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A Mediation Story – Part Two

Updated: Apr 22

The previous post, A Mediation Story – Part One, highlights a dynamic that leads to the erosion of the marital bond. Jean-Marc seems to think that it's all over and that there's no point in continuing the marriage. He may have been thinking about separating for some time and now claims to be ready to negotiate a divorce. His frustration is tangible. This is so different from this other couple for whom negotiating seemed fairly easy and who didn't seem to resent it. When they came to see the mediator, they were already living apart for some time. Despite some challenges, after just two sessions, these parents reached an agreement on the child's living arrangements and other parental authority issues, as well as on maintenance and extraordinary expenses. The mediator had noticed that the two parents seemed completely neutral towards each other, their only common ground being the interest of their child. This was not the case with Jean-Marc and Lotta.


Two angry marriage partners risk drowning out the small hope that underlies the request for mediation. In fact, when we're upset or frustrated, we don't really listen any more. The mediator has to step in to interrupt the blame game who leaves so often people feeling helpless. Sometimes the mediator catches the blow intended for the other spouse. In addition to de-escalation, this mediator was keen to understand the unspoken needs of each spouse that fuelled their frustration. She could approach de-escalation in several ways.


One way would be to separate Jean-Marc and Lotta by talking to each of them individually. This is the caucus principle. After these discussions, where everyone would feel heard and understood, the meeting would continue with two more appeased spouses. The price of this appeasement is the loss of the opportunity to hear what the other has to say. The mediator could also calm things down by reminding Jean-Marc and Lotta to respect speaking turns and communication rules, such as using "I" sentences. She may achieve her goal, but the spouses may also feel like they're in front of a schoolmaster.


This time, the mediator chose a third possibility, that of rephrasing, closely following what each spouse says and expressing understanding for their difficulties. Through continuous rephrasing, the mediator prevents Jean-Marc and Lotta from repeating the familiar dynamics of the conflict in her office. She is well aware that our own pain cuts off empathy for the other person’s pain. As an impartial third party, she can hear and validate each person's hurt.


The mediator aims at bringing coherence to Jean-Marc and Lotta's harsh conversation by putting into words what she sees. Naming emotions makes them more manageable. Here, the mediator acknowledged Jean-Marc's frustration generated by the loneliness he feels in his marriage. This loneliness and lack of connection with his wife lead him to demand her presence in an authoritarian way, which drives Lotta away. We are created for connection. The loss of connection throws us out of balance, and frustration can be a protest against this loss. Once their feelings heard by the mediator, Jean-Marc and Lotta would hopefully free up some space to hear each other. They can then decide to explore the future of their relationship in a calmer way. They might decide to stop mediation and work on repairing their marriage with a couple therapist.


While separation solves certain problems between spouses, it also creates new ones. For some couples, conflict increases after divorce, while ambivalence and regret at not having worked hard enough on the relationship may arise after divorce. Divorced or separated parents will have to see each other again when the children travel between their homes, for sports competitions, graduations, birthdays and even their weddings. For all these occasions, and for everyone's well-being, a viable co-parenting relationship remains essential.


#Mediation allows couples considering separation to explore the practicalities and consequences of separation. At the same time, mediation facilitates mutual recognition of needs, interests and values, while spouses find a place to express and share their feelings. A study of thirty-eight couples published in 2020 in the journal Nature shows the positive effect of mediation on satisfaction with the content and conduct of the discussion, which is not the case for direct negotiation between them. Mediation also tends to increase positive affect and reduce negative affect, thereby improving the quality of the couple's discussion.

Photo Credit: Elizaveta Dushechkina on Unsplash

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