By Oliver Ross, JD*, PhD.
My role as a divorce mediator is to help couples communicate and negotiate effectively, proffer a variety of options and alternatives for the resolution of issues, and provide legal, financial, tax and other information – all in furtherance of increasing each spouse’s ability to make fully informed decisions and reach agreement.
However, we all know that emotions can impair the ability to make informed decisions. It is for this reason that in working with divorcing couples, I place emphasis on helping them understand and cope with grief.
In this paper, I will explain the relevancy of grief to divorce mediation. I will also delineate the benefits that accrue when mediators acknowledge and normalize the emotions common to grief.
It thus becomes essential for mediators to help divorcing couples understand and cope with grief, and thereby lessen its effects on informed decision making. For those who are recurrently angry or sad, the mediator must acknowledge and normalize their grief humbly and empathically. For those who are stuck in a depression that visibly affects their judgment, the mediator must encourage support from an attorney or mental health professional.
No matter their stage upon entering mediation, most divorcing parties benefit when mediators acknowledge and normalize grief humbly and compassionately. The simple acknowledgement (e.g., “I can see how angry you are…) and normalization of grief (e.g., “…and in my experience that’s very common and normal”) often goes a long way to diminish the intensity of grief. Some parties come out of the shock of denial and begin to experience helpful emotions; for example, they begin to express their anger. Others leave depression behind.
Children are also likely to benefit when mediators make grief known and help parents advance toward acceptance. As parents move past the early and frequently volatile stages of grief, children progress more readily through their own grief. This is particularly true for minor children who typically have far fewer coping skills than adults.
Greater trust also accrues when mediators reveal grief. By uncovering grief, mediators give divorcing couples the assurance that their mediator has the desire and equanimity to manage emotional outbursts. It is for this reason that I make it point to reveal grief as early as possible, preferably during a pre-mediation consultation, by disclosing the anger and sadness I experienced in my own divorce.
Acknowledging and normalizing grief also provides fertile ground for mediators to demonstrate empathy, humility and compassion. These are the three human qualities that Situational™ mediators believe are most likely to lessen grief and thus help divorcing couples broaden perspectives, change positions and reach agreement.
For all of these reasons, it is vital that mediators look for opportunities to make grief known and help divorcing couples understand and cope with it. It is in this way that mediators can best help divorcing couples communicate and negotiate, consider a wide range of options and alternatives, and understand the legal and financial information necessary to make informed decisions.
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