Why I Became a Family Mediator
First, there was my own divorce: two years of fighting with my estranged husband about custody, visitation, child support, and property distribution while dealing with chronic fatigue, sky-high anxiety, depression, poverty, and the need to take care of two traumatized preschoolers. I do not want other families to suffer through similar emotional nightmares.
In addition, there were many horrid stories from friends and acquaintances who had been through the wringer in divorce court or in negotiations between attorneys. No one should have to struggle like this.
Later, there was seeing the damage my children and my stepchildren carried after their parents’ long custody battles. No one should do this to their children if they can possibly avoid it.
Maybe the biggest push came late in the 1990’s, when I learned that a friend was in a custody war that had been going on for a year and a half, with many court hearings. He had paid about $45,000 to his lawyers. Most recently, the judge had ruled that the children would continue to live with him and ordered a visitation schedule that neither parent liked. FORTY-FIVE THOUSAND DOLLARS AND ISSUES NOT YET RESOLVED? I thought there must be a better way.
Almost everybody thought my friend was a nice guy. Nevertheless, he and his ex-wife hated each other and could seldom tolerate being in the same room. So I offered to try to listen to both sides and help the mom and dad work out a visitation plan that they could both live with. The process was long and difficult. With one parent at a time, I would listen to demands and complaints full of hostility and blame, take out the emotions, rephrase the demands as proposals, and convey them to the other parent. The response would often be full of anger, distrust, insults, and criticisms, but would include comments on the content of the proposals. I would rephrase the substantive content and pass it on. Again and again and again. Often matters as small as 15 minutes –- whether the kids would be picked up at 9:00 or at 9:15 — took several exchanges to resolve.
Step by step, I helped the two parents find what was most important to each of them, explore ideas for satisfying each, and, eventually, agree on a schedule they could live with. The mother wrote the detailed visitation plan as a Consent Order. Both parents signed it and the Court approved it. And then the kids no longer had to live in a war zone, and no one ever filed another motion to ask the Court to revisit anything related to raising those children.
I was exhausted. But I thought that maybe I should be doing this kind of work, so that some other sets of kids would not have to live through the hostility and anxiety that my friend’s kids and my own kids had endured. I knew I couldn’t do it yet, because raising the kids in my own blended family – the opposite of the Brady Bunch – was going to be enough stress for me for quite a while. But someday, I might have to do it, because obviously I could succeed with a very hostile ex-couple, and maybe there were not a lot of people who could tolerate doing this kind of work, and there were certainly a lot of kids needing protection. I thought I would never be able to handle more than two families at a time, because the work was, emotionally, so draining. Obviously this would not be a way to get rich.
As my kids moved through high school, I continued to think about becoming a family mediator. A friend referred me to an experienced family mediator, who told me that there was a great need for family mediation services but little demand for them. Unfortunately, when people thought about separating and divorcing, they usually looked for lawyers, not mediators. In addition, even though I was already a licensed psychologist, I would have to take ALL of the courses designed by the Supreme Court of Virginia for teaching people how to work as family mediators legally, ethically, and well. Before I could be certified, I would also have to handle several cases as a co-mediator with a mentor.
I searched my heart and found that I had to do this work anyway. This really was my calling. So, over the course of two and a half years, I spent about $4,000 or $5,000 and many, many weeks of time on training and certification.
Happily, I discovered along the way that many ex-couples are not nearly as difficult as my first one. There are couples who, while separating, want to be fair and want to be sure that each has the resources needed to take good care of their children. Helping them develop parenting plans and make financial decisions feels great. There are couples with no minor children and not much property to divide. The difficulty of facilitating their negotiations varies with their levels of anger and fear. Once I met with a mom and dad after the dad had not seen his young child for three years. It took them less than an hour to work out a visitation plan. Both walked away happy (as did I!). Some ex-couples are in great pain, but the pain is theirs, not mine, so I can help them negotiate successfully without exhausting myself. To my surprise, this work is not unduly stressful for me. It is often very satisfying.
My current mission in life is to make myself available on neutral ground almost anywhere that family mediation services are needed in northern Virginia. I also work by Skype, email, and phone with clients elsewhere in Virginia, the United States, and the rest of the world if jurisdiction of the case rests in Virginia.
Contact Dr. Colin at mediatorQ@gmail.com or 703 864 2101.
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