Mediation is not the same as counseling. A couple should not come to divorce mediaton thinking it may save their marriage. Mediation is not the remedy for saving a marriage. That is the role of marriage counseling. The over-arching goal of divorce mediation is to help two parties reach a concrete agreement that addresses the issues that must be decided in order to separate their lives and live as a divorced couple. Rest assured, a divorce mediator will support you if you want to save your marriage, but they will not pressure you to stay married.
On some rare occasions, however, the process of helping parties build a concrete agreement ends up helping parties develop better communication skills and improved understanding of each other’s needs. Sometimes, this results in a more peaceable and satisfactory relationship. In rare cases, enough steam is let out of the pressure cooker that parties might report that they feel they no longer need a divorce.
This can happen for a couple of reasons. The process of mediation teaches techniques for resolving disagreement. The methods employed in interest-based negotiation are designed to address the underlying problems rather than attacking the other spouse. Real problems are tackled, but in a way that builds and heals the relationship rather than tearing it down, or how to “fight fair”. Additionally, sometimes a couple is able to reach an agreement through mediation that provides a roadmap for how they will relate to one another and live together. After they begin to live within the rules of their mediated agreement, problematic issues may disappear or no longer seem problematic. Then, the path is cleared enough to begin the process of rebuilding trust and enjoying each other’s company.
By helping parties get rid of some bad stuff (arguing in ways that tear each other down) while keeping some of the good (building empathy and understanding), mediation may result in some space, some breathing room, that can provide immediate relief and give the couple time to seek deeper relief through counseling or other means. On the other hand, mediation that helps a couple stabilize their marriage is not the end of the story. It is merely a stopgap that can buy a tiny bit of time. A marriage on the brink needs more help than what can be achieved through mediation. There are likely to be longstanding issues involving trust, intimacy, and hurt. Marriage is too deep and too close to one’s heart not to work on these issues to restore a relationship, isn’t it? If mediation can possibly pull your relationship back from the brink, then fine, but don’t stop there. Willingness to do the hard work of rebuilding trust and intimacy is what restores health to the relationship.
Many couples whose relationship improves after mediation are the same couples who report that they have tried counseling and that it “didn’t work.” The problem is, that there are many different styles of counseling. Additionally, some couples “hit it off” with one counselor but not with another. If mediation helps a marriage in which people have already tried counseling, it is likely that a different counseling approach will be helpful, one that can go deeper than what mediation can provide. Thus, if mediation stops the slide toward the brink, then referral to a more appropriate and effective form of counseling will then be made.