Harvard Post – “A Psychologist Reviews Mediation”

by Laura Rogers


Over the last several months, I have scoured the local bookstores trying to assemble a collection of books that would be useful to my clients who are hi the process of divorcing. While the reference sections are packed with books detailing every aspect or planning a wedding, there is often not a single volume that addresses the man and woman seeking to dissolve a marriage.

Divorce is a lonely time for the people involved, who may be proceeding with shame and little knowledge along unknown paths. A divorcing couple may face courts, judges, lawyers, angry and con-fused children, altered living arrangements, financial anxieties, and sadness, while yearning for a better life. Our adversarial system of divorce, in which each spouse hires a lawyer to battle out decisions regarding the most intimate details of one’s future life, is the vestige of an era when divorce was rare and scandalous, and involved serious moral or financial sins on the part of one or both parties. In Divorce Mediation How to Cut the Cost and Stress of Divorce (Henry Holt $19.95), Diane Neumann speaks with humor, compassion, and knowledge for people who are considering divorce mediation as an alternative to the conventional adversarial divorce proceeding.

Divorce mediation is a method of seeking a divorce through a mediated agreement with the help of a neutral, but not passive, third party. The mediator focuses each person’s attention on the resources available for division; if there are children, on the needs and interests of the children; and on the skills, interests, needs, and abilities of the parents. The goal is to make agreements that each spouse believes are fair and practical when all points of view are considered. It is in this respect that mediation differs from adversarial divorces, where each person tries to “get everything.” No decisions are binding until the end of the process, where both spouses choose to sign a memorandum of understanding or a separation agreement.

When people first hear about mediation, they think it sounds fine, “but not for us, because we can barely talk to each other right now.” Neumann writes that divorce lawyers tend to think it is the rare couple who can manage a mediated divorce, and they are therefore reluctant to refer couples to a mediator. In fact, most mediators find that if both partners have accepted the inevitability of divorce, regardless of how they feel about it, they will benefit from mediation.

In her introduction and first chapter of this highly readable book, Neumann, a mediator and founder of Divorce Mediation Training Associates, briefly describes the benefits of mediation, and the process, step by step, of a typical mediation. She also answers the questions most often asked by couples when they are first considering mediation. In the remaining chapters she extends her discussion and recounts stories based on her experience as a mediator. The reader may notice some repetition, but if you are reading this book because you are considering divorce or are already in the process of divorcing, the repetition may actually help you focus your attention on certain crucial but emotion­ally difficult issues. Neumann points out in her section on stages of divorce that it is quite normal to feel at certain points during divorce that you have lost your ability to think and act sanely, and her book is written in a compelling prose style that should engage readers like this as well as those who are no longer so disturbed by their situation.

I am often asked if mediation is like therapy, or if it is a tool for marital reconciliation. Neumann addresses both these questions directly. Divorce mediation is a way to reach a divorce agreement. Some people who initiate divorce, whether through mediation or through the adversarial system, will reconcile; but that is not mediation’s particular aim. And while mediation is not a form of therapy, she notes that it may be a therapeutic process that “helps each person to heal emotionally by providing a means to work out the end of their relationship in a way that makes sense and is sensitive to their needs.”

Many people cannot believe that it is possible to confront important decisions together, when one or both spouses are feeling in some measure angry, hurt, despairing, exploited, rejected, over­whelmed and afraid of becoming en­tangled in the same dynamics that have brought them to divorce. Diane Neumann, while not a zealot, is ardently committed to convincing you that, pain and doubt notwithstanding, the risks of the adversarial process-letting other people make these decisions for you and your children in an atmosphere of hostility – will make divorce mediation the better alternative for most people.

Readers may wish for richer detail in the case examples, which, though accurate, tend to be sketchy and illustrative. But if her readers are encouraged to make an initial “no commitment necessary” appointment with a mediator to explore divorce mediation, they will be well served. They will then be able to imagine what it feels like to sit with their spouse and a thoughtful, neutral mediator as they begin to build a life after marriage for their family.

Laura Rogers of Sawyer Lane is a psychologist who specializes in divorce


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