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By Irving H. Zaroff, JD LMFT and Dana Schutz, MA LMFT
We may define therapy as a search for value.
Divorce mediation has, as its ultimate goal, the achievement of a legal resolution. At the Center we have team mediators of attorneys and therapists. So, what does a mediator with training as a psychotherapist bring to a mediation that has a legal objective?
Family therapists receive education, training and experience working with families. This requires understanding of the dynamics in relationships, having an ear for what is working well and what is not, and skills to intervene and disrupt dysfunctional behaviors. In divorce mediation we are concurrently dismantling relationships and building new ones. The therapist mediator can recognize where to provide support and where to discourage emotional reactions which can greatly facilitate both the relationship reconstruction and the design of the divorce agreement.
In the ebb and flow of the mediation process things can get very hot – or very icy. Having experience with diffusing anger or facilitating communication can help moderate these extremes. Therapist-mediators come equipped with these abilities.
In one view of the family dynamic, behaviors are seen as tools to manage anxiety within the family. When one member’s anxiety rises to an intolerable level, that person looks to ease the anxiety in a variety of ways. They may use anger or they may assume a role of helplessness or victimization to shift the anxiety to another. Sometimes they will enlist allies (other family members or outsiders) to lower their anxiety – and create isolation, and increased anxiety, in the other person. These tactics are generally used without the person even realizing how they are managing their own anxiety. These behaviors are not only the common cause of the divorce, but they also stand in the way of the divorce agreement if they do not receive proper attention.
The therapist-mediator helps the couple keep their eyes on the goal (the settlement agreement). They provide space and facilitate the management of anxiety and emotional reactivity. They promote positive communication and look to create an environment safe for exploration of ideas and consensus building. While the attorney-mediator provides the roadmap for agreement, the therapist-mediator provides the guard-rails to keep the process moving forward while keeping the parties safe.