The man and woman who came to me for a divorce mediation were both in their 50’s, attractive and successful. She was a reporter for a prestigious newspaper and he a prominent local TV newscaster. They had been together for 20 years and had two children, ages 10 and 13. His income and future income potential was very high and hers above average and secure. In addition, they expected a substantial inheritance in the future. Their lifestyle was very comfortable, if not lavish, of which they were both aware.
At the consultation and first session, they appeared to be a mediation couple from heaven. They were calm, pleasant, articulate and arrived with clear (and reasonable) ideas of what they wanted to do about their children, their finances and their divorce. They were not obviously angry at each other or filled with resentment or hatred, although the marriage was breaking up because the wife had “fallen in love with” someone else and wanted to take the children with her into a new home. They spoke of their desire to make the divorce as simple and collaborative as possible. He spoke, more than once, of “taking the high road”, even though the separation was not what he would have chosen.
I knew that initial sessions are sometimes like that. Years ago a more experienced colleague told me that it was often at the third session that she started to see the nastiness and pain that usually are part of matrimonial mediations. That turned out to be true, as a generality. But at the third session of this mediation (after long intervals in between, consultations with their trusts and estate attorney and some e-mailing discussions back and forth) we were finished and I was ready to draft a memorandum of understanding.
After I submitted the draft to them there were some revisions, but there was no second-guessing of what they had decided. The changes were made to fine tune tone, correct a detail or two and add a protective provision suggested by the trusts attorney. Within 10 days of receiving the draft they had an MOU .
How was this couple able to be so constructive, goal-oriented and, well, pleasant to work with? I have been puzzling over that and have some conclusions. Unfortunately they do not include any suggestions on how to import the tone of this mediation into others. Nor can I claim substantial credit for it–it mostly came from the two people who were arranging for their separation.
When the marriage began to unravel, the two entered couples therapy, which they were continuing on a very occasional basis when we began mediating. They were still living in their marital co-op, but separately, for over a year, while her future new home was being extensively renovated. The two of them came to and left the mediation sessions together.
When I mentioned at the end of the final session how unusually free of acrimony the process had been, the husband attributed it to the fact that they “had enough money”. But that’s not it, or all of it, as the most notoriously bitter divorce fights are among the rich. Who else can afford the legal fees?
On reflection, I think that several factors contributed to the tone and productiveness of this mediation.
When the mediation was concluded, I kept thinking about the experience and just how unusual it was. It was a great mediation in terms of efficiency and result. The couple structured an idiosyncratic and very appropriate agreement, one which incorporated exactly what they wanted/needed to continue parenting together. If glitches should arise, they are in a good place to work them out together.
My sense is that they worked through a final separation with more ease and decency than many couples bring to negotiating a choice of school for a child or a vacation. Still, it saddened me that a couple with such good will toward each other and such an excellent way of communicating isn’t staying married.
Zena Zumeta reflects on a particular occasion when her work as an advocate for labor unions moved more into negotiation. She realized that one must think differently in order to...By Zena Zumeta
When we perceive that someone may have a disability, it is common to think about ways to help that person. But assuming that someone needs help is paternalism, and it...By Dan Berstein