After law school, I opened a divorce mediation practice—and let me tell you, you see all types. Some are there because they truly want to remain on good terms with their soon to be ex-spouse and have a collaborative divorce. Others are there only because they’ve been told it’s cheaper than having lawyers battle it out. And there are still others… we’ll get to those.
While each case is different, there’s one similarity with all clients: it’s difficult for them to be sitting in that room with you. Some are civil, but quite often, something very unpleasant (like infidelity) has sunk the marriage and you can tell that the moment they walk in the room.
Emotions can run the gamut during a divorce mediation. Some people are all business by that point, and most of the intense emotion is behind them. Others are still angry, or worried, or deeply hurt. There’s often an underlying current of fear, fear of the future, fear of the unknown, and an undercurrent of sadness as well.
That’s understandable. Divorce is a type of loss—you’re losing a part of your past, and it was a part that, at one time, was the most important thing in your life. And obviously if you have kids, or you’re dividing assets that have significant or sentimental value, there’s the added fear and worry and sadness of that process.
Despite all of this, divorce mediation is definitely the way to make the best of a bad situation. Instead of letting a judge decide who gets what and so on—which usually results in neither side being happy with the outcome—spouses, with the help of the mediator, are able to collaborate and be more flexible and even creative with solutions regarding what I call the big four: kids, cash, the house, and the dog.
In any case, I was plugging along in my divorce mediation practice and doing well, when a certain couple—young, maybe early thirties—came in for a session. I don’t know what it was about them, but something told me that they just weren’t ready for the process. Neither wanted to speak and they just kind of looked around the office while occasionally glancing at each other.
These are the “others” I referred to in the beginning of this article. These are the ones who seem a little bewildered and uncertain. There’s a look in the eye: Is this really happening? Are we really doing this?
So I broke all the rules, sat back in my chair, and spoke to them like human beings instead of clients. I said, “You guys… we don’t need to do this right now. If you want, we can just sit here and have a cup of coffee and talk. Nothing big needs to happen.”
To my absolute shock, the woman instantly broke into tears. Without missing a beat, the man got up from his chair and went over and hugged her.
I gave them a few minutes alone, then came back into the room and asked if they wanted to delay the session. The man said, “You said we could just talk.”
So I just went with it. I just adapted, on the fly, some of the principles of mediation—like establishing common ground—and we talked about their kids for a while. Then we moved on, and I started to dig a little deeper, seeing what their problems were and making sure each of them felt heard by the other and empowered. By the end of the hour, we’d decided that they would put the brakes on separation and try a few specific things at home.
I never heard from this couple again, at least not directly. A few days later, I opened my inbox to find an email with the subject line “Marriage SOS!!!” It was from a friend of the couple. She and her husband wanted to book with me not for divorce mediation, but to see whether I could help them save their marriage. She said they had gone to counseling, but they didn’t like it and her husband refused to go back.
I booked them in for the following week—not because I couldn’t see them sooner, but because I knew I needed some time to adapt my skill set into a more structured approach that could be used to help couples reconnect, not separate.
This couple was a lot tougher. They were older, in their late forties, and they entered my office with all the subtlety of a category five hurricane, dropping their biker gear in the corner and sitting down in my good chairs so heavily that the legs creaked. The husband—bearded, and wearing the insignia of a notable biker gang—sat back and spoke first.
“I fucked around. I said I’m sorry. I don’t know what else she wants.”
The wife piped up and the two of them began bickering, saying nasty things about each other, pointing fingers, all the usual stuff. For a while, I deliberately let them go at it.
When they finally came up for air and stopped, I looked up at the clock and said, “Well, that bitch session cost you about a hundred bucks. You have about two hundred left. How do you want to spend it?”
It was a big risk, and of course it broke all the rules of mediation and then some. But it was exactly what this no-nonsense couple needed to hear.
The man looked at this wife and said, “Well, guess we found our gal.”
The three of us laughed. With the tension broken—that happens differently with different couples—we moved on to a more productive discussion. And I had my second successful couple.
Of course, I didn’t have all wins and I still don’t. Not only is that impossible, but in some cases, divorce really is the best option for everyone. Nonetheless, I did well and continued to refine my approach. I added elements of relationship coaching and my own strategies, drawing upon my divorce mediation background and essentially “reverse engineering” failed marriages to create successful ones.
Word of mouth spread until demand was high enough that I left divorce mediation entirely and transitioned into marital mediation to help people stay together. I called my practice Marriage SOS, after the subject line in my first “official” request for this type of help.
As time went on, the nature of my practice continued to adapt to the realities of marital conflict. I saw more mixed agenda cases—this is where one spouse is very motivated to save the marriage, but the other isn’t as motivated. Quite often, the less motivated spouse is involved with another person and doesn’t want to end an extramarital affair. And if that’s the case, there is no mediator, coach, counselor or advisor in the world who can compel them to be honest or forthcoming.
Professionally and personally, it just got to the point where I tired of this. I like to make progress in my practice, not have it used as a place for one spouse to buy time, point fingers, lie, try to get me on their side, shift blame, etc., while their hurt or confused spouse is sincerely making an effort.
Moreover, there were things I wanted the more motivated spouse to know, things they needed to know, that I simply couldn’t tell them in the presence of their insincere spouse. So again, I went with it and segued into a one-spouse approach. If that was the person who was open to change, then that was the person I would focus on helping.
It was a natural progression. I had done a lot of shuttle mediation throughout my career: basically, this is where you consult with one spouse at a time while still balancing and fairly representing the needs of both spouses. So it was a familiar process for me, and a good one to adapt to my purposes.
And that’s the nutshell version of where I am today, and how I got here. I went from helping couples end their marriages to helping them keep them intact—and now, to helping the more motivated spouse take those first steps to save the marriage, primarily through my Marriage SOS™ Online Crash Courses.
Because for me, it’s all about finding and doing what works. What gets the job done. I’ve found an approach that works for many people. And if you’re facing a marriage problem, you need to find the approach that works for you. Thank you for reading.
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Debra Macleod, BA, JD, is an international marriage expert and the founder of Marriage SOS™. Her no-nonsense style, “Fair, but Aware” approach, and 20+ years of experience have made her a resource for major media around the world, from The New York Times and Entrepreneur to ELLE and Men’s Health.