Mediation and Professional Training, with Bob Collins
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Marital Mediation

In recent years, some of us in the mediation field have expanded our practice, employing divorce mediation techniques with the goal of preventing rather than facilitating divorce.

This new practice of “marital mediation” has as its goal allowing people to live more happily ever after, rather than separating: applying the tested techniques of divorce mediation to help couples negotiate new approaches to the problems causing friction at home. Frequently, these subjects are similar to ones faced in divorce mediation (how to budget and handle finances, and who’ll assume what responsibilities for parenting), while other couples present new conflicts (how to plan vacations, intimacy issues, etc.).  However, while the topics and the mediation process may be similar, the goal is different — to allow couples to NOT have to divorce.

This Ain’t Therapy – Marital mediation differs from marriage therapy and couples’ counseling in that it limits discussions of any underlying feelings – and avoids exploration of the historic reasons or deep psychological issues that created them.  Marital mediation focuses instead on teaching couples to negotiate more constructively, to  find practical and pragmatic solutions to prickly problems.  The permanent resolution of some marital problems may well involve a greater understanding of  the feelings and the deeper issues that created them.  But as a preliminary improvement, it may be unnecessary to understand a partner’s reasons for refusing to change a diaper, or the history with their parents that might be responsible for such an attitude, so long as the two parents can work out an acceptable allocation of diaper duties.

This Ain’t Legal, Either – It’s not that marital mediation is illegal, but the solutions reached may not need to be reduced to a written, enforceable contract, as they would in divorce mediation.  In many cases, a formal agreement may simply not be necessary. For example, if a couple wants to negotiate the joint purchase of a weekend house, but the Husband needs assurance that the house will be put on the market and sold if he’s unemployed for more than three consecutive month, that agreement can and should be put into a contract that would be enforceable in court.  If, on the other hand, the couple is struggling over a schedule of who’ll be responsible for the early morning and late night “outings” with the family dog, that type of agreement might better be simply printed out as an unsigned, color-coded schedule and posted on their refrigerator door.  Finally, if a couple were trying to negotiate a promise for one spouse to use their best efforts not to be provoked into political discussions with their siblings at their next Thanksgiving dinner, a commemorative nod and statement of “okay” accepting the newly-minted undertaking is probably the best finalization.  The formalities after a marital mediation come down to what’s needed.

How – Unlike divorce mediation, in which there’s a checklist of all the issues that need to be addressed for a formal, legal separation agreement, in marital mediation the agenda is set by the couple. What can be an “issue” in this context ?   Simple — an issue is anything that one person does that’s causing problems for their partner.

Why – Marital mediation offers an attractive alternative to marital therapy.  The process is more concrete and shorter in length; the mediator can contract with a couple at the first meeting to deal with specific, defined issues in an agreed-upon number of sessions.  Marital mediation also has greater appeal to many people uncomfortable with the idea of therapy, but open to practical negotiation sessions. Finally, “couples’ counseling” frequently feels – or actually does – have as its goal a commitment to the continuation of the marriage. Marital mediation affords a more neutral alternative that appeals to many couples; partners needn’t declare at the start that they’ll stay together, but instead explore how issues might be handled differently if they didn’t split up.  (In this way, marital mediation is closer to “Discernment Therapy” – a forum for couples to explore whether they should remain married, or separate.)