By Dr. Lynne Halem, Center for Mediation and Dispute Resolution
Mediation has long been identified as a process which promotes the self-actualization or the empowerment of the individual participants. But what does empowerment mean? Clearly it would not be a “good” outcome for mediation to encourage individuals to learn to be aggressive or confrontational or to stubbornly stand their ground, so empowered are they by their newfound self-worth or importance. Nor is empowerment akin to granting individuals his or her own bully pulpit. Rather, in mediation, empowerment represents individual growth and new found personal confidence and strength, as well as the acquisition of new skills. This personal development does not occur instantaneously, nor is it a natural by product of mediation. The mediator must be skilled in creating an environment in which each individual’s growth is not only encouraged but fostered.
Consider this couple.
Albert and Elizabeth have been married for 30 years and have two adult children, both of whom are pursuing their own careers and are financially independent. Albert assumed that he and Elizabeth would be embarking on a new phase of their lives, free of caring for children and daily parental concerns. He envisioned a life with more vacations and less worries. Elizabeth, however, had a different notion of her future. Now that the children were grown, she wished to have time for herself, time away from her married life. In short she wanted to be released from her long-term marital relationship. She wanted a divorce.
When Albert finally realized that neither marital counseling nor heart felt pleas would result in the resurrection of his marital relationship, he agreed with Elizabeth that mediation offered a saner approach to ending their marriage; it would be less expensive, less antagonistic and hopefully would give each of them a voice in the creation of a fair settlement
From the beginning of the mediation process, it became clear that Elizabeth, although wanting her freedom and her independence, did not really have the skills to assess her financial options. She was determined to remain in the marital home, providing the children with a family home to which they could return for holidays and vacations. To Elizabeth, freedom meant being on her own, but also having the same resources as she did during her marriage. Although Elizabeth was employed, working at a small company as an administrative assistant to the president, she did not earn nearly enough money to be financially independent.
Albert was an engineer who earned over $180,000.00/year. He understood that Elizabeth needed financial help and that he had an obligation to provide assistance, even if he felt victimized and hurt by Elizabeth’s decision to end the marriage. Albert argued that the house had to be sold, that it was financially impractical and perhaps even impossible for Elizabeth to keep the house and afford to maintain it. Besides, he wanted to purchase a house or a condo and needed his share of the home’s equity. He suggested that they consider selling the house and using the proceeds to purchase buying two affordable properties.
Elizabeth pleaded her case; she told Albert how she had toiled fixing up the house, landscaping the yard, and looking for antiques at yard sales, auctions and estate sales. She was responsible, she argued, for increasing the value of their home and was too emotionally attached to the house to sell it. Where would the children go for Thanksgiving and Christmas?
Albert finally agreed to a delayed sale. Elizabeth could have three years to live in the house and then it would be sold with the equity shared equally between. Although Elizabeth had suggested trading her interest in retirement funds for Albert’s share of the house, Albert knew that this would not be a wise decision for Elizabeth. Anyhow he wanted cash for a house purchase, not illiquid retirement funds. And so a deal appeared to be struck. However, Elizabeth’s metamorphosis had not yet occurred. Prior to the mediation of support, the mediator required Albert and Elizabeth to compile a detailed budget, with Elizabeth using the house in her budget and Albert using a rental that he had recently located. Elizabeth worked diligently on this task.
At the next mediation session, she surprised the mediator and Albert by saying that she agreed that the house needed to be sold. Although with support provided by Albert and her income, she might be able to cover the costs of the property, she would really be living for the house, with little funds left to embark on the new life she envisioned. Stunned by her ability to forecast her expenses and to actually agree that the house was an impractical expenditure, Albert suggested that they find a way for Elizabeth to have one year in the house. Albert proposed that Elizabeth agree to work her decorating magic during the year to further increase the value of the house, thereby making his and her financial sacrifice to keep the house for another year a good investment. Albert was offering his help; he would pay additional funds to support the house; she would agree to fix up the property. Elizabeth was shocked; she did not think that Albert would help her, that he could look beyond his own emotional pain to see her attachment to the house.
Mediation had given Elizabeth the impetus to think logically and analytically, to look realistically at her needs. For the first time in her marriage, not only did she do a budget, but she had gone beyond the numbers, extrapolating the effect of incurring such high housing costs on maintaining not only her standard of living, but her ability to spend money on other outlets beside the house. She, too, saw Albert in a new light; never before had he acknowledged so directly and concretely her feelings. Albert had not been comfortable with expressing his feelings, or with discussing emotional concerns of family members. Albert had also grown in the process. He realized that he and Elizabeth had lived in two different marriages. He had not had the vaguest inclination that she was unhappy. He spent ten to twelve hours a day working and really had not interacted in the day- to -day family life. And so they had moved in two different spheres, unaware of what each other was thinking and feeling.
Elizabeth felt proud of her ability to put aside her wants and consider the practicality of her future. Albert was proud that he could truly understand Elizabeth’s feelings and offer help that would actually benefit both of them.
Mediation is not in and of itself, responsible for the personal growth of this couple. Rather, the mediator’s creation of an environment in which both parties had to participate actively literally forced Elizabeth to look beyond her demands to its impact on her future. Albert, too, had a personal awakening; he heard Elizabeth’s plea and he responded—not casually, but with concert assistance. Interestingly this couple had not only acquired new skills and increased awareness, but they also learned to communicate—to hear each other and to problem solve together in a manner that gave each party the satisfaction of reaching a positive and productive outcome. While neither party felt the marriage could be saved, they both were confident that they could preserve their friendship.