When my marriage exploded after 14 years, it felt like the rug had been pulled out from beneath me. There was so much to think about, so much to try to understand, so much to figure out. It was overwhelming.
But somehow, one thing became clear — I was not going to hire an expensive attorney to help us split our stuff and our time with our kids, then 9 and 12; thankfully my former husband thought the same thing.
It’s not because we had a particular kind or loving conscious uncoupling. No, it was because we were pretty poor and cheap. Spending tens of thousands of dollars to divorce didn’t make sense — each of us needed to save as much money so we could support ourselves and our kids. So we agreed to figure out as much as we could by ourselves and see a mediator to help us sort out the rest.
I’m sure glad we did. Not only did it save us tons of money, but it also avoided a long, drawn-out angry battle that many divorcing couples face. And as study after study has shown, parental fighting — not divorce per se — is the biggest problem for children of divorce.
“Conflict within a marriage or after a divorce is the most harmful thing parents can do for their children’s development,” notes Marilyn Coleman, distinguished professor emerita of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Missouri.
Mediation helped us focus on the bigger issue — raising our children — rather than fighting over money or stuff. I can’t help but think that we all of us benefited.
“Litigation creates an adversarial environment, which does not really teach couples how to communicate and negotiate respectfully,” family mediator Roseann Vanella told me.
Instead, mediation and collaborative divorce create “a non-threatening environment and through the process teaches one another to communicate in order to reach an agreement,” Vanella says. “People’s experience of divorce lasts with them for their lifetime and especially will affect how they interact post-divorce. A big part of interacting is in co-parenting.”
Couples who seek a less contentious divorce can choose a mediator — a neutral third party who acts as a facilitator to couples to help resolve whatever issues they have, or collaborative divorce, in which each couple has his or her own attorney to help negotiate a settlement agreement, but meet together regularly in four-way meetings to come to a quicker, cheaper, more problem-solving and, hopefully, peaceful end to their marriage.
That doesn’t mean everyone can mediate or have a collaborative divorce. Anyone dealing with an abusive or manipulative spouse is probably not going to be able to a divorce happily through mediation or collaboration.
According to psychologist and divorce mediator Joy A. Dryer, mediation or collaborative divorce will only work if couples are open to cooperation, transparency, informed consent (meaning they understand all their options) and shared confidentiality (keeping whatever’s discussed and agreed to between the couple and their attorneys and not with friends, family or on Facebook).
Which means some couples are going to have to hire a go-for-the-jugular attorney. But mediation should be the start, or so says family law attorney Mark B. Baer.
“Unless and until the default process for handling divorce and other family law matters is changed from litigation to some form or forms of consensual dispute resolution, it only takes one person to sink the ship and thus destroy the family,” Baer says. “Parents who end up in court are forced into an adversary system that knows little about child development and less about the best interests of children or the family unit. In sum, the adversary system destroys families. No one can expect a couple to effectively parent after being exposed to the court process.”
As former Colorado Supreme Court judge Rebecca Kourlis, the brainchild behind the Center for Out-of-Court Divorce in Denver, Colorado, notes, most divorcing couples with young children nowadays prefer “a less adversarial manner that is better for their kids and for their own personal long-term health and well-being.”
And that, ultimately, is what it’s about. You may no longer be able to live together as a couple, but you will forever be parents to your children. How will you best be able to do both — without going broke in the process?
“Most children love both their parents and want them to get along. It is tragic for kids to see, to hear, or worse — be caught in the middle or alienated from one parent,” Dryer writes.
But mediation and collaborative divorce aren’t just for parents of young children who are seeking to keep their children out of the fray; it’s also a way to part without a lot of acrimony for couples who are childfree, by choice or chance, or whose children are adults.
My children are in their 20s now. While their father and I haven’t lived together for many years, we have been together as a family for many important milestones — graduations, birthdays, holidays — and we will be for whatever milestones may come. I don’t think we would have been able to do that if we had an acrimonious divorce.
Vicki Larson is a divorced mom of two young men. She is a longtime journalist, author, writer, editor, and freelancer, whose work can be found in numerous places — websites, magazines, books, newspapers and here. Vicki is the co-author of “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists, and Rebels.” You can learn more about Vicki at http://omgchronicles.vickilarson.com.