In family law mediation, it is not uncommon to hear the parties question their judgment regarding the difficult decision to proceed with divorce. I am often asked by one of the two individuals sitting in my office, "Don't you think we make a cute couple?" or, "Aren't we great together?" These are uncomfortable questions in the mediation environment, and ones that I am not equipped to answer. After all, a mediator isn't a marriage counselor, and isn't charged with the responsibility of determining whether and when to call it quits. So this raises a few questions: Can a troubled marriage really be saved? Is the relationship really worth saving? And finally, do we need a mediator?
If a person needs help losing weight, should he just give up without trying? If an addict feels helpless to live a clean life, should she succumb to the addiction and not seek help? Anything worth having is worth fighting for, and marriage is no different. Building a life together with another person is like building a road. The design of the road is planned ahead of time, but as the concrete is laid, there may be obstacles encountered that require the road to take certain twists and turns. These adjustments, if appropriately managed, may only result in little cracks in the road that can be repaired with some attention. But if ignored, these same little cracks can turn into giant, seemingly irreparable craters. The timing of when you seek marital maintenance may be the difference between whether you need a marriage counselor or a mediator.
Conventional wisdom holds that marriage counselors are in the business of fixing relationships, while mediators are in the business of dismantling them. As a mediator by profession and a hopeless romantic by birth, that sounds pretty dreary, so I look at it a bit differently. Instead of simply ripping apart relationships, the role of a mediator is one of facilitating the dissolution of a marriage by carefully redefining the couple as individuals, and gently extricating their financial and emotional lives so that they can move forward as two separate people. The mediator works closely with both individuals to identify problems and find creative solutions without resorting to litigation. In contrast, marriage counselors are in the business of improving relationships. According relationship expert, Jonathan Zalesne, founder of Fort Collins Family Counseling in Fort Collins, Colorado, "When a couple comes to see me for marital counseling, I see the relationship as my client, not the individuals sitting before me. I tell them up front that, until they tell me that they have given up, I will never stop fighting for their relationship. So long as there is not abuse or an unsafe power differential, I believe that the relationship needs an advocate, and that is how I define my job."
Though it seems counter-intuitive, marriage counselors and family law mediators are not at opposite ends of the spectrum. There are times when both the sound advice of a marriage counselor and the facilitations by a mediator can help couples cope before, during and after a divorce. Like a road, a marriage is a continual work in progress, requiring re-mapping, planning adjustments and maintenance. And sometimes you need to rip out the road and take a train. As you and your spouse grow and change, your relationship inevitably changes as well. Sometimes the changes cause stress in the relationship. And sometimes they kill it. Only you can determine whether your relationship is worth saving. As Zalesne says, "If your marriage counselor tells you to get a divorce, find a new marriage counselor."
So what determines which professional to choose? Must you select one over the other? Look for future articles that will discuss signs that you need a marriage counselor and how to choose one, how to identify and select a mediator, and more information regarding the various professionals who can help before, during and after your divorce.