• When is the best time to mediate?


    By Angela Riley

    I am frequently asked ‘when is the best time for mediation to begin?’ When relationships end, whether or not the parties have been married, many people go through an experience similar to those experiencing death of someone close.  They are effectively mourning the end of their relationship and there are various stages that parties must pass through before they are able look optimistically towards the future and for many, making those decisions about finances and parenting forms part of the closure that they seek.  As people heal at different rates, it is quite usual for parties to ‘not be on the same page’ when the mediation commences.  Skilled mediators are aware of this and can be a very important part of the healing process for parties in mediation.

    Emotions can affect parties’ ability to mediate in various ways.  Sometimes a client will want to punish the other party, to make them pay for choosing to end their relationship. At other times they may feel that if they are really generous with their settlement proposals that the other party may soften and want to take them back.  Both positions are unhelpful in mediation and the mediator needs to talk to the couple to see if these attitudes can be controlled within the decision making process.  If not, then mediation may be better left until this emotional stage has passed and the parties are able to think more clearly about the decisions that need to be made, rather than how the choices can hurt or persuade the other person.

    Some couples do come to us, both agreed that their relationship is over, both with respect and concern for the other and both wishing to reach settlement that feels fair to each of them.  These are in the ideal place to mediate, but couples coming to mediate in this state are in the minority. For many, one party may they feel they are ‘innocent’, they have lost their partner through no choice of their own, the family life they anticipated has been taken from them and their life has been turned upside down.  They feel as if they are in free fall and don’t know where they will land.  They think that their partner has planned the break-up, is in control of everything that is happening and they are powerless. 

    The skill of the mediator is needed to help them by giving information and encouraging and empowering them to start out on a new path that may feel scary but that can also be exciting, challenging and invigorating.  The mediator also has to help the other party to understand that their partner needs time to make decisions, cannot be pushed into agreeing to proposals without considering all the pros and cons and helping to balance the power within the mediation room.  In this situation both parties may need help in understanding and untangling their relationship as a couple and re-building this as parents and setting new boundaries and ground rules.

    However, not all parties mediating are mourning.  Sometimes parties come to mediation never having been in more than a casual relationship that has resulted in a child.  These couples need a different approach.  They may have no emotional tie so for them they are not mourning any loss, but they struggle with the fact that they are now in a relationship that they perhaps did not actively choose – that of parents.  They may need help in establishing this, finding ways of communicating and setting boundaries as to how they will move forwards as parents  when they have no history as a couple.

    Other couples come to us having been apart for many years.  Some may not have even seen each other for months or years and neither has any idea how the other is feeling, or even what is happening in their lives.  Usually these couples are relieved at the end of the first session to find they were both extremely apprehensive but that ‘it was not too bad’!  Progress then moves on more swiftly and usually without too many emotions for the mediator to have to manage. 

    Some couples may have been getting on fine for months or years and then one of them gets a new partner and things suddenly start to go backwards.  These sessions will start with some frank discussions about where new partners fit in, what they expect and how much they feel they can or can’t let the new partner into the family.  These sessions can be extremely effective and ground rules can be set so that the boundaries are clear and everyone – especially the children – know where they stand. 

    Mediation is not just for couples leaving relationships, but any couples that are struggling to make decisions on their own and need some help.

    Grandparents often ask for mediation when they have lost contact with their grand children and want to try to heal the breach between themselves and their child’s ex-partner.  These can be difficult sessions but generally successful, provided that both parties are willing to discuss how they can help heal the breach, even though this can be very difficult and are willing to look to the future and put the past behind them.

    Clearly each set of circumstances is different, the list above is not exhaustive and emotions are different for everyone, but the mediator needs to understand where each party stands, how they feel and how best they can be helped to give them both the best experience when sorting out their problems.   Clients need to know that the ups and downs after a change or breakdown in their relationship are to be expected and the mediator can help by normalising and giving coping strategies to help during these times.  There is no ideal time to mediate – the experience is different for everyone.  What is important is that the mediator and the parties are aware of the difficulties and these are addressed as part of the mediation process.

    What a privilege for a mediator to be able to help, support and share in such an emotional and empowering journey. Even an experienced mediator never tires of the thrill of seeing a client who at the start of the mediation was in bits, not sure what questions to ask, let alone how to find the answers, move through the process and come out at the other end with a settlement they can live with, an assurance that there is ‘life after divorce’, and a confidence that life may soon be good again.