested that Joe and Marilyn deal with the issues surrounding finances in their relationship.  She said that their struggle over money was indicative of their battles over other issues, even, in fact often, inconsequential topics.  To tackle the money dilemma the therapist, Dr. Tosson, further suggested that they try marital mediation.  The Waters were quite surprised; was their therapist abandoning them?  Why didn’t she suggest a financial adviser?  What was this thing call marital mediation? 

Dr. Tosson assured Joe and Marilyn that she was not suggesting that they end therapy; in fact precisely because she was pleased with their progress, she thought that they were ready to integrate a different approach.  Marital mediation, she explained, was a problem solving process based on a couple’s working together to tackle one or more issues that were not conducive to the therapeutic forum and that, if dealt with, would help to facilitate their work in couples’ therapy.  So, they were told, therapy would continue.  In particular Dr. Tosson thought that the mediation would be helpful to deal with the financial issues that were interfering with the progress they were making in therapy.

The mediator, who had had seen other couples referred by therapists, was able to offer some other ideas on the possible outcome of the process.  First she explained that mediation was not therapy; mediation was a problem-solving process in which the three participants—the husband, the wife, and the mediator—determined what were the issues to be tackled, what information was needed to embark on the process, and what were the objectives to be gained.  Here the Waters were quite clear.  Marilyn wanted a real say in how the money was spent; she did not want to be the only one who was accountable to someone. She wanted to be a partner with Joe in the allocation of funds and in the determination of where the money would be spent and/or saved.  Joe, on the other hand, was not use to this kind of overt challenge.  He had listened, or at least heard, years of complaints from Marilyn about finances, but never this specific and never actually challenging his handling of money.  Had he not been responsible?  Did he not manage money well?  And, too, did he not know far more than she about finances?  Marilyn did not take long to respond.  “This, after all, she said, had nothing to do with Joe’s knowledge.  She was more than happy to follow his recommendations with respect to investment of funds.  That was not the point.  The real issue was that she knew nothing about their financial picture, had no say in how to invest or spend moneys, and, if truth were told, felt that Joe treated her as a child.  She felt powerless.”

Joe listened.  At first he let it be known, to the mediator, and to Marilyn, that he had never hidden information.  All their financial statements were in one drawer in his desk and in the file cabinets behind the desk.  On numerous occasions he had offered to explain the statements to Marilyn, but she had never evidenced any interest until now.  Marilyn confirmed all that Joe said.  “It was true,” she concurred, “you did offer and I wasn’t interested, but now I am.  I need to be a part of this partnership. “ And so they entered mediation.  All their finances were revealed; budgets were developed and analyzed until both Marilyn and Joe agreed on were and how money would be spent.  Even more significantly they agreed to separate responsibilities for certain associated tasks and to allocate separate funds to each, moneys to be spent without accountability on whatever Joe or Marilyn individually chose.  They worked hard, but not without significant positive results.

 By reordering their financial priorities, several objectives were accomplished. Money ceased to be an issue to be argued about; they leaned how to share, albeit not equally, responsibility for the management and the allocation of their financial resources. Given that each one had funds to spend as he or she chose, given that family priorities were identified and funded, and given that both partners had a stake in the overall financial stability of the family, the Waters left mediation with a set of new tools to carry into their future.  For them mediation was a learning experience that helped them to communicate and feel on relatively equal footing, at least where money was concerned.   Mediation did not replace therapy; it provided a helpful adjunct to the therapeutic process, leaving this couple better able to communicate and share present and future goals.


Lynne Halem

Dr. Lynne C. Halem is the director at the Centre for Mediation & Dispute Resolution in Wellesley, MA. Dr. Halem has worked in the mediation field since 1982. She is on the Family Dispute Service Panel of the American Arbitration Association and a past board member of the Divorce Center,… MORE

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