• An Emotional Journey - Comments from a Mediator's perspective


    By Gemma Burden

    A mediator’s role is not to be a counsellor or friend, but instead to keep their clients focussed on needs for the future, the options they can explore and the practical solutions that will bring them some closure.  That said, the underlying feelings of both clients will inevitably impact on their ability to meet this goal both during mediation sessions and outside of the mediation process and for that reason, the client’s emotional journey cannot be ignored.  Here I am going to share some insights into that emotional journey from a mediator’s perspective:

    Everyone’s emotional journey is unique

    Every couple who come to mediation, carry with them some emotional baggage, whether it be shock that their partner has left them, guilt at being the person to make that final decision, fear about when they will see their kids next or anger at being treated unfairly.  The list of emotions and reasons for them could go on and on, but what is clear is that no situation is black and white, and both parties will have an emotional fall out of some kind to deal with, whatever the factual scenario.  No one can change this fact.  The emotional journey is part of the process and it can be quite a relief to clients to hear that it is ok to feel how they feel, that they can’t help it, they have to give in to it and ride that wave.  Explaining to clients that their emotional journey is unique to them and different to that of their ex, and that they will each feel different things at different times, helps them to see how reaching agreement on practical arrangements can prove so difficult.  Often the person who decided to leave for example, will be so much further along in their emotional journey and ready to move on, whereas the other person remains in shock, unable to make decisions at all.  In mediation we cannot cure people of those feelings, but we can talk about how arrangements can be managed to show respect and empathy for those feelings and avoid misunderstandings that so easily arise through lack of communication.

    Blame and Guilt

    We hear: ‘You wanted this, you live with it’; ‘You have chosen him/her over us so why should you see the kids’; ‘You had the affair, I am not paying you a penny’ – someone’s perception of who is to blame for the break up is voiced time and time again, and understandably so because they are hurt and angry and in their mind did not want to be in this situation having to pick up the pieces.  The other side of the coin is: ‘It’s all my fault, you can have everything’;  ‘I can’t take the kids away from him at Christmas, I’ve done enough damage’; ‘You won’t have to struggle, I’ll support you for the rest of your life’ – the person who made that final decision to end the relationship can often be so eaten up with guilt that they will agree to anything but further down their emotional journey may backtrack or live to regret it.

    The challenge for the mediator is to pick up on what is driving these comments, to allow those feelings to be recognised, but to nonetheless help the clients reach a fair and child focussed outcome rather than one lead by blame and/or guilt.

    Fear and Insecurity

    Entrenched positions are often driven through fear of the future, whether that is concerns about financial security, fear of being alone, an inability to manage paperwork, worrying about where everyone will live, or being afraid that a bond with a child will be broken.  It is not uncommon for example for the main earner to be concerned about the other parent holding all the control when it comes to the children, but for the resident parent to feel that the main earner has all the control of the money, and these two issues then become entangled, with neither being willing to give up control of ‘their’ bargaining tool.

    A good mediator will help the clients see that there are options that will address their fears, for example: that the children need both parents and arrangements can be reached that work for everyone; that financially they can manage once child support, benefit claims, tax credits, employment options etc are addressed; that parental separation does not have to break the bond with a child (often parents report having more quality time with their child than when they were together); and that there are lots of agencies out there that can help with form filling, debt management etc.

    Maintaining the Parental Relationship

    Separating parents do not have to like each other, and it is fair to say that some, for many years, live with real feelings of anger and hate towards their ex.  However, they are not divorcing their kids and a great deal of our time is spent with parents, helping them to find ways of managing their parenting relationship, despite how they feel about each other on an emotional level. 

    This area of a mediator’s work can be extremely rewarding – hearing parents saying to each other in a session ‘look, I know we hate each other, but you are a great Mum’ or ‘I cannot forgive you for what you have done to me but I know the kids love you and I would never stand in the way of that’ can be such a powerful moment. 

    Our role is to grasp statements like these, and use them to steer the parents into a discussion about: what practical arrangements will work for them and their children; what ground rules can they put in place to ensure that feelings of anger and hurt do not get in the way of those arrangements; and how can they conduct themselves to protect their children from those underlying feelings that they cannot help, but that are not to become their children’s problem.


    It is often taking that last step towards conclusion that people find so difficult.  Many times we have had mediations, where, after a few sessions, which seemed unproblematic there is an inability to compromise over the dining room table, or the fridge freezer.  Recently I had a client who broke down in the session to sign the final Mediation Summary and she could not understand why, on this day, she felt so emotional when previously she had (in her words) held it together so well.

    The answer:  Endings are always difficult.  It could be the final realisation that there is no going back.  It can be that the ongoing conflict is now the only thing binding that couple together and it is hard to let go.  It may be that fear of the future again rising to the surface.

    How do we manage this?  We help the parties to recognise it for what it is.  Just acknowledging these feelings is often enough.  We talk about where they see themselves 5 years from now – do they still want to be caught in this ongoing fight?  We talk about what it will mean for them and their children for this ongoing battle to be over and done with and how it will enable them to move on with designing their own future.

    If you have any other insights into the emotional journey of separation that you would like to share with us please email gemma@laceysmediation.co.uk or visit our pages on facebook, twitter or linked in which can be accessed via our website www.laceysmediation.co.uk