By Philippa Johnson, Family Mediators Association
About once a month someone I care about, a friend, a family member, or perhaps someone I have worked with at some stage, rings me to ask if they can give my phone number to someone they know, for a chat about separation or divorce. And I always say yes and I am always pleased to say yes. Because these phone calls aren’t a downside of having been involved in the divorce and separation world for 20 years or so, most recently as a family mediator. They are what led me into the family mediation side of that world because each phone call was proof that people going through family breakup need help from somewhere but don’t know where to get it.
Almost all of the people who call me are embarrassed and very anxious. Of course, they are. Most of my clients are embarrassed and very anxious too. This is very personal stuff – the most important stuff any of us deal with – this is always a conversation about family and love and homes and the food you put on your table and the things that make your life a happy place. And it is a conversation with a person they don’t know, or at the very least don’t know well; people feel humiliated and emotional and usually very sad. But it is a conversation worth having because people end that conversation with ideas about ways forward. And we all need to move forward with our lives. This very frightening, stressful and upsetting territory doesn’t come with a map – and even if it did, someone else’s map might not work for you, precisely because this is such personal stuff! What you need is help in creating a map of your own.
So, what do I say to those people who call each month? Well, of course, each call is different and sad and lovely in its own special way, and each conversation is truly personal, just like each mediation. But here are some of the really important things that are almost always said:
- Keep breathing. You will be OK in the end. You are stronger than you feel and you will find your way. Chaos has arrived – whether the storm has arrived out of a clear blue or you have been living with it for a long time, it probably feels as though you have lost control of your life – but there is help out there and you will find it. One day you will feel safe and well and happy again. One day you will look back and think – that was horrible, but it is over; I feel better now. The thing to concentrate on now is how to get there.
- Talk to a family mediator. You don’t have to try mediation but at the end of a private meeting with a trained family mediator, you will understand the options available to you and what needs to happen next. You have this first meeting on your own with the mediator; your ex won’t be there – this is your meeting. This may be the first time you have talked to someone about what you are going through, and although your family mediator is not offering therapy, they will be good at listening. They will also be good at asking questions designed to help you work out what you think is going to be best for you and your family in the long-term. Oh, and the courts usually expect you to have talked to a family mediator before you ask the court to decide anything, but that isn’t really the point – this meeting is a wonderful opportunity to start creating your own personal map of the future with your family’s own personal route out to the other side. You can find a qualified family mediator near you by looking at “find a local mediator” [https://www.familymediationcouncil.org.uk/find-local-mediator/], on the website of the Family Mediation Council, or at “find a mediator near you” [https://thefma.co.uk/find-a-mediator-near-you/], on the website of the Family Mediators Association. Most family mediators will be happy to have a quick chat with you on the telephone, to help you decide who would suit you best. It is very important that you find someone you feel comfortable with.
- Think carefully about family mediation, which would involve you and your ex talking things through together in a safe space, as one of your options. Family mediation isn’t the answer to everyone’s problems. I’m a family mediator so I know that better than most. But family mediation has so many advantages that it’s difficult to see why you wouldn’t try it. It’s free to those who qualify. It involves a professional person who will help the two of you have a different conversation to the ones you have been having. If you won’t feel safe having that conversation in the same room as your ex, you can ask to be in separate rooms, with the mediator moving between you. Your family mediator won’t let anyone dominate or be a bully. You never have to accept a solution that is offered to you in mediation if you don’t want to. Your family mediator will know the answer to some of those really important questions you have that you feel too shy to ask – you can always ask in mediation and if the family mediator doesn’t know the answer, they will know someone else who does. Most importantly, most of the things that are really worrying you probably can’t be solved by the courts, only by you and by your ex. Will my children be damaged by all this and what should we say to them? Will my ex and I ever be able to be in the same room without tears or shouting? When will I start to feel happy again? How am I going to cope on my own? Of course, the court can make decisions about lots of very important things if you ask it to – like what to do about your finances and how much time the children should spend with each of you. But you have to remember that if you ask the court to decide, that’s what will happen – the court will decide, not you. It will cost you money and time and stress and you will end up with what the court thinks is best for you and your family, which is quite often not the same thing as what either you or your ex thinks is best. In family mediation, the family – you and your ex – are in control. The only decisions that are made are the decisions that both of you sign up to. They may well involve compromise and negotiation, with neither of you getting exactly what you want, but they will be based on choices that both of you have made on the basis that they are, overall, the best for your family in the circumstances.
- Whether you think family mediation is the way forward for you or not, take some time to think through what it is that is really important to you. You have so many worries and, as we all know, when things are bad in the middle of the night every worry you have ever had jumps up and shouts for your attention. Find some quiet space in the day – give yourself a treat and a break – and take some time to sort through them all. There are possible solutions: what are they? What will it look like when that map of yours gets filled in? What do you hope your life will be like in a year’s time? Try not to focus on the details – the sorts of things the court can decide – think about your feelings and the feelings of the people you care most about and work back from there. Think about what needs to change. You are probably feeling very frightened about all the changes being pushed onto you by other people but when you are in a bad place, change is your friend – instead of thinking about everything that is wrong, think about what changes you would like to see.
Once you know where you want to go, you can start working out how to get there – and who you might want to ask for help. Probably one of the people whose help you will need to draw your map will be your ex – and he or she will need yours. This is your chance – and their chance – to build a good life for your family, making sure that it is a better place than the place you are all in now. Good luck with that, and remember that you don’t ever need to feel embarrassed or anxious about asking for help – we all need help.