by Jeri Breiner, Ph.D.
The idea of getting divorced tends to immediately predispose individuals to become fearful of change, of backlash, and of the unknown territories ahead. The very beginning of this process can lead to trauma, intense cost, damage to the co-parenting relationship, and long, drawn-out court battles. But, you have a choice to do this another way. However, first, let’s explore why this happens?
Often, the person wanting the divorce begins by consulting an attorney to learn how to go about this process and how to protect him or herself regarding parental rights, finances, etc. This action is motivated by fear, and, thus, the spiral downwards begins. Attorneys are ethically bound to zealously advocate for and protect their clients. That means they want you to use their path, to be cautious, and to not mess up or harm your case. They will tell you to not speak to your spouse because they don’t want you making any agreements or uttering any statements that later can be used against you.
So, out of fear, you form this allegiance with a total stranger and you trust that he or she only has your best interests in mind. You stop trusting your own judgment and religiously follow the steps the attorney tells you that “are required for your safety.” On the other hand, the spouse who finds out that the other is seeking divorce follows the same process, with intensified fear. That spouse is already behind in the chaotic game ahead. That spouse goes to an attorney, as well, and the downward spiral of fear continues.
Litigated divorces, on average, take over a year. Both spouses will spend approximately $3,000 to $5,000 each, as a retainer up-front, just to begin the process. They feel they have no choice but to be trustful of an adversarial system that will pit one against the other. They soon forget that they ever cared about each other, or ever had a friendship. The idea promoted by the attorneys is that you should not talk to the “enemy”. Fear abounds throughout this process, and normally kind and caring people become cunning, devious, suspicious, paranoid and protective of things that they never even thought about having to protect. Suddenly, not getting what I want feels life-threatening, and I am willing to get both of our lawyers into a battle of control to achieve it. This becomes quite costly for both of us and does more damage to us and to our children. It often is also the reason litigated divorces take so long and are so expensive. WHY? The answer is FEAR!
This adversarial process promotes fear. It tears us up. It seriously stresses our finances. It tears up our kids and our immediate and extended families.
But, it doesn’t have to be that way. The first step can be to go to a professional who is trained to help both spouses together figure out what to do, what the next steps are, and how to do it in a way which is in the best interests of both parties and their children. That person is a MEDIATOR. A mediator helps guide you through the process so you can decide your future, based on your real and unique circumstances, and come up with a plan that is achievable and practical. A mediator does not support or promote fear; rather, as a neutral, a mediator helps guide you to talk with each other and make responsible decisions. So, meditate, instead of litigate, to stop the spiral of fear.
Jeri Breiner, Ph.D. is a registered General Civil Mediator and Domestic Relations Mediator with the Georgia Supreme Court Commission on Dispute Resolution. As a Clinical Psychologist for 36 years, Dr. Breiner offers a unique set of skills to help couples get on the same page and think through the implications of their decisions which will affect their futures.
I would love to help mediators and lawyers learn how to reduce the fear cycle so spouses can generate their own agreement which works best for their own unique circumstances!
Jeri, thank you for your wonderful article. You helped me to remember the cases where spouses talked openly about their fears (and other emotions) early in their mediation, helping them to process those emotions together. I wonder if other APFM members would be interested in a webinar (lead by you) offering hints, tips and concrete ways to invite spouses/parents to share emotions in their first contact with their mediator.