The power of the emotional response to divorce and separation

I never underestimate the (sometimes hidden) trauma of divorce or separation which can be felt when working with couples even when they are working together towards mutually respectable ways of resolving the issues.  I was reminded recently that pain does not go away when the conflict gets resolved when I met with a previous client who told me he was still struggling with the enormity of the situation months on.  He was finding it tough to talk about, despite his experience in mediation being positive and one which both were grateful for. 

I believe divorce and separation is just like any trauma one can face in life.  It it’s not properly addressed or acknowledged at the time, sometimes with professional help, it comes back but in a magnified way later on.  It can impact all areas of life from just feeling miserable and unable to move forward to feeling physically unwell.

This particular couple had reached a mutually acceptable resolution in mediation which they progressed to implement satisfactorily with the assistance of their lawyers.  On the surface, all was well, despite the mediation at times being heavy with emotion which both took the time during mediation to explore and speak freely about.   They both expressed relief to have found a closure which met both of their financial and physical needs.  However, behind closed doors, this client was still emotionally suffering.

As a society we still need to find better ways to support those going through the trauma of a divorce or separation.  The process of mediation requires us as mediators to take the time to find out more about what is really going on beneath the surface and how that person is finding things. Often clients are surprised by my questions when I meet them.   I’m not interested in a tick box of facts, dates and figures to explain a relationship.  I need to delve deeper to really understand what is going on for both parties, how they are managing, the dynamic of their relationship, the conflict and how mediation can help.   Some questions I might ask are:-

Are you worried about your emotional or mental health at all?

·         Who do you think has more say in your relationship?

·         Who makes the decisions in your relationship/do you think you make decisions equally, or does one of you usually make decisions?

·         Can you tell me how disagreements get resolved between you?

·         Do you think you get into rows a lot?  What normally starts a row between you?  And who do you think normally ends it?

·         Do you feel able to speak your mind or express your point of view?

·         How does your former partner let you know how they feel?

·         How do you think your children are coping at the moment?

These questions often hit home and focus the mind on the reality of a mediation process which needs to understand the cycle of the relationship and the dynamics to help find a mutual way forward.  I’m interested to see how I can really help clients to find their toolbox to resolve their own disputes.   Yet even with all these safeguards and an emotionally intelligent approach some clients are still troubled long after things are resolved and my involvement has ended.   This can lead to later conflict which continues to impact their lives and their children’s.  This can be worsened if couples have resolved their divorce through contested court cases as the emotional issues are not addressed in this mostly outdated, fraught process.

I hope it will soon become the norm for family law professionals to work collaboratively with counsellors and therapists to understand the emotional impact and help clients with a full recovery.  Clients should not need to have to try and contain their feelings without them being validated and worked through.  Most importantly clients should understand that their feelings are not out of the ordinary.  We should normalise the emotional impact and encourage working with the next professional who can help along the journey to recovery. A new home might, for example, be exciting to some but it can be lonely for others.  A sale of the family home after months of struggling to sell it could be a relief to one and be a time of real sadness/grief to another.

If any of these issues hit home with you, do reach out for support.  I can always be contacted even if you just need some help finding the right professional to help.

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