Showing Respect in Mediation

May 28, 2021

Marriages end for many reasons. In some cases, the causes are extreme enough (infidelity, dishonesty, abuse) to undermine any sense of respect between spouses. In other situations, the choice to divorce stems from different factors that may not erode respect.

Mediation is intended to be a civil and respectful process. Because the emotions associated with ending a marriage can often trigger disrespectful statements and behaviors during mediation sessions, one of the roles of a professional divorce mediator is to facilitate open and honest dialogue—while at the same time maintaining a safe environment for everyone.

The principle I endorse is that you don’t have to respect someone in order to be respectful. As a mediator, it would be unacceptable for me to require that my clients respect each other. Yet I feel totally comfortable in actively encouraging respectful behavior.

I realize how hard it can be for one or both spouses to feel that they can respect each other, given the circumstances that bring them to divorce. The principle I endorse is that you don’t have to respect someone in order to be respectful. As a mediator, it would be unacceptable for me to require that my clients respect each other. Yet I feel totally comfortable in actively encouraging respectful behavior.

So here are some ways in which you can be respectful in mediation, whether or not you feel respect for your spouse: 

  • Respect your spouse’s right to express him/herself and be heard. You don’t have to agree with what is being said, but you can listen in order to understand. Even when you are not in agreement, you can accept that your spouse’s opinions may differ from yours.
  • Respect the needs and interests of your spouse. I often tell clients, “You own your truth.” This means your goals and desires are yours to state and feel. In mediation we try to boil that down to basic interests and needs to be met. You may not think that a certain objective is what your spouse should want or need, but it’s an exercise in futility to try to change someone’s truth. In mediation, our aim is to explore options that will best meet both sets of needs and interests—yours and your spouse’s.
  • Respect the genuine emotions of your spouse. This can be a difficult task, especially if your spouse’s anger manifests in aggressive and abusive behavior, even in mediation. A good mediator will maintain a level of civility amidst emotional outbursts, best accomplished by identifying the causes for anger, which often lie in fear and anxiety about future uncertainties. There are many other, less explosive emotions that are triggered in divorce mediation—sadness, disappointment, confusion, and so on. When you can accept the emotional context of divorce, you are prepared to sharpen the focus on the future.
  • Respect the process. I ask clients to be invested in the mediation process. This means being ready for a conversation that may be difficult and will involve two, likely differing points of view. In mediation sessions we keep a focus on the future and on the reality that, if you are parents, there is a lifetime relationship to be cultivated for the sake of your children. And respecting the process means keeping the purpose in the forefront: mediation exists to promote decision-making leading to solutions that work for both of you.

Fortunately, many of my clients have ended their marriages but have not stopped having respect for each other. They have just grown apart, or realized that their expectations for each other are no longer in sync. Or perhaps they have lost the basic ability to be happy in their marriage. Regardless of where you lie on the spectrum of respect for one another, consider these suggestions about respectful behavior to help you both as you navigate the transition toward ending your marriage.