This past week I had the opportunity to chat with two wonderful therapists, Miriam Collada with Collada Counseling in Mission Valley, who is just beginning to embark on her private practice journey and Kara Kohnen, with Grow Through Life Counseling, who has been at it for years and has expanded her practice to include seven locations throughout San Diego County. Speaking with these two professionals, both at different stages of their practice, and, both who work with couples and children touched by divorce, I found some common themes. The first is that therapists want to provide support for people going through divorce and especially the children who fall victim to contentious and drawn out divorce battles. The second is that Therapists are leary of referrals coming from Divorce Attorneys because while they are happy to serve as a much needed resource, they do not want to be drawn into the legal system and used as a weapon in the Court battle. Too many times these referrals are a calculated effort to bolster positions in custody battles and not purely focused on providing much needed support for the family during a difficult time of upheaval. The third conclusion is this dynamic of disconnect between Therapists and Attorneys is understandable but not always warranted as many divorcing families are wanting and needing assistance for themselves and their children with no intention of dragging the therapists into the Court process.
It was about five years ago that I had first spoken with Kara Kohnen about this dynamic that exists between litigating divorce attorneys and therapists. She was kind enough to express it to me, “the enemy,” and I tried to lend assurances that while my practice involved litigation and mediation at the time, none of my referrals to her office would be calculated for use in the litigation. Unfortunately for us attorneys there is only so much assurance we can give as we cannot control what strategies the other side of the case may have, or even our own clients sometimes. Now that my practice has shifted entirely to mediation I am working with couples who are not engaged in Court battles and the therapist referrals coming from my work are to provide the therapeutic support that these mental health professionals are trained for and ready to give and not for any anticipated Court fight.
Therapists are often the first to know when the marriages of their clients have become unfixable. Given their vantage point they are often in a great position to steer the path of their clients in a direction that allows them to proceed with a divorce, when it is inevitable, in a healthy way. Just as I work to provide my clients with trusted referrals to professionals who provide services that I do not provide, so too should therapists know about healthy resources available to their divorcing clients. Most therapists may have heard of Mediation but many don’t have a sufficient understanding to recognize what a valuable resource it may be for their clients. Therapists are not the only ones who can benefit from having this basic understanding. Any of us who have family, friends, or clients who are faced with imminent divorce stand in a position to inform our loved ones that there is a healthy and holistic way to address it. That being said, here’s is the two minute overview of what Divorce Mediation is and how it works so it can be added to the resource list you have at your disposal.
So How Does Divorce Mediation Work? Divorcing couples need education, information, options, guidance, and supportive resources through the process. A good divorce mediator will provide a place for couples to come to meet each of these needs and if there is anything else needed by the couple that requires additional support, the mediator will provide other resources as needed. Let’s run through each one of them quickly:
Education: For a healthy divorce, both spouses need to understand their rights and responsibilities as they move through the process. A Mediator does not give legal advice to the couple but does provide them with very detailed legal information so they understand each issue, they understand what the law has to say about those issues, and they understand how it might look if a Judge was to become involved. The Mediator provides this information from a neutral place and answers the questions of the couple during this part of the process so that the couple sits in a well informed place as they prepare to make the important decisions of their divorce.
Information: Almost every bit as important as the education piece is the information gathering piece or compliance with the Court’s disclosure requirements. Every couple is required to exchange information and documentation confirming all assets and liabilities, as well as all income and expenses. In Mediation the couple works together to gather all the necessary information to get everything listed and to obtain any necessary documents so that each spouse is comfortable that everything has been identified and properly valued, and that there is further comfort in the income numbers so the couple has a clear understanding of the financial picture. Through the mediation process couples agree to open the books and provide everything needed. Before moving to decision making the couple is well informed about what they own so a fair division can be explored and know what they each make so appropriate support orders can be considered.
Options: Once the couple is educated on the law and has all the information for sound decision making at their disposal, the third step in mediation is exploring options and settling the case. Here the Mediator can provide the couple with a picture of what it might look like if a Judge were to make the decision. In that regard, the Couple may elect to go “by the book.” Typically the mediator can also help the couple explore other creative options that might not be available to the Judge, but may better serve the needs of the couple. The ability to get creative is a great tool that the mediator and the couple has at their disposal. The options available are many and having the freedom and setting where they can be considered and explored is a great benefit to choosing the mediation option. Through mediation the couple explores the options until they find that which they can agree upon and works best for the family.
Guidance: The Mediator is not a Judge and is not there to be persuaded who is right and who is wrong nor to make the decisions. The decision making responsibility rests on the shoulders of the couple. The Mediator is there to deliver the couple to a place where they are ready to make informed decisions, providing them with options to consider, and then helping them have a healthy conversation to get to a settlement. As mentioned before, the Mediator is not providing legal advice. The Mediator carries the vision of delivering each spouse to a place where the outcome feels fair and reasonable to both of them. Couples may decide to do something different then what the law provides for. The Mediator’s role is to make sure there is a clear understanding in these situations, and that knowledgeable and well thought out decisions are being made whatever the decision, so there are no regrets. The Mediator sets rules when needed for respectful and constructive communication, provides an environment that supports sharing and uses tools to help the couple hear as well as understand one another. The Mediator works to keep the process moving forward to completion while monitoring to make sure it is a comfortable pace for the couple considering the needs of each.
Supportive Resources There are times during Mediation when outside resources will provide valuable information to the couple or added support that assists in the overall process. Therapists, Attorneys, Appraisers, Business Valuators, Certified Divorce Financial Analysts, QDRO Attorneys, and other supporting professionals can provide missing information and comforting support to facilitate sound decision making. Mediators will have resource lists available to guide the couple to whatever supporting cast is needed.
I hope this short explanation helps you better understand how mediation works and how it provides a healthy and effective path for couples that are getting divorced. Send your clients to a professional that strives to help them divorce in a healthy way and keeps the needs and best interests of the children involved always in focus. If you are a professional and have any more questions, please reach out so I can share more information over a cup of coffee. Potential clients, please do not hesitate to reach out to our office or schedule a free 30 minute consultation. Divorce Attorneys, Mediators and Therapists should continue to work to build trust between each other and to use each other’s resources to offer the best care we can of the divorcing families we support.