Marital Mediation For Family Mediators


by John Fiske

April 2009

John Fiske If you are a family mediator, you might expand your practice to offer mediation to help couples stay married. The process, called “marital mediation,” uses the specific settlement focus of mediation to preserve a marriage in ways not attempted by family therapy. The process uses your family mediation skills to help couples negotiate new terms for their marriage. Couples may use mediation to enter into a written post-marital contract defining their own solutions. These contracts could define:  how to cooperate in preparing a joint income tax return; who owns what marital assets; how much of their joint funds can each spend without checking first with the other; exactly what would happen to a pension or a house or any other assets if they get divorced: or even how to decide when they leave a good party. (That last issue is tough; one mediating couple ended up using separate cars for a while.)

To help spread the word I am offering one day of Marital Mediation Training on May 13 in Wellesley, Massachusetts. See www.mediate.com/fiske for details, links to other marital mediators, and the beginnings of a bibliography.

Marital mediation is similar to divorce or separation mediation in many respects, yet the entire tone and energy of the couple is different. There is a centripetal force in the room. He may stand up when she enters, or they may hug each other. They look for ways to strengthen their relationship, to put things together and not take them apart. Some marital mediators do not focus on the goal of a written contract, preferring to help the couple change their relationship through better communication and new behaviors. Others, such as the author, find a written post-marital agreement offers concrete settlement features for which many couples are hungry. “We have spent years in therapy and we just aren’t getting anywhere any more,” I often hear. “We want to change how we behave, or define new legal rights, or replace marriage #1 with marriage #2.”

For the mediator, this shift in emphasis is challenging. How do you introduce the possibility of staying married to a couple that have come in to discuss divorce? “Haven’t you been listening to what we’ve told you for the last 10 minutes?” one or both of them may exclaim loudly or, worse, wonder silently. Mediators who decide to add Marital Mediation to their practice need to set the stage in order to introduce the radical idea of working on the marriage without losing her or his neutrality in the eyes of both spouses. This subtle assignment requires careful preparation and skillful timing, and the result is worth all the work. If they say no, at least you’ve tried. The next couple, believe it or not, may come to you for the express purposes of helping them negotiate terms for their new marriage.

A number of family mediators are beginning to use mediation to help couples stay married. Susan Boardman in Connecticut, Laurie Israel in Massachusetts and Ken Neumann in New York and I have written an article for the Conflict Resolution Quarterly urging family mediators to consider adding this professionally satisfying branch of mediation to their practice. (for example, see www.mediationtostaymarried.com, a website of Laurie Israel or www.maritalmediationworks.com, a website of Susan Boardman, or my website at www.mediate.com/fiske ). I have a growing feeling that there are a lot of us out there, for example, mediators in Columbus, Ohio called Resolve (http://www.resolvemediationservices.com/couples.html ). One of the reasons for this article is to use www.mediate.com as a clearinghouse to stimulate other marital mediators to connect with us and among each other.

If you decide to add this new and growing area of marital mediation practice you will greatly enhance your own flexibility and resources just during that first meeting with the couple. When a couple agrees to try to stay together you will find deep professional satisfaction in working with them towards their specific settlement of issues that may have lain “too deep for tears” and their creating, with your help, a more enduring marriage.



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Biography




Partner in Healy, Lund and Fiske, now Healy, Fiske, Richmond, & Matthew, since September 1, 1979. From being lawyer and mediator about half and half in the beginning, I am now about 99% mediator and 1% lawyer.

 

My wife and I took our 3 children, ages 17, 14 and 12, out of school in June, 1978 and we bicycled through Europe and backpacked in Asia for a year, deciding in about April 1979 that when we returned to Boston I would become a divorce mediator. Back home I started  talking to judges, lawyers, therapists, ministers, teachers and anyone who would listen. People thought I was a meditator because no one knew what mediation was, back then. When I said, "I help couples sit and talk and listen to each other and get divorced peacefully," the almost universal response was "That makes so much sense."  Harvard Law School Professor Frank Sander said, "You are riding the crest of a wave, but don't give up your day job."

 

A Massachusetts probate judge, the late Sheila McGovern, recommended I join the law firm of Healy and Lund. Regina Healy and Diane Lund did what she said, and they changed the name of the firm to Healy, Lund and Fiske. They taught me family law and I taught them mediation. Probate Judge Edward M. Ginsburg believed in the process and sent cases to me. My first mediation began with the wife addressing her husband, their two lawyers and me: "We understand we are some sort of experiment!"

 

After two years of mediating divorces I had my first mediation training when John Haynes and Steve Erickson came to Worcester. Then Margaret Shaw joined with the Mass. Bar Association in 1985 to provide more divorce mediation training, and Chris Moore did the same in 1987. Diane Neumann, Phil Woodbury and I founded Divorce Mediation Training Associates in 1988 and we have been training people in divorce mediation ever since. 

 

 

I have probably mediated about 2,000 divorces, separations and contracts to stay married since 1979. In response to requests from families I have expanded my mediation practice to include a broad range of disputes, from siblings trying to decide questions of care of a relative to a father and son reaching a financial agreement. I have volunteered my services as a mediator to my town government: in one case I helped to resolve a dispute between citizens and a town official. The point: mediation is a creative, efficient process for addressing  human conflict. You get a place to talk. You stay in charge of your life.



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