Your life was building with a marriage, career and growing family, but now it’s not. Divorce isn’t merely a thought. It’s what’s happening. You’re sad, angry, and resentful, but you don’t want to create more destruction before it officially ends. If you want to end your marriage amicably and you and your soon-to-be ex are on good terms, divorce mediation is often the best path forward.
Divorce mediation is a process where two parties work together, with the help of a neutral mediator, to settle the terms of their divorce outside of court. The goal of mediation is for a couple to work through their situation in an efficient, customized, and cost-effective manner. Mediation allows you and your ex to separate your lives, divide finances, and figure out custody on your terms. It’s also the course through which you create a binding agreement that needs to be unambiguous, formatted correctly, and filed, signed and approved by the appropriate local court. It’s not necessarily a DIY project, but it can be less antagonistic and bitter since no one gets deemed a winner and loser.
“When you go to court, you’re literally handing your life over to a stranger in a black robe,” says Gabrielle Hartley, divorce attorney, mediator and author of Better Apart.
Divorce mediation, on the other hand, “gives you more flexibility. Decisions by the parties can be based on a whole range of factors that won’t necessarily be considered by the court,” says Corey Shapiro, New York City family attorney, mediator and author of Getting Divorced Without Losing Your Mind. “In most cases, if people agree, the courts will accept it.”
But that endpoint doesn’t happen by accident. You need to prepare, accept ideas, and be mindful in order to stay focused on where you eventually want to be rather than get stuck on where you are right now.
How do you do that? These six divorce mediation tips can help.
1. Choose Your Mediator Wisely
Divorce mediation is the process, but it can hinge on who the mediator is, prompting the question, “What makes a good one?” While it might require certification and lawyers and former judges do the job, it’s not the sole realm of those professions.
It’s more of a trained and learned skill, and Shapiro says that mediators fall into a variant of two basic styles, those who are more direct with suggestions, and those who are less so. Regardless of the approach, “Unlike in court with a judge, the mediator is not above the clients,” he says. “They’re trying to facilitate a resolution that works for the parties.” It’s a matter of preference, and the main thing is that you should generally walk out of a session feeling like you were heard, things are being processed, and “I have hope,” he says.
2. Stay the Course
It’s not uncommon for the first meeting to be all emotion, making you fear that, “This will never work. We have to go to court.” While it can feel like the outpouring doesn’t forward things, it can, Shapiro says. People sometimes just have to be heard, and after that, the work can begin, and it’s possible to be done within five sessions. It doesn’t mean that mediation is always the less expensive option, but Hartley says, “It’s money that’s much better spent because you’re in control and it’s more likely to stand the test of time.
3. Remain Open
It’s good to have a picture of what you’d like, but you’re looking for solutions, so it helps to listen and hear what your ex really needs, and then offer it when possible. “Do that and things fall into place,” Hartley says. The house, for example, is a common sticking point. Few people want to give it up, but the real concern might be to remain in the school district and close to the kids.
Or, close to that is a desire for security. Your ex might want to change careers and need help –something that’s hard to admit – but, through questions, a mediator can bring that out. The remedy might be that you cover the cost of school, and, in exchange, you pay alimony for not as long or a lower amount of monthly child support. “You’re opening up a world of possibilities,” she says.
4. Do Your Research
Retaining a lawyer isn’t required, but you will want one to review the separation agreement. Even before that, “You need to know what you’re entitled to before you give it up,” Hartley says. “You can’t make good decisions if you don’t know your best and worst outcomes.” You might not think there’s a lot to divide up, but you can have marital property and shared assets, and it might mean consulting a lawyer on specific issues, Shapiro says. Finances especially can become complicated, and, if you’re not savvy, talking with a financial adviser is “money well spent,” she says. “You need to understand the big picture as well as the details.”
5. Remember the Kids
Parents can believe that they’re the more capable one, and the mediation snag is that in the “other home” the food won’t be as good, the homework won’t be as complete, and the floors won’t be as clean.
Try to remember that kids aren’t young forever. Their needs will change and your individual parenting strengths will come into play. As much as you can, recognize your partner’s abilities. And anticipate your ex’s concerns and head them off with something as simple as texting, “Everyone’s asleep,” or “Great day hiking. Applied bug spray.” Hartley calls them “small gives”, and, for the peace of mind, “They take nothing away from you.”
The kids also pick up on the tone and will respect themselves and you for remaining positive or at least neutral. Even if your hard feelings linger, here’s one more thing to tell yourself: “Your ex isn’t your child’s ex,” she says.
6. See the Future
Most people come in thinking that they’re being fair, but while there is one set of facts, the truth is interpreted through many lenses, Hartley says. You believe that your suggestion is “fair”, but you ex might have another take. When you’re digging in, ask yourself, “Why is this stand so important to me?” Consulting a therapist or experienced divorce coach might help, but what also does is envisioning what you want your life to be and how you want and your kids or ex to describe you in five or 10 years. The long-range view can help avoid momentary battles. “You might have been a horrible married couple, but you can be incredible co-parents,” she says. “This is an opportunity to rest and recalibrate your dynamic.”