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Somebody, Please Help!

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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” [], on the website of the Family Mediation Council, or at “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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

National Family Mediation Week 20th- 24th January 2020, Click here to find out everything you need to know about Family Mediation and how it can help.

How could a Family Mediator Help the Royal Family to Talk?

Everyone experiences stress during their lives. Sometimes there is acute stress and when the stress is prolonged it can cause health problems. Communications with a close friend, colleague or other family members sometimes become very difficult. If anger and resentment are bottled up, they can explode in hurtful or damaging ways. 

At such times a qualified and experienced third party – a  mediator  – could perhaps help by offering the individual concerned a private initial meeting, first of all, to understand their situation and the difficulties from their perspective. It may then be useful to discuss what they think needs to be worked out and how this might be approached.

Many separating or divorcing couples who take part in family mediation say they wish they had come sooner, when they were arguing and struggling, but their relationship had not yet broken down completely. 

Everyone experiences stress during their lives. Sometimes there is acute stress and when the stress is prolonged it can cause health problems. Communications with a close friend, colleague or other family members

These problems of stress and difficult communications are experienced by a great many families, from the poorest and most disadvantaged to the most highly privileged. 

It must be extremely stressful to be a member of the royal family, always in the public eye and with the media looking for any story that will attract publicity. Following the recent distressing publicity they have suffered, members of the royal family are clearly making great efforts to talk together and work out suitable arrangements. Maybe some highly confidential mediation at an earlier stage could have provided them with support and empathy and a means of channelling their stress into more helpful and positive communications, well away from the media spotlight. 

Prince William and Prince Harry have both shown tremendous understanding and empathy in the initiatives they have taken to help young people talk about their experiences of bereavement and loss. At some time in our lives, all of us may need help to talk. We just need to take the first step.

Lisa Parkinson, mediator, consultant and trainer, has over 40 years’ experience in family mediation. In 1978 she co-founded the 1st family mediation service in the UK, providing out-of-court mediation in disputes between separated parents over their children.  From 1986  onwards she developed mediation on all issues in separation and divorce, including finance and property. Lisa has trained a great many family mediators in the UK and other countries. The 4th edition of her book, ‘Family Mediation’, will be published in the spring. There are seven foreign language editions, including Russian and Turkish.

National Family Mediation Week 20th- 24th January 2020, Click here to find out everything you need to know about Family Mediation and how it can help.

Caught up in the storm

by Philippa Johnson, Family Mediators Association

People don’t make the decision to end a long-term relationship lightly, especially when children are involved. Divorce and separation are two of the most painful life events anyone ever goes through. They can lead people to question everything they thought they knew about themselves and their lives. They are overwhelming. It can feel like being caught in a storm, with the rain pouring down, thunder crashing around you and lightning breaking the sky open; you don’t know which way to turn.

You are probably exhausted; your life may seem out of control and the prospect of calm and safety a very long way away. Most people feel confused and, at the same time, full of strong emotions. The grief, sadness, pain and often anger that you may feel about the past will be mixed up with the anxiety and even panic that you may be feeling about the family’s future, most especially what the future will look like for your children. You will definitely be stressed by the uncertainty and the strength of the emotions. Stress is known to be damaging to your health, both mental and physical.

So what should you do?

A good first step is to get some information about your situation. As with most things in life these days, you will probably start with the internet, where the basics can be found for free, provided you are looking in the right place. Do be careful though – there is lots of misinformation out there, as well as lots of information that isn’t relevant to England and Wales.

The UK government website has some clear, straightforward information on it. If you are living in England and Wales, here is a good place to start. If you have children you may be interested in what the NSPCC has to say about separation and divorce. Other independent organisations with good websites containing useful information include: the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, Relate, the charity Gingerbread, and the charity Family Lives.

All these websites mention the benefits of trying to sort your situation out by reaching agreements between yourselves. That may seem a dreadful idea at the moment, while you are still caught up in the storm. It is certainly a very difficult thing to do alone. But with good professional help, most people are eventually able to work things out between themselves, without involving the courts. The evidence shows that in lots of different ways this is better for everyone in the family, especially the children.

So, where can you find good professional help? Talking to a family mediator is a good place to start. Family mediators work with families to help them to make decisions together: they offer an impartial and confidential service to people who are choosing to try to make decisions together, rather than asking someone else to make the decision for them. It can be very helpful to get some legal advice early as well, if you can afford it – family mediators never give advice about your particular situation although they will give you lots of information about the law and about research into what works for children.

What else should you do?

We recommend finding someone who can help you work through all the strong emotions you are feeling. Friends can be a wonderful source of support. Talking things through with a professional therapist can be even better, as they have lots of experience working with people in crisis and will be able to suggest strategies that have worked in the past for other people.

Some of the most important things you can do, according to the professionals, include:

Giving yourself permission to take time for yourself – just like on an aeroplane, you can’t help anyone else until you have helped yourself!

Focusing as much as possible on the future and what will improve things – that doesn’t mean ignoring any anger and guilt you feel; it does mean working towards forgiveness and leaving blame behind as much as possible.

The key thing is that you don’t have to do this alone – whatever your situation is, there are people who can help make the process of separation better for everyone involved.

National Family Mediation Week 20th- 24th January 2020, Click here to find out everything you need to know about Family Mediation and how it can help.