Marital Mediation: What is it and How Can Couples Benefit

How marital mediation differs from marital therapy, four ways marital mediation can benefit couples, and how advisors can help married clients in conflict

Byline: Blair Trippe & Doug Baumoel

Estimated read time: ~5 minutes

It should come as no surprise that after spending almost a year in quarantine and isolation, the COVID-19 pandemic has put a lot of marriages to the test. For couples wanting to improve their relationship and want some outside assistance, there are two fundamental options available, marital therapy and marital mediation. Each option serves a different purpose and depends on the couple’s wants, needs, and goals for the relationship. Before deciding which method is right for them, couples need to take a step back, decide what they want out of the relationship, and choose a path forward from there. In this blog, we’ll explain marital mediation and its benefits, how it differs from marital therapy and is an alternative to divorce, and how advisors can approach this topic with their clients.

*Editor’s Note: Marital mediation is often confused with divorce mediation, which is a process with an opposite goal. The intention of divorce mediation is to separate more amicably (and less expensively) than going to court; conversely, marital mediation is intended for couples who wish to stay married.

What’s the difference between mediation and therapy?

Marital mediation is different from marital therapy. The process of marital therapy is to examine the past as a way to understand how the couple got to where they are and to then be able to repair their emotional relationship and move forward together. The therapy process focuses on feelings and communication, where marital mediation focuses on the pragmatic issues of living together in marriage. In therapy, therapists generally meet with the couple together and one-on-one work is rare. In marital mediation, however, the mediator must understand what each individual’s wants and needs are, and this is often easier communicated when speaking with the couple individually prior to meeting with them together.

Marital mediation is a forward-focused, behavioral approach for spouses to examine their interests and how they can be met to forge a marital recommitment. Mediation uses interest-based negotiation techniques to open and improve lines of communication, address the elements that cause distrust and disharmony, help couples address areas of friction in their relationship, and develop “guidelines” that focus on the behavioral changes each person will make to lessen future conflict.

As in therapy, the process addresses issues such as mutual respect, improved communication, self-awareness, and the psychological make-up of each party are identified and developed. The focus is on pragmatic issues of how the couple will address decision-making, and the basic mechanics of living together successfully are addressed.

The benefits of marital mediation

1. Involving a neutral, third-party
Having someone in the room who is a neutral, third-party can help the couple to better understand each other.  From a neutral seat, the mediator can “normalize” and give feedback on what the couple is feeling. The mediator can help each partner understand the hard but true fact that BOTH perspectives are valid: each has a right to their feelings. In doing so, each spouse acknowledges the other, a central foundation of the marriage: she/he has her/his own reality and needs to be heard even if the other disagrees. In addition, it is a safe space where both partners can explore how they each contributed to problems they are experiencing as a couple.  From there, the mediator can offer different ways to approach the relationship in a way that helps the couple better listen to each other and find areas of compromise and accommodation. With a mediator involved, the couple can make decisions and create agreements coming from a more thoughtful, creative, and direct place.

2. Communicating more effectively
In many cases, the couple’s stress and marital disharmony have been exacerbated by poor communication skills. A mediator can assist the couple in identifying helpful and non-helpful communication patterns they’ve developed and provide them with the tools needed to revise them. When a couple is better able to communicate their wants and needs to each other, they can then collaborate on how to move forward. By giving couples the tools to better communicate, the couple can overcome their fears and reduce conflict with recognition of the value of further counseling or mediation if necessary.

3. Redesigning the relationship
Mediation also works to redesign the marriage and reframe issues in a workable, pragmatic way. Part of the mediator’s role is to acknowledge the inherent goodness in each partner that sometimes gets overlooked by conflict. We work on cleaning off some of the dirt, (the conflict), and identify what’s there after all of that has been removed. After years of marriage and potentially years of conflict, mediation can be an opportunity to “meet” each other again.  As people, we evolve and change, and mediation offers a place to learn what matters to each other and honor that in a clear, committed, actionable way.

4. Gaining clarity
Mediation is a great way for couples to gain clarity about what they want out of their relationship. Recognizing issues and deciding what commitments are important to each other can be incredibly empowering and eye-opening. The mediation process is a journey that is revealing in nature and can help couples take a more active approach in deciding how they want to move forward—even if that means transitioning the relationship. While of course, the goal of mediation is to keep couples together, sometimes it helps couples realize that separating and taking steps towards a divorce is actually what they both want. Regardless of whether or not the couple decides to stay together, mediation provides them with a space to gain clarity on what they do (or don’t) want.

How we can help

For advisors who suspect their married clients may be in conflict, speak directly with them about the challenges they face (if you’re comfortable doing so). As they learn about the high costs (emotional and financial) of divorce, they may be glad to know there is another way.  Many couples have tried or are reluctant to try therapy but, when they learn about it, are very open to the idea of marital mediation.  Helping your clients understand their options allows them to choose their path intentionally, resource accordingly, and then take appropriate action.

At Continuity, we can not only help you approach the topic of marital mediation with your clients but can also work directly with your clients. Our mediation experts are experienced with all facets of family enterprise—including marriage—and understand unique family business dynamics to effectively resolve issues.