Can a Mediator Make Divorce Less Painful?

As a great woman once said, "No divorce is simple. Even if there are no kids involved, you'll find yourself quibbling over an ugly wine rack from Pier One when push comes to shove." That woman eventually found peace with her now ex through a marital mediator. Here's why you may, too.

By Danielle Claro
hands together


What is mediation?

When I went through divorce a decade ago, I thought mediation was only for folks with lots of money, lots of real estate, and so much pain they couldn’t be in a room together (one out of three for us!). It’s not. Mediation is a process that can help anyone work out the myriad details of uncoupling. Even when you think you have that stuff handled, it can take years—literal years—to get things properly down on paper. A good mediator facilitates communication, guides you through the issues with wisdom and empathy, and helps you get to clarity in a faster, cleaner way. 

To find out more, I went to see a mediator and lawyer named Susan Arnold in Yonkers, New York. The first thing I discovered is that mediators—dry as the term sounds—are actual human beings; this one had warm eyes and a quick wit. She seemed like someone I’d be friends with. Second was that mediators don’t all do things exactly the same way. Susan emphasized that she could tell me about her way but couldn’t speak for all mediators. Third was that some human mediators with warm eyes and a quick wit have been through their own divorces. So they really get it. This made me feel comfortable enough to be very frank, bordering on obnoxious, in my questions.

Who goes to mediation?

The Plum: Do people actually want to come here?

Susan Arnold: Usually one person wants to come more than the other.

The one who wants to come is the one who wants out of the relationship?

That varies. I think so far in my practice, it’s the women who are ready for this change, which is really interesting. Everyone always thinks men are going to go have affairs, and that’s how marriages break up—especially living in the suburbs, because women’s lives are often on hold. But it’s not true. It’s fascinating to me. Is it that women outgrow men while their lives are on hold? Are they expanding in dimension? 

You’ve seen a lot of marriages and break-ups. What have you learned?

Everyone thinks that their situation is unique. I thought mine was too. But now, from my perspective, it’s really all the same. 

You mean because there are really only, like, four scenarios to breakups?

Even before the scenarios show up, it boils down to one thing: somebody is not being seen or not being heard. Someone is feeling invisible to the other person—and probably isinvisible—or not being valued for the things they value most in themselves. There’s some failure to appreciate.

What do you get out of mediation?

What’s the goal of mediation, as you practice it?

The idea is to create an overall agreement that is right for your situation. A mediator is a peacemaker, a clarifier, a facilitator. I help facilitate the conversation, so that everyone can be heard. If you’re going to break up, this is the best way to do itBecause if you go fight it out in a courtroom, somebody else is going to come up with what you have to live by—and these are lasting rulings! You know what’s best for your family. You should build this agreement. I’m here to facilitate progress and provide the list of the issues you believe you are here to resolve. 

I think some people feel like mediation is not for them. Like they can figure things out on their own because their lives are simple. I felt that way, but it took years to finalize an agreement.

Everyone who calls—and I mean this without exception—tells me, “We’re good, we’ve pretty much got it figured out. It’s going to be fine. We just need help finalizing.” These people can end up coming for months. We can have all-out wars in here. There’s always something.

With all the pain of divorce—and the feeling that you’re inflicting terrible pain on your kids—it’s so hard to talk productively. 

There’s so much misery in a marriage breaking up. What I’m great at is helping you form new ways to communicate. That’s at the heart of all these problems. If you’re co-parenting and you’re going to split up, you’ve got to find new ways to talk to each other. Couples literally don’t hear each other, even when they’re trying to. What happens at the mediation table is a remarkable thing. Everyone behaves quite well.

What happens at mediation?

Tell us about what happens. What’s the initial session with you like?

Before we even begin, we sign an agreement among the three of us. It’s going to clarify our relationship. Then I give an overview, explaining what mediation is. Then we set some ground rules. The couple drives that conversation because they know each other and can establish that better than I. 

Give me an example of ground rules. 

A ground rule could be no interrupting, or you can’t talk for more than four minutes, because some people go on and on. 

What happens next? 

I have a list of the basic issues, a document called Decisions to be Made in Mediation, which we adjust for their circumstances.It includes things like living arrangements, access to the kids, where the money is coming from. Very often we’ll go through a budget worksheet. And there’s an intake form that has a lot of the details that have to go on the first page of a separation agreement. Then we’ll get going. I’m there to save them money, so we get a lot done in that first session. 

You focus subsequent sessions on specific topics?

Yes, you can’t get through it otherwise. So let’s say the rest of the first session is, “What are we going to do about access to the kids?” 

How many times do people come?

You can go through 6, 12, 18 sessions, and make the agreement along the way. 

What happens once you’ve worked through the list? 

Typically you get to the point of agreement, and then I will urge each party separately to go to their own attorney, take the agreement for review. It should be a mediation-friendly attorney who’s not going to see an opportunity to trump up a case and bill a lot.

Does the agreement have power?

Nothing is binding till it’s signed. Sometimes people are afraid to come to mediation because they think, “I don’t want to get locked in, because what we do with the house might depend on what we do with the pension plan.” Don’t worry, you’re not getting locked in. There’s no risk.

It’s so intricate taking apart a life.

It’s terrible. So my job also is to help them think of everything. 

Finding the right mediator

How do you find a good mediator? I was googling—a lot of them look cheesy or scary or weird.

Word of mouth is obviously the best way And then you have to go meet. I’ll do a 30-minute consultation. Even if you have to pay for a consultation, go together and meet her. [Arnold can be found at]

Can one person go and meet the mediator without the other?

No, I think you should both go, but it depends on how the mediator works. Some mediators caucus—which means meet with each person separately. I don’t believe in that. The way I work, it’s all about trust in the room. I don’t want anyone to feel like I have a channel with the other person that I don’t have with them. 

What would your advice be for someone who feels it’s time to leave a marriage and wants to go to a mediator, and her husband doesn’t want to go? How do you get someone to go who doesn’t want to go?

I think you have to say, “I really think we’re headed toward a separation, and while we can explore whether that has to be the case, we have to get it right. Let’s go talk to somebody who can help. It doesn’t mean there’s no turning back.”




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