Breaking up is hard to do even when both partners agree that it is the right decision for them both. And it’s even more difficult when only one partner is keen to end the relationship and the other wants to save it. Whatever the circumstances, however, most people experience all sorts of mixed emotions including hurt, anger, grief, guilt, despair, bitterness and anxiety about the future. These feelings are normal and they can often be so overwhelming that it’s almost impossible for a couple to have a constructive conversation together, let alone sit down calmly to make so-called ‘rational’ decisions about the future.
We know that many people simply muddle through the separation process with little if any professional support, but the toll on their health can be immense. Very few people are hell-bent on getting into a fight with their (ex)-partner but coping with all the changes and dealing with everyday things when their lives may be falling apart can be extremely stressful, so that tensions and conflicts emerge and quickly escalate if they are not checked in any way. This can be very damaging, especially if there are children involved and they find themselves in the midst of a parental battle-ground. Children and young people tell us that they hate it when their parents argue and it can be very scary. Some children think they are to blame when parents split up and worry that they will never see one of their parents again, especially if everyone is angry and unable to communicate without shouting and making hurtful accusations.
In over 30 years of conducting research with thousands of families who are facing separation or divorce, I have been continually impressed by the determination of mothers and fathers to do what is best for their children, however upset they are themselves, and to avoid doing anything that will damage them and their life-chances. But even the strongest and most determined people say they experience ‘dark’ moments when faced with tough decisions about arrangements for the children’s future, where they and each parent will live, and how they will cope financially. Most parents are not well-prepared for the decisions they have to take or what it will be like after separation. Some parents have described it as like being on a roller-coaster ride, being tossed about in mid-air and feeling totally out of control. Others have described feeling very depressed and unable to see the wood for the trees. Some find it difficult to offer the support and comfort that their children need. But it does not have to be like this. There are several ways in which families can minimise the distress and feel more in control of what is happening to them.
The overwhelming message from people who have been through separation is that it can be really helpful and reassuring to have someone who is not involved with the family to help sort out the mess and restore a sense of normality. And this is where family mediators can be especially helpful. Their task is to support couples reduce conflict and to work towards reaching agreements on the big decisions they have to take, making sure that their own needs and those of their children are taken into account. Mediators will help people to resolve disputes by themselves, and they use their skills and experience to keep people focused while also acknowledging the painful emotions they might each be experiencing. There are different ways to mediate and increasingly it is becoming possible to work online as well as face-to-face with a mediator.
Mediation is not the answer for everyone, but those who try it usually say that it has been very worthwhile: it helps to take the heat out of the situation and to support couples to reach agreements without tearing each other apart or increasing the conflicts and tensions. We know that if conflict continues, the longer-term outcomes for adults and for their children are much worse than if issues can be talked through and agreements are reached amicably. But mediation can be a tough option…it’s not an easy ride. Attempting mediation is a brave thing to do. However, if people facing separation or divorce want to find a way to get through it with the minimum of distress for them and their children, then mediation can work for them. But it takes two to tango, so both partners have to be prepared to give it a go. Those who have managed to do this say things like:
At a difficult time it did a lot to improve the relationship between us.
It has moved us into a frame of mind to try to be cooperative…the children have been put first and mediation helped with that.
I feel it has helped to keep me from getting tense and wound up, and I have been able to keep things happier for the children.
At the worst time of the post-separation period my ex-wife and I were able to meet and not scream at one another and that was quite impressive.
It has reduced the amount of bitterness over a shorter period of time than would have been the case.
Lots of research has shown that mediation can help families to manage a very difficult time in their lives and come out the other side feeling stronger and more able to face the future. It can also mean that children have a better chance to enjoy a positive relationship with both their parents although they no longer live together. So, if you are going through separation or divorce and want to ensure that you keep things on an even keel and come up with the best possible outcomes for you and your children, family mediators can tell you about mediation and how it works, assist you to decide if it could be helpful for you, tell you about other services that might be of assistance, and find an appropriate mediator for you to work with.
Emeritus Professor Janet Walker OBE, Newcastle University
Written by the Family Mediators Association for National Family Mediation Week.
For more information on mediation, contact Sarah Smith on 01423 543117.