What circumstances led you to mediation?
My husband and I separated 18 months ago when I was 41 and he was 53. We had been married for 10 years and had two children – a daughter aged 10 and a son aged 7. When my husband moved out it was extremely upsetting for all four of us, but he and I were adamant that we would do everything possible to remain amicable to limit the impact on our children. We were in a situation where we knew we needed to divide capital and agree both spousal and child maintenance whilst keeping life as normal and calm as possible for the children. We’d both seen couples go through solicitors and courts to achieve a divorce settlement and almost without exception relations had worsened dramatically during the process.
What was your understanding of mediation at that time?
Actually I’d never heard of it before. When a friend suggested mediation I thought she was referring to marriage guidance counseling which we’d already been through in order to try and save our marriage. But she explained that it was an alternative to using solicitors to thrash out a settlement. As a family lawyer herself prior to having children, she was aware of how the legal process could lead to additional confrontation and distress. Solicitors generally are there to act in the best interests of their client and get the best deal for them. That almost inevitably leads to the parties being set against each other and with the best will in the world, even the most amicable ex-couples find it almost impossible not to get dragged into the drama. That means more time, effort, money and stress for everyone. Although not all experiences are like this, the first solicitors we both contacted had this confrontational “let’s take your ex for as much as we can” attitude so we were keen to give mediation a go instead.
What was the mediation process like for you both?
Overall, we found the process to be professional, collaborative and sensitive during a particularly stressful time for us both.
Initially we each had a one-to-one meeting with our mediator allowing us the space to get things off our chests, note key issues and identify what we particularly wanted to achieve through mediation. It enabled us to then focus on the administrative tasks with some, although not all, of the emotion already released and out of the way. Beyond that, all further meetings were together allowing for an open and honest exchange of ideas.
The mediator supported us in agreeing how to split the capital, arranging ongoing spousal and child maintenance, plus making arrangements for the children. In our situation it was natural for the children to stay with me and for us to have a very informal and flexible arrangement for my husband to spend time with them. I know that’s not the case for everyone and that this is a really emotive area but, again, the mediators are there to help you reach a sensible, fair, child-centric solution.
Our mediator guided us through the information we needed to collect, setting us homework to pull the necessary data and figures together. This was fantastic as we didn’t spend days struggling through forms alone trying to work out what to put where. Plus she was a whizz with mental arithmetic and did all the calculations for us! She was always happy to recap or explain points, particularly around the financials, if either one of us appeared unclear.
When it came to deciding how to structure the finances going forward, she was in a position to suggest the sort of approaches other people had taken in managing their settlements if we wanted a start point for a discussion about options.
After each meeting she would write up what we’d agreed and send it to both of us so there were no misunderstandings.
During the sessions there were times when we disagreed on things or felt angry and other times when, I in particular, became quite emotional. Our mediator was incredibly sensitive and empathetic. She managed the situation so calmly, without judgment and by giving us breaks if needed.
What should couples be aware of going into mediation?
It’s not an easy process but that’s more to do with the logistics of getting the information together, form filling and dealing with the emotional aspects of separation and divorce rather than mediation itself. Those things would be issues regardless which route you chose to take, whether it be mediation or via solicitors. Also, it’s still about the end of a marriage and that’s a tough thing to deal with.
Also, like many things in life, you get out what you put it in – if you want it to work it will. However, if you’re intent on a fight and causing financial harm to your partner or, far worse, using the children as a weapon to hurt them, it won’t. And you’ll damage your kids further along the way too. Mediators have the tools to try and ease the situation but they’re not miracle workers. You have to work with them.
What would you do differently if you had your time again?
We mediated up to a point but my husband was between jobs. We managed to agree most things but needed to clarify maintenance when he started work again with new contract terms a few months later. We used solicitors to do this but it led to a long drawn out process with emails and phone calls to and fro, time lags, misunderstandings, increased tension and significant additional fees too. If we could change anything, we would have gone back to mediation to complete the agreement.
What advice would you give to couples in your situation?
I would definitely say to use mediation. Separation and divorce are difficult enough for a family. It’s a roller coaster of negative emotions. In my experience, mediation is the calmest, swiftest, least expensive way to reach a settlement and enable the whole family to move on with their lives.