Mediation? We Can't Be in the Same Room!

by William H. Donahue, Jr., Esq., APM

Mediation works for really angry couples.

I got a call recently from a woman in South Jersey who wanted me to represent her in a divorce. I asked her if she and her husband had considered mediation. She said mediation wouldn't work for them. "We can't even be in the same room, let alone talk to each other."

Her response was all too familiar and reflects a common misconception about mediation. The truth is you don't have to like each other or even be on speaking terms to mediate your divorce. A big part of my job as a mediator is to help you work through or around your anger so you can resolve your divorce.

First, no matter how angry you are, don't feel that you are alone or unusual. Anger is the dominant emotion in most divorces. The specific events that caused your anger are unique to you, but the anger is not. The two of you may be screaming, plate throwing angry or seething, plotting, ulcer building angry, but however you express it, the anger you feel will affect the decisions you make at a time when you have to make some of the most important decisions of your life.

Mediation can help you make decisions that are in your long-term best interest rather than decisions that only feel right at the moment because they are controlled by anger. A useful technique used in mediation is goal setting. I ask my clients to think about the future, what they need and want to live a good life in the years after their divorce. For most people, the goals are things like emotional stability, financial security, new relationships, and good relationships with their children, friends and family. When you focus on these kinds of goals, you can usually set anger aside and make decisions that will help you reach your goals. It's like when you learn to drive a car. One of the first things you learn is to look down the road a ways, not at the road directly in front of the car.

By contrast, litigation is adversarial and is not designed to address anger issues. Very angry people tend to have bitter, long and expensive litigated divorces. In litigation, you and your spouse communicate little or only through your attorneys so your anger and distrust tend to increase. Out of fear or a desire for revenge you find yourself escalating the hostility at every turn. The conflict can reach a point where even reasonable requests or offers are met with flat rejections. I've seen people willing to bankrupt themselves and ruin their own and their children's lives rather than concede anything to a spouse they see as an enemy.

Mediation is not therapy or marriage counseling, but it deals with anger in some of the same ways. In mediation you learn to manage and work around your anger. It's still there and it remains part of your decision making process. It just doesn't control you or the process.

There is another reason to consider mediation if you and your spouse are very angry. The communication and anger management skills you learn in mediation usually carry over into your daily life after divorce. If you are like most of the people I work with, your anger will dissipate as you learn to express it constructively and without accusation. It will dissipate even further as you listen and come to understand your spouse's anger. As you learn to view your divorce as a problem to be solved mutually rather than as a war to be won or lost, you will probably come to feel that your anger and desire for revenge are less important than getting on with your life. Finally, dealing with your anger rather than letting it draw you into a war you can't control is the best thing you can do for your children. Studies have shown that the level of conflict between parents is the biggest single factor in whether children do well or not after their parents get divorced.