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Mediating Divorce and the Collision Between Emotions and the Law

by | Mar 14, 2023 | Divorce, Family Law, Mediation

Back in 2003 when I took my very first Divorce Mediation training there were about 18 of us enrolled in the week-long course.  Three of us were divorce attorneys and everyone else was therapists.  The course was taught by a Husband and Wife team where one was an attorney and the other was a therapist.  Their model was to do team mediations where one of the two mediators would bring their expertise on the law and the other would help the couple navigate the emotional issues and provide expertise on child related issues.  I remember wondering how the therapists expected to navigate the legal issues involved in a divorce.  I imagine the therapists were wondering how us attorneys were expecting to navigate the emotional and child related issues as well.  Divorce involves a collision between emotions and the law.  A successful divorce mediation requires educating the couple on the legal issues that must be sorted out while overcoming challenges in communication, trust, and navigating the bundle of emotions that might stand in the way of sound and cooperative decision making.  In this week’s blog I acknowledge that I went to law school instead of getting a Masters in Counseling and so there are some things I am better at than others.  Recognizing our shortcomings and connecting with other professionals to supplement our work with our divorcing clients is a good strategy to build an effective process.

Tools in the Tool Box.  Unless you have the luxury of mediating with another professional who carries the other expertise or you are one of those rare professionals who went to law school and pursued an education in a mental health field, you work to develop skills to supplement your expertise.  I imagine for most therapists that mediate divorces, they work with an attorney to assist with addressing the legal issues and for drafting settlement agreements outside the scope of the child sharing issues.  For us attorneys there are trainings that give us the basics on helping couples communicate effectively and navigating the emotional pitfalls that are often present in a divorce.  

Setting up ground rules for the mediation which demand respect for one another, and requires that only one person talk at a time is a good starting point.  Active listening strategies making sure each spouse is hearing the other and acknowledging what they are hearing helps with communication challenges.  Keeping voices from being raised, providing each spouse with a safe space to express themselves, and helping to clarify where there are similarities and where there are differences can provide structure and a sense of progress as we proceed with the work.  Simple things like compassion and acknowledgement of feelings can go a long way in bringing each participant to a place where they are ready to move past the emotional barriers and to soundly tackle the decisions that need to be made.

Acknowledging Tools we Don’t Have.  I recently attempted a mediation that simply needed more than I had to offer.  There, I said it.  We like to think that we have all the answers and for most couples I have developed a good set of “therapist” type skills to go with my legal expertise to effectively work through the divorce.  With this particular mediation I dug deep into my bag of tricks and nothing seemed to work.  One of the spouses carried so much resentment, mistrust, and anger that I could not find a path through the turbulence to an acceptable solution.  At the end of the session I felt beat up.  Who knows if anyone could have found the solution for this particular dispute.  There are those cases out there that just need a Judge to step in and make a decision.  The case had involved a legal issue that benefitted from my legal perspective, but much more importantly, it had an emotional dynamic that needed the expertise of a therapist.  We should be okay to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers, especially when there is a unique emotional challenge, a complex financial issue, or a child sharing issue that can benefit from a child development specialization.  

Supplementing with Other Professionals  Through years of both litigating and mediating divorces I have developed a sufficient skill set that allows me to navigate most couples through their financial, property, child sharing, communication and emotional issues present in their divorce.  There are times when I am working with couples that we decide it will be helpful to bring the insight of another professional into the conversation.  It might be to bring in a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst to do a complex calculation or to provide support to a spouse who has never participated in handling the family finances.  It might be a business valuator to weigh in on the value of a business or income available for support.  It might be a referral to a therapist to provide one or both spouses with emotional support and guidance through the process, or a child specialist to help add further expertise on how to best meet the needs of the children.  It is a sign of strength, not weakness, to develop a plan with the couple to identify when it will be helpful to supplement the process with other available resources.

Navigating around the Collision.  Divorce is a unique situation where couples are asked to make very important business decisions while enduring difficult emotional challenges.  Divorce professionals are tasked with navigating couples through this place involving both heart and head.  By providing a sound legal education, as well as a safe, supportive environment for communication and for working through emotional challenges, we can avoid the head on collision and deliver the couple to a place where they can make good lasting decisions for the family.  Our work should be recognizing what we are good at, growing our skills outside of our expertise and recognizing when it will be helpful to bring in other resources.  Divorce is a collision between emotions and the law and therapists and attorneys have a lot to learn from each other to best chart the best path through to a healthy outcome.

 For the like-minded professionals out there, feel free to schedule a 1-1 meeting with me and discuss the ways we can best support one another’s practice and the clients that we serve.