An approach to dealing with divorce that favours mediation over conflict can help limit the negative knock-on effects for children of divorced parents.
For many South Africans facing divorce, our first port of call is the offices of what we hope will turn out to be ‘a really good lawyer’. And, why not? The person who started out as our nearest and dearest has just become an adversary. We’re alone, overwhelmed and scared by the uncertainties up ahead. Who wouldn’t want to get a hired gun on their side? If you have children with your former partner, there’s little doubt that you will feel that the stakes are as high as they can possibly be, and that you desperately need the help of someone powerful to protect your interests.
The Mediation process
However, Nadia Thonnard, founder of SADSA (The South African Divorce Support Association) and former speaker at SACAP’s (The South African College of Applied Psychology) Psychology Festival of Learning, makes the point that people experiencing divorce have a variety of needs, and only some of them are legal in nature. A counsellor and mediator accredited by FAMAC (Family Mediators Association of the Cape), Nadia is passionate about transforming the divorce experience. A host of studies from the UK, Australia and New Zealand attest to the advantages for every family member when divorcing parents turn to mediators rather than heading straight into litigation.
“The mediation process is child and family-centred,” Nadia says, “Divorce does not need to be regarded as the end of a family, instead it can be seen as the beginning of a newly created family. A mutually agreeable solution can be negotiated with the help of a professional mediator in order to create this new family. Effective communication will be facilitated that can limit the negative knock-on effects for the children of divorced parents. Short and long term solutions can be negotiated that take everyone in the family into consideration. This enhances co-operation and on-going co-parenting, and is more effective for divorces that involve children. Mediation is also considerably quicker and cheaper than litigation.”
Mediation and the Law
Mediators work within the legal framework of the Divorce Act, the Maintenance Act and the Children’s Act. They help both parties navigate the process without adding the stress that litigation does. When people are hurt and angry, as they inevitably are in a divorce, it can be difficult to imagine handling the situation with a minimum of conflict and destruction. With little to no emotional support, people are left to manage their ordeal fuelled by their current negative emotions, which are easily fanned by the win-lose nature of litigation. By contrast, solution-focused mediation aims to defuse antagonism so that both parties’ concerns and fears, and their needs and wants, are fairly taken into consideration. In the short term, people realise that they can play an active role in finding a solution, while for the longer term they have learnt vital conflict resolution and interpersonal skills.
The benefits of Mediation
“Mediation sets the tone for being heard,” says Nadia “Listening is very important. Both parties have the opportunity to clarify what they want and need in the moment, as opposed to blaming and criticising things that happened in the past. Mediators also provide support and encouragement, and allow clients to become aware if what they want is reasonable or not.”
Apart from the obvious benefits to children if their divorcing parents do so constructively, research has also shown that people who have gone through mediation are more likely to keep to their divorce agreements, and less likely to turn back to the courts when they experience disagreements. With our Department of Justice currently piloting court-annexed mediation initiatives in two provinces, and a planned country-wide roll-out, mediated divorce is set to go mainstream.
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