This article originally appeared in Transitions Magazine, Building Resiliency in Families
One day recently, my 13 year-old daughter asked me, "Mom, do you get sad when you get a new case? Do you feel bad for the family that's getting a divorce?" She has not experienced divorce directly but has two sets of cousins who have gone through it and she understands how difficult divorce has been in their lives. Her empathy was palpable and I thought carefully about how to answer.
I told her, "I'm not sad because my clients are going to get a divorce whether they see me or not, but hopefully I can help them to have a more amicable divorce where they make all the decisions for themselves. It's better for their kids if they can have a "respectful divorce." She nodded her head and we talked a bit more about families we know who are divorced and how the parents and children cope.
Being a Divorce and Family Mediator has exposed me to a number of different families and unique situations. Each one is an opportunity for a fresh start. I've heard many a judge ask, "Do you think this document represents both of your wishes?" Every divorce has to be fair and equitable based on the couples' unique circumstances. I think about that throughout my meetings with clients. While emotions can run high and anger deep, the time I spend with a couple sorting out the 20-25 issues that they need to negotiate is productive on so many levels. My process is facilitative rather than directive which means I help my clients negotiate but I don't give advice or tell them what to do. I will give information and make sure that both parties are heard. It's important for each party to have an attorney to represent their best interests. If you are using a mediator you want to make sure the attorney understands the mediation process so they support the agreement that you work on together.
Depending on the case, the focus varies. In some cases, I spend more time on finances and unpacking the relationship each person has to their finances. In most couples, one party is in charge of the finances and we take the time to educate the other party on their financial situation. There are a lot of materials to sift thorough and the homework for the couple can be overwhelming. When necessary, I refer them out to a CDFA (Certified Divorce Financial Analyst) or an attorney if they need a QDRO (Qualified Domestic Relations Order), which is used to divide retirement assets.
In other cases, the parenting plan takes center stage. The hardest issue to "divide" in a divorce is the children. Parents are used to being with their children all the time and can't imagine what life will be like without waking up and seeing them in the morning or kissing them good night before bed. Creating a parenting plan that that keeps both parents feeling connected even while physically apart is easier in today's technologically advanced society. Reminding parents that cell phones, Skype and FaceTime are wonderful tools for staying in touch and can lessen the difficulty of the proposed separation.
When choosing a Divorce Mediator, do your research. Ask friend for referrals, go on-line, call the mediator and ask questions. Most mediators will offer a free consultation for you and your spouse to meet her/him and see if you're a good fit. While you want to make sure they have the right credentials and background to support your situation, you also want to feel comfortable with one another as you are going to delve into the inner workings and intimate details of your marriage.
I spend a lot of time volunteering as a mediator in the local court and also am a trained facilitator for the required Parent Education courses in Massachusetts. The most important thing for people going through a divorce is to keep open communication. Remember that your children have a unique relationship with your spouse even if yours is changing through this process. You are grieving and it will be different for each of you. Be available to support your children and you will all be happier throughout the process.
Jody Comins, MSW is a Divorce & Family Mediator and Collaborative Coach in the Greater Boston area. She is an adult child of divorce and uses her experience to create a child-centered practice at A Better Way: Divorce Mediation. She is a mentor for volunteer mediators in the Norfolk Probate & Family Court and a court approved facilitator for the required parenting classes in MA.