4450 Arapahoe Ave., Suite 100
Boulder, CO  80303
Phone: 303-415-2042
Fax: 303-499-3937

Send an Email: Click Here


Beth B. Ornstein and Faye K. Peterson

It’s already May, you and your spouse are separated, and both of you have agreed to file for divorce. The kids will be out of school next month and the summer is unplanned. Your attorneys have recommended mediation. You’re wondering if mediation can work. You wish for an amicable divorce, but over time you and your spouse get together, you get in an argument, your stomach turns, and you’re unable to think clearly. All you feel is anger at your spouse and sadness at the way things are going. Afterwards you feel like you’re failing at the divorce as well as the marriage.

Your attorney has told you that alternative dispute resolution (ADR) is mandatory in all divorce cases set for trial in the Twentieth District Court in Boulder and that mediation is the most commonly used method in divorce cases. Your attorney explains that people can often resolve their own disagreements by working with an impartial third party such as a mediator in a neutral, voluntary and confidential environment.

You attend three mediation sessions. At the first two sessions you reached a number of agreements regarding parenting time during the summer. However, by the end of the third session you are angry that your spouse is failing to honor agreements. For example, you agreed that the Fourth of July the kids would come to your house for a picnic during the day and that your spouse would pick them up at 5:00 p.m. You are scheduled to go out with an old friend at 6:00 and your spouse doesn’t show up until 6:30. This lack of follow-through reminds you of all the times your spouse let you down in the past. Near the end of the last mediation session, the mediator met with you and your spouse separately to discuss this lack of follow-through and your feelings about it.

You return home from the mediation session in tears and totally drained. Old hurts have surfaced and remain unresolved. Three days later you’re still flooded with feelings of helplessness, frustration, and anger. You’re not sure you can handle the next mediation session. You call your attorney for advice. She advises that you can stop mediation, but that litigation will be expensive and that the results are uncertain. When you express frustration that the mediator won’t say your spouse was wrong, she reminds you that the mediator serves a neutral role. You feel conflicted - you still want to resolve the divorce through mediation, but are concerned that it might fail. You need time to sort out your feelings and think. You contact the mediator to explain your concerns.

The mediator suggests working out special arrangements to establish a process which will make you feel more confident and less vulnerable. Such arrangements might include delaying the next session, shortening mediation sessions, having attorneys present, or meeting in separate rooms. You feel that changes to the process can be helpful, but you’re still not sure you can fully participate given your feelings of anger and mistrust. After additional conversations with your attorney, you realize you need more individualized emotional support . You get a referral from your attorney for a therapist.

In your first session with your therapist, you discuss your feelings of frustration and loss. Your therapist helps you realize that the mediation has reached an impasse because you’re having trouble going beyond your own needs and focusing on the needs of the children. You begin to sort out your needs from those of your children by discussing your wishes for yourself and your future. You now have specific time to focus on your inner thoughts and feelings. You bring up the problem of your spouse’s tardiness on the Fourth of July. You become aware that your reaction was intensified by your feelings of vulnerability during that stage of the divorce process. The discussion of your reactions, allows you to develop different coping mechanisms. For instance, when your partner is late, instead of focusing on past behavior, you regularly make back-up plans for a sitter to arrive early, allowing you to have time to prepare for your appointments. Having discussed this with your therapist, you are able to raise this option in the mediation without being angry or vengeful. You are now developing coping mechanisms to allow you to focus on the practical parenting and financial issues which need to be addressed in mediation to reach an agreement. This short term focus on issues affecting your ability to participate in mediation can make the mediation successful.

* * * *
This is a tough case, but not highly unusual. The mediation process can be tailored to handle most high conflict cases. If you are in a situation like this, you will want your mediation to be successful. Success is promoted by each party working independently on the intense emotional issues which hinder the ability to think clearly and reach agreements. This independent work can promote independence and individual empowerment in the mediation setting. There are many benefits of this process:

Faye K. Peterson, M.A., L.P.C., NCPsyA, is a licensed professional counselor and a modern psychoanalyst specializing in working with families, couples, and children. She can be reached at 303-543-1323.

Beth Brown Ornstein, J.D., founded the Colorado Mediation Center, L.L.C. which mediates all types of family and civil disputes. She can be reached at 303-415-2042, Send an Email: Click Here.