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Is Mediation Appropriate for Couples Who Want to Reconcile?

One of the first questions I ask my clients is “Has there been a decision to divorce?” I ask because couples seek help at various stages of their marriage crisis. Sometimes both people are quite sure they’re ready for divorce. Often, only one person is.

And sometimes, neither party is sure they want a divorce, but they do know their marriage is in crisis. In that case, I will ask them if they have any interest in trying to repair their marriage if it were possible. Sometimes people say “yes!”

How can mediation help in those instances when couples want help restoring their marriage? What is the difference between mediation and therapy in that case?

Distinguish from therapy

While both marriage counseling and mediation may help couples open their lines of communication and improve interactions, there are some distinct differences. Couples therapists generally employ psychotherapy to diagnose personality and relationship dysfunction and to establish new patterns of behavior to revive the marriage.

In contrast, mediators help couples resolve disputes and solve specific problems. They are forward-focused and do not analyze the past. A mediated conversation can guide couples to find shared values and devise helpful guidelines to make their family life run more smoothly.

For example, a mediator may assist a couple to identify and resolve disagreements and misunderstandings around finances, parenting and division of labor. Mediation can effectively engage most family conflicts, including questions of career changes, school choices, how to cope with a child’s special needs, and how to manage extended families, in-laws and stepfamilies. Often, finding effective ways to negotiate these issues paves a way forward in their relationship.

Usually, mediation results in a written agreement or post-nuptial agreement.

Sometimes, couples determine that they would benefit from the help of other professionals in conjunction with mediation. As a mediator, my resource database is an invaluable tool for referrals to therapists, child specialists or other professionals who can offer specialized assistance.

Can the marriage be revived or is divorce more appropriate?

Mediation offers a structure for having the difficult conversation about whether and how a couple might be willing to reconcile. For example, the pair may explore whether they want to try to renew their marriage after an infidelity, or how to come to terms with a partner’s substance use or physical or mental disabilities.

If a couple is uncertain about divorce, these are the kinds of questions I might ask:

· Under what circumstances could you imagine trying to restore your marriage?

· What might make you feel hopeful about your marriage?

· If you believed it was possible to resolve your concerns, would that make a difference?

· What things do you think are likely to improve with a separation? What likely challenges do you foresee?

· What might you be willing to try in order to get clarity about your marriage? – couples therapy or intensive therapeutic couples program — or a substance abuse program? Or would you want to engage the services of an appropriate professional – financial, therapeutic, medical, legal, etc…?

When a Separation Makes Sense

A trial separation is often helpful for couples who are uncertain about divorce, providing some space and reprieve from day-to-day conflicts. It also helps to take a look at how things might look if they were to divorce. We then engage in the same mediation process that folks going through divorce go through – exploring options for how to divide assets, manage expenses and schedule time with their children, as well as consulting with an attorney for legal advice along the way. This gives most folks confidence that they will be able to make wiser long-term decisions based on information and experience.

Many of my mediation clients tell me they find the process to be more effective than other interventions they have tried. Sometimes they say it is because they’ve focused on solutions rather than on fault and blame. Sometimes they acknowledge that it’s the first time they have ever effectively had conversations about these topics. Once engaged in the process, people are surprised to find how much they actually can agree upon – regardless of whether they choose to stay together or not.

By Eileen Coen, J.D.

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