Therapists and professional family mediators share numerous core goals: to help family members improve communication by better understanding themselves and each other; to facilitate client’s ability to overcome challenges and progress; and to help clients create a healthy, functioning family environment.
Couples therapists guide spouses through marriage counseling toward potential reconciliation, and in cases where reconciliation is not possible, family mediators pick up where the therapists leave off, guiding spouses through their healthiest possible divorce.
While the specific objectives of therapists and mediators are different, the foundational techniques we use to advance our distinct objectives are strikingly similar.
Objectives of Couples Therapy and Divorce Mediation
Therapy seeks to improve relationship dynamics, by addressing clients’ behavioral, emotional, and relational issues. Family Mediation requires awareness of those issues to solve issue-based problems, and create opportunities for mutual agreement. Reaching agreements in mediation can bring about behavioral changes because of the spouses’ heightened communication within the mediation process, the guidance of a skilled mediator, and the client’s adherence to mediation guidelines.
In other words, in couples counseling the therapist works with underlying behavioral patterns in marital systems to strengthen clients’ relationships, while mediators seek to identify the underlying interests of each spouse, on specific issues, to resolve disagreements and strengthen future co-parenting relationships. To accomplish this goal, therapists and professional mediators use many of the same techniques to guide their clients toward successful outcomes.
Our answer: Well, magic, of course! …But, the real answer is, we employ strategic techniques, combined with astute judgment, to create a space where agreements can flourish.
An essential task of the mediator is to let spouses know that having problems is normal and that the problems they are experiencing are resolvable. One of a mediator’s most powerful strategies is acknowledging a person’s feelings, past action(s) or reactions, behavioral patterns, or some other set of circumstances—as normal and common, —and not unusual, thereby normalizing the client’s experience.
The mediator can often immediately help lower the client’s anxiety and/or de-escalate conflict by informing clients that their experience is normal. Both general circumstances, as well as specific circumstances, can be normalized.
Normalizing General Circumstances
A mediator, in a joint mediation meeting, might sense that clients are fearful that they will not be successful in reaching agreement.
Mediator: “I understand there is some conflict between the two of you or else you probably wouldn’t be here. Just so you know, I’ve never sat with any divorce mediation clients who didn’t have some conflict between them. But your past conflict has little to do with your ability to have a very successful mediation process today or your ability to reach thoughtful agreements regarding your children.”
What has normalizing done for these clients? It has acknowledged their fear of being unable to reach agreements and provided comfort by helping them see that they are not alone—that everyone in mediation has conflict and that the vast majority successfully reach agreements. This gives them hope that they too can reach agreements. A confident, reassuring mediator diffuses angst and gives permission to keep going. The message in mediation, “You can do this and we are here to help you every step of the way.”
Normalizing Specific Circumstances
When a mediator normalizes specific circumstances, they can help prevent divorce from turning into a war. Therapists and mediators both have an opportunity to help clients avoid unnecessary conflict when issues relating to children’s behaviors erupt during divorce.
Divorce Mediation, Scene One…. Action!
Mom: They are just not ready yet for overnights with their Dad. Every time I hand them over, they cry and scream that they don’t want to go. They want to stay with me.
Dad: Yeah, but once they are with me, they don’t want to leave. Last week, they were saying, “Can we please stay with you, we don’t want to go back!”
Mom: You’re lying! You know as well as I do that they cry and say they want to be with me.
Dad: Oh, really? Then let’s ask them! Be ready to hear the truth, because they would rather be with me.
The mediator now has an opportunity to educate clients about well-researched child coping behaviors that will normalize a situation like the one described above and will lower conflict in the moment and well into the future. A few examples of child coping behaviors are:
- ‘Protecting Parents’ Self-Esteem’
This is a coping behavior children use to try to comfort or “take care” of their parent(s) during the difficulty of divorce. Although it is true that children love and have empathy for their parents’ pain during divorce, this behavior is triggered by an effort to ensure their own emotional survival. A child may try to boost both parent’s self-esteem in an attempt to establish stability with each of them, in order to address their fear of emotional abandonment. Thus, a child may tell Mom that she wants to live with her and tell Dad that she wants to live with him.
This is a normal behavior children use to cope with their fears surrounding their parents’ divorce, which parents often misunderstand. As a result, both parents can become convinced that the child really wants to live with them. This can lead to a destructive child-custody court battle. If parents only knew this behavior is totally normal, they could make sound, reasonable decisions and agreements to avoid unnecessary conflict.
- “Proving Loyalty’
This is a coping behavior used by children who feel it is not possible to love both parents because their parents no longer love one another. This results in the child sacrificing, at least temporarily, the relationship with one parent, to prove their loyalty to the other.
They might think, “Mom is angry at Dad because he hurt her. So how can I still want to spend time with Dad? Mom might be mad at me if I want to spend time with Dad. I better make sure Mom knows I am on her side.”
These children feel the need to prove their loyalty as a result of their need for security. This can result in a child ‘siding’ with one parent and cutting off the other entirely. The child subconsciously accepts that it is better to have one parent 100% than to risk alienating both of them. Extreme misinterpretations of this behavior can cause both parents to seek sole custody.
- ‘Separation Distress’
This is a coping behavior that often occurs when children are exchanged from one parent to the other. During the exchange, children may cry or resist leaving a parent—demonstrating the emotional loss of leaving a parent. However, this often indicates a close bond with both parents. Unfortunately, a well-meaning Father may misinterpret this behavior as proof that the child does not want to spend time with their Mother. An exasperated Mother reacts by assuming that the Father is bad-mouthing her and causing their daughter to cry during exchanges. This can result in both parents fighting for more parenting time, or even sole custody, based on inaccurate and false assumptions.
Now, imagine the impact that normalizing these child coping behaviors can have on the situation. In the mediation room, the mediator can immediately move the parents’ focus away from blaming and toward problem-solving. One can only imagine the intense conflict that such normalizing prevents.
Mutualizing is a technique used by a Mediator to frame or re-frame a statement to show spouses that they have a mutual interest of which they were not aware. Recognizing common interests helps spouses come closer to reaching agreements. Often, Mom and Dad each have their own position on an issue, and on the surface these positions seem very far apart. The Mediator can show them they have a shared interest, which can bring their positions closer together.
Divorce Mediation, Scene Two…. Action!
Mom: Children need their Mother!
Dad: Well they need their Father just as much!
Mediator: I would imagine children love and need both their Mother and their Father.
Divorce Mediation, Scene Three…. Action!
Scene: Mom wants a “1-week on, 1-week off” parenting time schedule. Dad wants a 2-2-5-5 schedule—with Mom on Mondays and Tuesdays, Dad on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and alternate weekends with each parent.
The mediator has the opportunity to mutualize this scenario.
Mediator to Mom: I’m guessing that spending a full weekend with the children is important to you, rather than splitting time on the weekend. Is that right?
Mediator to Dad: The full weekend with the children is important to you as well, correct?
Dad: Yes, very important.
Mediator: Okay, so a full weekend with the kids is important to both of you, good.
Although Mom and Dad whole-heartedly believed they were polarized, by mutualizing their desire for a full weekend with the kids, the mediator has brought to light their common interest. Substantively and psychologically, mutualizing brings them closer to an agreement.
In this scenario, the mediator would continue to ask Mom and Dad about what is important to each of them when creating their ideal time-sharing plan. After hearing their interests, the mediator could identify several key common interests, to include:
- having a consistent and predictable routine;
- having less exchanges; or
- avoiding physical exchanges directly between parents.
With an understanding of their shared interests, the mediator can mutualize and help the parents to brainstorm parenting-schedule options that check the boxes of their mutual interests. It will be far easier for them to agree on a plan having done this groundwork, with interests mutualized in advance of decision-making. From there, they can successfully create a time-sharing plan that works for both of them.
Summarizing moves the mediation process forward by helping spouses hear and understand: what they have agreed on thus far; where they are close to reaching agreement; and where they are specifically not in agreement. This process brings focus to the conversation and helps spouse’s attack their disagreements, rather than one another.
Summarizing can also give spouses their bearings in the vast sea of issues being discussed. Further, it can take the form of positive reinforcement by showing spouses how much they have accomplished thus far. Strategic summarizing can help generate forward momentum while helping the mediator manage the rapid-fire exchange of information.
Reframing involves the professional mediator or therapist, reflecting to the speaker, the essence of the speaker’s ideas in the professional’s own words. Just as the original statement had both content and emotion, the professional’s reframing should mirror the same content and emotion. However, the mediator can filter the original statement in a strategic way, so that the reframing accurately acknowledges the intent of what was said, and allows the other spouse to more accurately understand the message.
Divorce Mediation, Scene Four…. Action!
Scene: Husband, Wife, and Mediator are in a mediation meeting.
Husband: I can’t stand the idea of alimony. She wants the divorce and now I am supposed to pay her for it?! All those years, I was the one who went out and worked my tail off, while she stayed home with the kids. It makes me so angry!
Mediator: So, I think I hear you saying that the issue of spousal support is going to be challenging from your perspective. You’re frustrated, but acknowledge that since you worked outside of the home, and your spouse worked inside the home for many years, spousal support is necessary for each of you to be financially stable after divorce.
Husband: Yeah, I guess.
Husband and Mediator essentially said the same thing, but in very different ways. When the mediator’s hypothesis of the statement’s meaning was confirmed as correct, the reframing was essential to moving the conversation forward.
The Husband felt heard and the reframing process reinforced his own subtle acknowledgement that spousal support, in some amount, would be paid. Additionally, he acknowledges that this is due to the choices they both made during the marriage.
By reframing before the Wife had a chance to respond, the mediator tactically eliminated the need for her to respond at all. The message she heard was likely that Husband did not want to pay support, and thus, she may have lashed out in self-defense. But because the mediator intervened, Wife was able to hear that Husband is going to pay spousal support. When the mediator reframed, ”stayed home with the kids”’ to “working inside the home,” it served to support the Wife’s sense of dignity. This reframing also mutualized the importance of being financially stable after divorce.
The mediator may even go on to normalize and anchor the conversation as follows:
Mediator: So, let’s be real—the topic of spousal support is very sensitive. I don’t know that I’ve ever met any spouses who felt comfortable discussing this issue. Support is something that both the payers and the recipients aren’t a fan of for different reasons. So, let’s go about this conversation understanding the realities of the circumstances today. Your children’s well-being depends on each of you being financially stable. Let’s talk with each other in the most respectful way possible.
When reframing, professionals should focus only on the important message, omitting irrelevant or counterproductive information. They must remain true to the deeper meaning of what was said, never twisting or manipulating it, but rather, crafting the communication in a way that can be accurately understood by the other person. In mediation we define a mutual problem, to come to a mutual agreement, so any reframing that brings parties into better understanding is helpful.
As marriage and family therapists and family mediators, we benefit from recognizing that we all use the foundational techniques of Normalizing, Mutualizing, Summarizing, and Reframing—among others—to strategically provide clients with what they need most, hope. We are all investing in reducing family conflict and helping them avoid family court.
Family therapy provides hope for a renewed marital relationship and for the clients’ futures together, whereas professional family mediators provide hope for their clients’ redefined relationship as co-parents. Working in tandem, marriage counselors and mediators support the healthiest possible outcomes for families, whether through reconciliation or through divorce.
We light a path of peace and hope for families.
Our Vision, The Aurit Center for Divorce Mediation
Karen Aurit, LAMFT is an expert in family dispute resolution systems design and Director of Mediation Services as well as Co-Founder of The Aurit Center for Divorce Mediation.