Self-Determination and Divorce: A Personal Story

By Laura Melton Tucker, July 21st, 2009

Listen to this entry.

In the summer of 1974, before divorce mediation was a common practice in the state of California, my parents dissolved their 22 year marriage. As a mediator I have often fantasized about how a mediation session might have delivered a different outcome for my family. If my mother had experienced self-determination and empowerment by sitting across from my father at a mediation table, early in the divorce process, she could have set our family’s path on a different course. Personal stories always bring the text to life…but first the text:

Standard I. A family mediator shall recognize that mediation is based on the principle of self-determination by the participants. Self-determination is the fundamental principle of family mediation. The mediation process relies upon the ability of participants to make their own voluntary and informed decisions. (“Model Standards of Conduct for Mediators” a joint statement by the American Arbitration Association, American Bar Association, and the Association for Conflict Resolution (2005)).

Self-determination is the hallmark of transformative mediation. It is the single determining factor in assessing whether or not the parties mediating have experienced empowerment…the holy grail, so to speak, of transformative mediation. When divorcing parties meet across the mediation table their sense of self-determination translates to feelings of increased self-esteem, improved control over decision making, an increased sense of their own power and a reduction of painful emotions. (Sara Cobb, Empowerment & Mediation: A Narrative Perspective).

Unfortunately, for our family there was no mediation. During my parents’ divorce, my mother spoke only through her lawyer, refused to ask for what she wanted, and settled into a place of hard anger toward my father that lasted the rest of her life. My mother was typical of her generation. She put all of her eggs in one marriage basket. When her marriage ended, she faced difficult hurdles. As a result of our parents’ poor communication, the family suffered every time we were called together for family weddings, funerals or other occasions of importance. Our parents remained in camps, while we six children did the exhausting divorce dance…keeping them physically apart, and dividing ourselves as protectors of each camp.

How would mediation have helped my mother? What if she had braved the stress of sitting across a mediation table, had asked for what she wanted, given voice to her feelings, taken control of her divorce, and her future? I like to think that with two empowered parents, our family would have been transformed. My mother never spoke to my father, in a meaningful way, after they divorced. My wish is that instead of anger and silence, she had experienced self-determination during the divorce process, establishing a healthy pattern of interaction and communication early on. When she died a year ago, the evening of a large family wedding, my five siblings and I had spent the afternoon in two groups; each parent surrounded by half of their children, carefully spaced three round tables apart.

The takeaway is that family mediation provides an opportunity, early in the divorce process, to establish patterns of communication that will have an impact on a family for decades to come. Getting it started by speaking across a table, finding empowerment through self-determination, is a good way forward.

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