FAQs About Marital Mediation

Frequently Asked Questions about Marital Mediation:

How does mediation work?

The mediator promotes and facilitates discussion that allows the clients to exchange differing views, ask questions, discuss difficult topics and find solutions. It involves face-to-face meetings between the parties discussing difficult issues with a trained mediator. A mediator is a communications specialist, and has learned techniques that assist in promoting mutual understanding and productive communication.

After a time spent with the spouses, a mediator can identify faulty communication, defensiveness, and misunderstandings that the parties themselves cannot see. A problem in the marriage can be reframed as a mutual problem to be solved together , and not the fault of one or another spouse. When parties in a mediation are encouraged to talk about their interests and needs (and not just articulate the result they think they want), a whole range of options becomes available to the couple. Because marital mediators are generally also divorce mediators, the mediator can help the clients identify and lessen behaviors and communication styles that could lead to divorce.

How do dispute resolution techniques help marriages?

The biggest reason marriages break up is problems in communication. Marriages are marked by disputes. It is a couples’ style in dealing with differences that makes the difference between a viable marriage and one that fails.

Mediation is a facilitated method of dispute resolution. It is conducted by a trained mediator, who has taken courses in conflict resolution. Mediation is often used to help people reach agreement – in the workplace, in the courts, in family businesses, and in family conflict. It is different than therapy because it focuses on practical solutions and not assessment, diagnosis and treatment.

By using standard mediation techniques such as reframing, expressing interests and needs, and learning how to use active listening, faulty communications can be changed and angry interchanges can be lessened. This will make a couple feel good about each other again, thereby furthering and preserving the marital relationship.

In addition, marital mediators generally have experience in the financial matters relevant to marriages. These financial disputes can cause great distress and bitterness in a marriage. Financial matters can be addressed directly with the mediator who can analyze the financial data, and bring in experts where needed.

Why is mediation effective for marriages?

Mediation is short term, practical, and addresses concrete problems and communication difficulties. It is not therapy, and does not delve deeply into family backgrounds or personal issues. It helps spouses negotiate issues that they are unable to handle directly with each other. It gives them tools to use at home when the mediator is not around anymore.

Mediation models better ways of communication when spouses are in conflict over important issues, or even where there are petty disagreements. Standard mediation practices such as reframing and active listening work well in marriages. Marital mediation often works to help a marriage at times when other methods have failed.

Sometimes married couples (or one of the spouses) has a great resistance to enter into marital counseling. Marital mediation is a good option for these couples to get the help they want.

Marital mediation can help the marriage survive through a difficult time, and the parties have a new chance and can use mediation (or other methods) in the future if they so choose.

What is the difference between marital mediation and marital counseling?

Marital counseling is performed by a range of professionals, mostly with training and background in mental health areas, such as social work and psychology. Marital counseling generally incorporates diagnosis, therapy and treatment of personality and relationship problems. The types of information gathered and used by a martial counselor might include family history, and personal and sexual history. Marital counselors are able to identify neurotic behavior and symptoms of mental disorder and illness, and can use that data in the counseling. A marital counselor will aim to use analytic skills to provide context for parties and help them understand their behaviors, thereby alleviating marital conflict.

The approach of marital mediation is different. Mediation is dispute resolution. Marriages (just like life) are filled with disputes, big and small. When a couple has a unproductive manner of disputing, the marriage suffers.  Marital mediation does not work with pathologies, but works with identification of conflict behavior.  Having a neutral third party observe a couple’s interactions is extremely helpful.

The marital mediator works with a couple to help them resolve ongoing specific disputes and negative recurring interactions. The emphasis is on analyzing the communication of the couple and training them to have more productive styles of negotiation. A marital mediator uses standard mediation techniques to break through communication impasses.

The marital mediation is goal and task oriented, time limited and practical. It can significantly address the financial issues that often trouble marriages, as well as the style of communication of the couple.

Financial disputes are often at the heart of problems, especially in “mature” marriages. Due to their experience in divorce mediation, marital mediators are experienced in handling these types of problems. As specialists in dispute resolution, the marital mediator can help a couple learn how to identify faulty dispute resolution behaviors and stop these behaviors in their tracks. A couple who does this finds that their marriage can rapidly improve.
Many couples in marital mediation are also in couples counseling or individual counseling or therapy. These approaches can work very well together. Marital mediation is also helpful if one or the other of a couple is resistant to seeing a therapist.

Who are marital mediators?

Marital mediators come from many backgrounds, although most are also divorce mediators. This is not actually ironic, since divorce mediators gain great experience on what makes marriage fail.  By using this information, divorce mediators can identify problems and help marriages improve.

Divorce mediators are generally either lawyers, or have backgrounds in mental health or education.

Marital mediators are often (but not always) people in long-term marriages, who understand the struggles and benefits of long-term marriage. Because most marital mediators are divorce mediators, they have a deep understanding of the rules of divorce, and can help couples by imparting information as to what would happen if they did divorce.  That way a couple can get accurate information as to the practical and financial effects of divorce.

Part of marital mediation is educational.  Risk profiles can be pointed out to mediation clients, and “normalization” of typical marital stresses can help couples realize that their problems are problem universal.

How do marital mediators receive training and education?

As with the training of marital counselors, there is a patchwork of training for mediators. Mediators often receive their training from mediation organizations that offer courses. Most mediators seek advanced training when they can obtain it. Training for marital mediators has begun in the past several years. Generally, marital mediator training is offer to family mediators and divorce mediators. It brings in special issues of concern to married couples, and provides simulations of the problems married couples are addressing to further the mediator’s skills.

The concept of credentialing for mediators is not very well developed. Some statewide or local organizations offer credentials for mediators. Because mediation is so personal, it is sometimes referred to as an “art”. It is based more on the talent, personality, personal background, experience and style of the mediator  and the “fit” with the clients) than on objective qualifications.

Depending on a couple’s preference, they might seek a marital mediator with a mental health professional background, or a marital mediator who is a lawyer, when choosing a marital mediator.

People with other backgrounds can also can be effective marital mediators.

How much does marital mediation cost?

The financial cost of divorce is very great. However, if a couple cannot solve the basic communication and other issues in their marriage, the answer for them might be to divorce.

People always underestimate the cost of divorce, thinking of only the legal fees. However, in separating assets and income and creating two households, the economic loss (which at times is unavoidable) is very great.  But people generally can’t and don’t want to stay in unhappy marriages just because of economic reasons.

Marital mediators generally charge by the hour, based on their fee for mediation.  Lawyer/mediator fees are generally in the $250-$350 an hour range.  Nonlawyer/mediator fees are usually somewhat less.  Multiply that by 10 or 20 hours, and you have an estimated cost.  If successful in resolving the marriage issues, the cost is a tiny fraction of the economic cost of divorce.

Marital mediation (unlike some marital counseling) is not reimbursed by health insurance. Because marital mediation has an out-of-insurance cost, many couples don’t choose it.  However, it is very effective for many couples and is generally a very short term process, usually lasting for 3 to 5 sessions. The sessions are generally 90 minutes to 2 hours long.

How long does marital mediation take?

Most marital mediators set aside two hour sessions for couples, with an understanding that the couple only pays for the time actually used. This provides flexibility in the time needed for any particular session and the sessions are not rushed.   With the potential for a two hour session, a couple can complete topics without the session being cut off. Generally, there are somewhere between three and five marital mediation sessions. Couples sometimes come afterwards periodically for a “touch up” session to deal with issues as they arise.

What types of issues can be addressed through marital mediation

Marital mediation is effective for a number of types of marital issues. Financial issues of all sorts lend themselves well to marital mediation. These include job loss, debt problems, spending patterns, feelings of lack of contribution by the other party, risk taking desires, changes of careers, home improvement projects, to name a few. These are practical issues that, if left unaddressed, can cause a couple great difficulty and distress that affects all aspects of their relationship.  These are the types of issues that can end marriages.  They are common, and they can be addressed in marital mediation.

Another area where marital mediation is very effective is in communication styles and how to resolve disputes. They all come down to the problem of  two people always have different views and, even in a long marriage, don’t entirely understand each other.  Little annoyances can destroy the happiness of a marriage.

Most marriages suffer because parties have negative ways of handling differences. Marital mediation provides excellent training and analysis of communication and negotiation skills, smoothing the way towards a happier, more loving marriage.

Marital mediation is also helpful to “normalize” troubles in a marriage, such as when life events (such as deaths, illness, or even infidelity) occur. These events often derail marriages, but they do not have to.

Marital mediation also gives a couple thinking of divorce a “reality check” of what divorce is really like. Often, afterwards, the couple becomes more committed to working out their problems.

When is it important to see a marital therapist, or individual therapist?

Many married couples naturally gravitate towards marital therapy and marital counseling when they are experiencing marital difficulties.  Marital mediation is a very new field, and most married couples do not know it is another route to help them address marital problems.

Depending on the therapist, the style of therapy, and the ability of the couple to make changes, marital therapy or marital counseling can be an excellent way for a couple to work on their marriage.

Many people in marital mediation have, in the past, sought help through marital counseling, or are seeing a counselor or an individual therapist at the same time they are working with a marital mediator. Marriage is the most important personal and financial relationship you will have. It is important to use every resource available to preserve and improve it.

If there are problems such as mental illness, substance abuse, physical abuse, and personality disorders, individual therapeutic methods are important, and marital therapy with a mental health professional might be preferable to marital mediation as the primary way to work on a marriage.

Some married couples wish to keep their work on their marriage on a very practical level, and do not want to delve into personal or family history.  For these people, marital mediation might be a good method to try to resolve their marital difficulties

Does marital mediation always result in a written agreement?

Many marital mediators take the view that improvements in communication skills and in handling disputes are the most important result in a marital mediation.  Most marital mediations do not end up with written agreements about property or other matters.  The improvement in the marriage is made because of the improvement in communication.

Some marital mediators (and some clients) believe that every mediation mediation should result in a written agreement.  Many marital mediators often draft written agreements for their clients where applicable,  but do not see them as a necessary result or component of the process.

What are postnuptial agreements?

Postnuptial (or postmarital) agreements are written agreements between spouses made at a time when the spouses are already married. These are different than “Separation Agreements” or “Divorce Agreements” which are made in contemplation of divorce and are used to define the terms of the divorce after it occurs.  Postnuptial agreements are also different than prenuptial agreements, which are made before the marriage.

Postnuptial agreements range from agreements about day-to-day activities (such as who will do the dishes), to agreements about what will happen if a spouse inherits money, or if property should be transferred to a spouse. Because postnuptial agreements can vary the laws of marriage and divorce, they should be undertaken with great care.

Are postnuptial agreements legally binding?

In many states twenty-five years ago, prenuptial agreements (i.e., those made prior to a marriage) were not binding. Since then, most states have accepted the legality of prenuptial agreements, providing certain requirements are satisfied. The rules vary from state to state, but generally, a premarital agreement must entail a knowing waiver of marital rights, must be fair and reasonable (or at least not unconscionable), and not be coercive.

Law is being developed now about the validity and enforceability of postnuptial agreements. There are variations from state to state in the requirements for a binding postnuptial agreement. Factors indicating enforceability would be a postnuptial agreement that is non-coercive, parties each had a separate reviewing attorney, and if a party is not secretly motivated to better the terms of a divorce. Also, equitable principles are important, and the terms of the postnuptial agreement should be fair and reasonable, almost approaching the type of terms in a divorce agreement that a court would approve.

Because the laws vary from state-to-state, it is important for you (or your attorney) to review the law in your state before embarking on the process of formulating a postnuptial agreement.  Also, postnups can be dangerous — if over-reaching, they have the effect of destroying a marriage rather than promoting and sustaining it.

But even if the ultimate enforceability is not settled in your jurisdiction (or under the particular facts of your marriage and the agreement), a postnuptial agreement, if fair, can be upheld by the parties, and can give them relief if the ways they want, so that their marriage can continue and be ongoing.