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The Decision to Divorce: A Mediator’s Role

As a family mediator specializing in divorce, I have had many clients who contact me for help with the decision to divorce or separate; either because they have had negative experiences or assumptions about couple’s counselors, or because they are uncertain about the decision yet also want to explore what divorce would look like. While some counselors and mediators may believe this decision is better left to marriage therapists, in the words of one of my clients, “If we stick together we will need a therapist – each of us has a lot of growth to do, but we just need help right now making the decision.”

I have also had clients who previously met with other family mediators, and were told “When you are ready to start the divorce, give me a call.” Yet, mediators assist people every day in making difficult, financially significant life-altering decisions; why would the decision to divorce be any different?

The Mediator’s Role

The mediator’s role is supporting a couple with the divorce decision is similar to the mediators role with any disputed decision:

·       Explore and help parties clarify (for themselves and each other) and hear each other around their underlying fears, motivations, and needs (interests) for both getting divorced and remaining married.

·       Help the parties assess the pros and cons of each option, including how to minimize the downside and maximize the upside of each option.

·       Once the underlying needs/goals are clear, assist the couple in “expanding the pie”; brainstorm new creative ideas for the structure of their relationship.

·       Encourage the parties to consider the impacts their decisions might have on others, their finances, their physical, mental and emotional health.

·       Assist the parties in establishing a clear criteria, timeline, steps and process for making the decision.

These standard mediator tasks would be doing a great service for any couple teetering on the edge of divorce. By establishing a groundwork of mutual understanding and ownership over the decision, the couple will have vastly more ease, focus and confidence with either their divorce or the work of re-committing to the marriage. 

Assessing and Resolving Ambivalence

Nearly every decision we make in life has some amount of ambivalence, some inner conflict between our motivations for and against a particular outcome. A common mistake of beginning mediators is to overlook these subtle signs of ambivalence and fail to test the reality and consequences of a seemingly mutually acceptable proposal. In the context of divorce mediation, assessing and helping parties resolve their ambivalence is an especially crucial role.

A surprisingly large amount of people get married because they are too afraid to pull the plug. Similarly, a significant amount of people finalize their divorce because they are embarrassed to change their mind after investing in the story of their partners’ fault and holding a particular demand or telling their family and community about the necessity of marital dissolution. In consideration of this dynamic, I find it helpful to think of a divorce decision as three mediations in one, which includes mediating between the voices of inner conflict within each spouse.

Here are some ways I test or observe the degree of ambivalence with mediation clients:

·       During a normal divorce mediation intake, I ask each party separately: “Between 0%-100%, how certain are you about ending the marriage? Have you done everything you can? What part of getting divorce might you regret?”

·       If I am mediating the decision to divorce, I might ask each party separately or in a joint session: “If you had to give a %, how much of you is leaning towards divorce and how much is leaning towards working on your marriage? What is a piece of your truth that are you reluctant to tell the other party, for fear of how they will react?

·       During and between sessions I notice, and when relevant inquire about each party’s willingness to make, negotiate and accept proposals, schedule and punctually show up to meetings, and complete the agreed upon tasks or next steps.

I believe that this function of assessing and supporting parties in resolving their internal ambivalence is not only an important task, but the professional responsibility of a divorce mediator. Even when I am working with clients through the divorce process, directly acknowledging and normalizing the differences in difficulty between the spouses in regards to who initiated the divorce and where they are in the grieving and acceptance process can go a long way towards dissolving the ambivalence and resistance (in the form of excess struggles around parenting and financial decisions) of the spouse who would not have chosen and does not want the divorce.


Stuart Watson

Stuart Watson is a Portland, Oregon based Mediation Trainer, a Family and Divorce Mediator with Oregon Divorce Guides, LLC. He is the author of the 78–card Relationship Help Toolkit called The Relationship Repair Game. Stuart has been teaching conflict resolution and mediating for nearly 20 years, as a Family Mediator… MORE >

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