The Role Counseling Plays in Divorce Mediation

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

As a mediator, I get calls from couples who think mediation can save their marriage. I explain to them that mediation is not designed to do that. The goal of mediation is to end a marriage in a way that is civilized, dignified and non-adversarial.

People who believe that their marriage can be saved owe it to themselves and their children to seek the help of a well trained and experienced family or marriage therapist. I discuss marriage counseling with all of my mediation clients before we begin the mediation process.

I think the misconception that marriage counseling and divorce mediation are the same thing came about because the two processes are similar in some ways. They use many of the same techniques to help couples learn to communicate, to get over emotional blocks that prevent effective communication. Both processes help spouses develop a deeper understanding of themselves and each other. Both processes empower people to express needs and emotions that may have gone unspoken for many years.

But that is where the similarity ends. A marriage counselor will do these things and teach these communication skills to help a couple heal and rebuild their marriage relationship. A mediator will use these techniques and help a couple communicate so they can move forward, negotiate a reasonable divorce settlement, and establish a new, post-divorce relationship.

The "War of the Roses" Couple 
Another misconception about mediation is that a couple must be on good terms for it to work. When a person calls me to represent him or her as a divorce lawyer, the first thing I ask is if they have considered mediation. A common response is, "We couldn't mediate. We can't even talk to each other."

Mediation can work for almost every couple, but it is the angriest, most bitter couples who stand to benefit the most from mediation. There are two reasons for this. First, they have the most to lose in the litigation system. The financial and emotional cost of fighting over every detail of a divorce is enormous, if not ruinous. Second, because these are the people who most need to learn the communication skills that did not exist in their marriage. Through mediation, many angry couples learn to put their anger aside so they can reach a settlement that is truly in their best interests and not one that satisfies a need for revenge or punishment.

If Not Marriage Counseling, What?
Divorce can be so stressful, that even during the course of mediation, either spouse may feel a need for help coping. For them, divorce counseling is often the answer. Divorce counseling helps people deal with the pain, anger and grief of divorce. Emotionally, many people deal with divorce the same way they deal with a death. They need to work through the same emotional stages: shock and denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Unfortunately, without professional help, some people get stuck in one of these stages. Since the goal of divorce therapy is not for the couple to get back together, but to deal with breaking up and moving on to a new life, it can be done in conjunction with mediation.