By Janet Miller Wiseman

Adriana and Peter Gordon had been married 19 years, and were still living together when Adriana appeared in a lawyer’s office to discuss the possibility of divorce. After finding a room-service-for-two charge on Peter’s hotel bill, he admitted that he had been having an affair with his secretary for about a year. Adriana was shocked. While far from perfect, she had recently experienced more satisfaction with their relationship. Adriana believed their marriage could be saved, certain that it was more solid than his new relationship with a younger woman. But Peter wanted a divorce. Soon the Gordons began divorce negotiations with two attorneys, which dragged on for over two years.

Clients and their attorneys often find themselves frustrated with the time consumed by such negotiations. Couples in divorce often have different ideas for their future relationship. The process becomes more perplexing when they have changes of heart as they negotiate. Clients whose ambivalence about divorce motivates them to prematurely seek information they are unprepared to use present unique challenges. In an effort to clarify attitudes and feelings, such clients frequently seek interventions that have an inherent bias toward saving the marriage, like marriage counseling or couples therapy.

Decisions About Directions

Decision Mediation, or Short Term Decision Making Mediation, is different. It is not geared towards saving the marriage, nor is it geared towards dissolving marriages. The intervention is designed to aid couples reach the wisest, and sanest, perhaps the most important decision of their lifetimes. Paradoxically, the intervention often enhances the relationships of the participants. It is designed for people in relationships who wish to explore their future in a neutral setting. Decision Mediation helps indecisive couples or those with conflicting goals to make joint decisions, after answering a series of probing questions about themselves and their relationship. As they consider and reconsider what is the best for them individually, as a couple, and as a family, they are pausing at the proverbial “divorce door”. Decision Mediation is a rational process that encourages deep emotional expression. It is structured and time-limited, generally consisting of from one to six 1.5 hour sessions. Decision Mediation can provide professional help for people who are very angry with one another despite deeply mixed feelings, or who wonder about the needs of their children when planning a separation or divorce. “The availability of Decision Mediation (or decision making using mediation) provides a means to shunt clients in this stage of the divorce process to a more effective forum,” explains John Fiske, a partner at Healy, Fiske, Woodbury & Richmond, in Cambridge. “The divorce lawyer will have a far less difficult case if the client knows what he or she wants, or is ready for legal steps to end the marriage.”

Following Decision Mediation, if clients decide to formalize a separation or divorce, they return to their attorneys with a more confident direction. With clients not distracted by secondary emotional agendas, counsel and/or divorce mediators are better able to negotiate on their behalf.

Decision Is The Goal

People with all types of decisions come for Decision Mediation:

  • Whether to build an addition to their home for her Mother or locate a residence nearby
  • Whether to have their 19 year old son live in a residential apartment or at home
  • When and whether to have a new home
  • Whether to move to the west coast when a special needs child has a special educational program here
  • ETC., ETC.

In Decision Mediation, the goal is for the couple to reach a concrete decision, or series of decisions, about the future direction of their relationship. Unlike marriage counseling or couples therapy, the goal of Decision Mediation is not to improve functioning within an intact relationship. Paradoxically however, an improvement in the relationship and parenting often happens as a by-product of this intervention. Thus it is not uncommon for a couple to find their relationship enhanced, and their parenting skills honed through Decision Mediation.

Since 1979, almost two-thirds of the couples starting the process in my practice have begun with divergent goals. In general, one wants to save the marriage while the other hasn’t yet decided whether the relationship can survive and provide a place in which to grow. In the remaining third of the couples in my Decision Mediation practice, both individuals state the goal of their intervention as wanting to make a decision about their future direction.

Despite their differences, it is vital for couples in Decision Mediation to honestly express their real goals. In marriage counseling and couples therapy, one party often has a hidden agenda to end the marriage while undertaking the process with seemingly positive goals. Examples can range from a wish to pacify parents, or to give the relationship “one more try.”

Some couples begin Decision Mediation still living together, while others have already separated. At the outset, couples need to accept their need for assistance in clarifying their future direction. That may not be easy to do. They need to be committed to resolving their ambivalence, to end their status of being in limbo.

Decision Mediation is not restricted to partners in relationships. Individual adults have used the process for a variety of reasons. Some struggle to decide the best living arrangements for elderly parents, or to settle the estate of a parent who has died. Others seek clarification for special-needs children, or children in crisis. Through Decision Mediation, individuals come to “own” and take responsibility for their needs. At times when people feel passive, helpless or dependent, when it may seem easier to let events or other people make decisions for them, Decision Mediation can help them re-establish control over their lives.

During Decision Mediation each client is given equal time and attention. Each client is helped to see what he and she wants in a long-term relationship. As nonproductive discussions are re-directed, partners learn to appreciate what each of them cannot tolerate. Rather than blaming each other, clients are helped to acknowledge the difficulties and strengths each brings into their intimate relationships. As both clients learn to take responsibility for themselves, the reject characterizations like “victim” and “victimizer”.

When a client is confronted with a major, life-changing decision and feels acutely conflicted; or when a divorce process becomes snagged by hidden emotional agendas, Decision Mediation can provide an effective, decision-making intervention.

It is amazing that couples with different goals reach a single goal 99% of the time.