Mediation to Stay Married

Vicki L. Shemin, J.D., LICSW, ACSW

When Jill and Don first contacted Boston Law Collaborative in early September, 2008, they wanted to explore alternative dispute divorce options as they believed that their 7-year marriage was irretrievably broken. Arriving at this painful decision was all the more poignant for this young couple since they had a one year old son.

With my background and training as both a clinical social worker and family law attorney, I could not help but notice some atypical non-verbal cues Jill and Don exhibited. The manner in which clients choose to arrange their interpersonal physical proximity speaks volumes about their psychological state of mind. Not only did Jill and Don elect to sit on the same side of the conference room table, they sat so close to one another that their elbows were practically touching. They spoke in hushed and mutually respectful tones and gave the other partner ample time to articulate his and her feelings. Instead of looking at me, they most often spoke directly to one another. As to their communication, the theme most central to both their parallel and collective conversations was their deep love for their son, Alex.

As is typical in a first-time meeting with a couple seeking a Joint Petition for Divorce, we covered a lot of ground: we spoke about Jill and Don’s respective current and future goals and interests; what they had done over the years to work on their marriage; the various non-litigation alternatives to negotiating the terms of a divorce; and we went through the detailed Family Law Notebook that the firm has compiled and provides as a client service to prospective and new clients. A treasure trove of articles, forms, templates and guidelines, the Notebook provides a detailed and realistic overview of what a client can expect as s/he goes through the divorce process. It was while reviewing the information contained in the Notebook that I sensed a distinctive sea change in the couple: perhaps overwhelmed by what actually getting divorced entails, perhaps striking at the heart of any ambivalence they may have felt coming into the process, by the end of the meeting, Jill and Don looked one another squarely in the eye and contemporaneously asked each other – “Is this what we really want to be doing?” I shared with Jill and Don some of the observations about their interactions that I had noted during the meeting and took a leap of faith by exploring with them the prospect that, if they were interested, we could discuss an alternative to divorce mediation – namely, mediation to stay married.

Jill and Don left our office that day very different individuals from the two who had walked in just an hour and a half before. About a week later – and notably it was on September 11th, Jill contacted me and said that she and Don had had long discussions about their future and decided they wanted to change course. While they were each able to be “in a place of calm and coming from a place of love,” they wanted me to draft a document which would lay out the details of their co-parenting plan for their son if and when the marriage did end in separation or divorce one day. That is, they wanted to tackle and conquer their greatest fears about what would happen to their son – and between them – if divorce became a reality; if that day ever came, they did not want to be making decisions concerning Alex borne of spite, anger or vengeance.

Fall turned into Winter and Winter melted into Spring. Over the months, Jill and Don worked hard on hammering out the details of a Custody and Parenting Agreement which addressed matters such as legal custody and a very detailed co-parenting schedule (including Summer and holiday schedules), as well as a provision anticipating the use of a Parenting Coordinator as a mediator/arbitrator to facilitate the couple with parenting decisions in the years to come. The document was finalized, executed in triplicate in the presence of a notary, and tucked away for safekeeping just in case it was needed one day.

In mid-March, I heard from Jill. The email said: “Don and I are in a good place in our relationship right now, and I feel we will be in an even stronger now that this Parenting Agreement is behind us. We sincerely thank you in advance for your patience and understanding and for showing us there was another way to move forward in our lives.”

I could not help but notice the date on the email – it was Friday, March 13th, 2009.

It is more than a year later since that Friday the 13th email, and I am told by Jill that she, Don and 2-year-old Alex are all doing great.

September 11th… March 13th… this family to date has beaten the odds.

Here are actual quotes from the clients, one year later:

Jill: “Vicki was more interested in our well-being – and our son’s – than in expensive litigation. Her compassion and warmth were an unexpected breath of fresh air, and she used her training as a licensed social worker to keep us calm and focused. Contemplating divorce and custody issues was the hardest thing I’ve faced in my life. I would walk into the waiting room of Vicki’s office with butterflies in my stomach. But the minute I saw her reassuring smile, I felt better, knowing that, with her help, we would make the right decisions.”

Don: “I second all that Jill said, and reading this case study did bring tears to my eyes because you noticed things between Jill and me that were actually the things that made continuing in our marriage possible – the respect and concern for each other as well as our deeply shared love for our son. We’ve come a long way since then and I know our choice of mediation with you and Boston Law Collaborative played a part in us ultimately staying together. Thank you for that!”