Q: We’re facing divorce and have heard about mediation. I’m not exactly sure what it is, what’s nvolved, but we want to do this as easily as possible for our children. Whatever information you can provide in helping us to decide whether mediation is the best option would be great. Thank you.

A: When someone comes between a couple, this usually means trouble. However, when a mediator is in the middle, it often means relief. Mediation is one of the methods for making your divorce decisions. I commend you for considering your children first when choosing how to proceed with your divorce.

For retaining as much autonomy in the process as possible, mediation is second on the continuum for divorce-decision options, starting with the most to the least for self-determination. 

First, of course, making all the divorce decisions yourselves provides the most autonomy. Many parties are able to divide the kitchen contents, DVDs, CDS, and small items without any help; however, moving into the more serious decisions usually requires the support of a third party. 

Next in the sequence is mediation, a process in which the divorcing parties make all the decisions, with a neutral, third party facilitating. 

Third is collaborative law, in which each party retains a collaborative-trained attorney for four-way meetings.

Moving along the continuum, the next method is negotiation through attorneys, with each party typically hiring his/her own attorney to work out the agreements.

Finally, if the parties are unable to reach resolution, the judge will decide the outcome through litigation. This final method is very costly, both financially and emotionally, particularly for the children. Not only has the parties’ autonomy been sacrificed, but a judge is deciding what is best for a family he/she does not know.

As a divorce mediator, I have worked with many husbands and wives who have decided to end their marriage, yet do not want to fight through attorneys and promote high costs. Just as with solving any problem, when people reach their own agreement, the chances of that working are much better than having a judge decide for them. The entire Divorce Agreement and the Parenting Plan are worked out during the mediation meetings, although there are some cases where the only conflict to be mediated is simply about “who gets to keep the house,” or “who will have more time with the children,” or “who will be responsible for the debt.”

Those choosing mediation as the method for making their divorce decisions typically embrace the entire process, from beginning to end. It’s unusual not to have all the issues resolved; however, if the couple remains stuck with a single issue, the parties might have to negotiate through attorneys on that particular part of their agreement (example: an anticipated inheritance).

The majority of people filing for divorce are in debt. No matter how much money you have, it’s typical to have a shortfall. It’s no secret that a family will live better under one roof, with a combined financial pool, than they will living in two separate households with two sets of overheads. It can be challenging to work out their respective budgets, particularly if the couple has never been good at budgeting. Therefore, the discussion becomes not one of “who gets the house,” rather it is about “who can afford the house.” In many instances, neither party can maintain the marital home, leading to an agreement about selling the house and dividing the equity, either to pay down debt or to help finance each party securing less expensive housing.

A mediator does not take sides or make decisions, but acts as a neutral third party to help guide the divorcing couple in reaching their agreement. During any impasse, the mediator will brainstorm options with the parties, presenting ideas that have worked for others in similar circumstances, and offering suggestions. Each conflict is discussed individually, with the mediator ultimately drawing up the final documents. Although each party makes his/her own decisions, the mediator recommends that they each consult with an attorney, to fully understand his/her rights and to make informed decisions.

My bias about mediation, after being a mediator of 20 plus years, is seeing the benefit to the couple’s children. This method provides good preparation for parenting after separation or divorce. It will be necessary to co-parent, making important decisions for your children. Your ex-spouse will be your child’s other parent for the rest of your life. The research supports that most children not only survive the divorce, but they can actually thrive, when receiving the emotional and financial support of both parents. Conflict between parents is what is most damaging to the children. Childhood is seriously compromised when children are caught between contentious parents. They suffer with sadness, anger, feeling unsafe, with weakened confidence at a time of increased insecurity.

Finally, mediation is not for everyone. It requires both parties to sit in the same room, to listen to each other, offering productive proposals. Some couples find it’s too painful to do this, at a time of heightened vulnerability. However, when it’s possible, mediation will assist parents in crafting parenting plans that are customized for their particular family. Communication is mutually respectful, ultimately leading the parties to personal empowerment, which supports a healthy, successful, co-parenting relationship. It’s a win-win for all members of the family. 

Being able to resolve conflicts peacefully is one of the greatest strengths we can give our children. — Fred Rogers