Family Mediation and high conflict divorce

A few months ago there was a fair amount of mirth around at the ‘conscious uncoupling’ that Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow were said to be undergoing. It seems that conscious uncoupling was pretty much what the rest of us would have recognised as separation. And yet, there is a little bit more to it than meets the eye, and the meaning behind this seemingly strange label is perhaps worthy of deeper consideration in the context of family mediation.

At the heart of the concept is an acknowledgement that cooperation is a key element in the ending of a relationship, and that is never more true than when there are children involved. Divorce is an incredibly stressful and difficult time for the two adults who are involved, but for the children of the failed relationship the effects can be much more profound and much more long lasting. They may well feel responsible for the breakup or in some way blame themselves for their inability to keep their parents together. Although they may look calm, they will undoubtedly be under an enormous amount of stress, and that stress will affect them in a variety of ways and potentially for many years. Social interactions may be affected, performance at school degraded and their own ability to have fulfilling personal relationships in later life may be damaged. It may in isolated cases even lead to mental health issues. We firmly believe that it is in everyone’s interests to minimize the stress and thus reduce those risks, and that family mediation is a means of achieving that end.

The worst of all possible worlds are those thankfully isolated cases when separating parents use the children as weapons with which to continue their fight long after the separation or divorce is complete. This may be mutual or entirely one sided but it is part of a rare pattern in which one or other parent is seeming to go out of his or her way to do as much damage to their former partner as they can.

Sadly, the main casualties of such behaviour are almost always the children. Used as pawns, manipulated and victimized, they come to distrust their parents and, by extension, all adults in positions of responsibility. Neither are they blind to what the recalcitrant parent is doing. Even relatively young children quickly learn the true motivation behind the misbehaving parent’s behaviour and this will inevitably colour their relationship with that parent for the rest of their lives.

At Hampshire Mediation we are often called upon to enter into a process of family mediation with parents who are in such a position and we do everything that we can to ensure that the needs and aspirations of the children can be met, often in the face of some considerable but entirely unconscious resistance. Typically the ‘badly behaved’ parent will have convinced them self that they are acting purely in the interests of the children when it is obvious to the most casual observer that their interest is centred on controlling or punishing their former partner, or both. Typically such a person will be fixated on the past, blind to the damage being caused, and labouring under an enormous sense of anger and (misplaced) injustice.

These are amongst the most difficult and challenging cases that we are asked to help with.

Our approach in such cases is often to speak to the parents only individually, as they simply cannot cooperate in joint sessions, resorting to constantly blaming each other for the situation. This often constitutes our mediators acting as intermediaries between the parents in a process which can be very slow at times.

Nevertheless, the ultimate goal is to mediate a settlement where the needs of the children are where they ought to be – right at the heart of everything that goes on.

Perhaps Chris and Gwyneth have got it right.