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You’ve probably heard of Divorce Mediation, but chances are you’re not familiar with Marital Mediation. That’s because most couples who find their relationship in deep trouble have already decided to part ways. And their choice is most likely to be divorce.

But what if you could catch yourselves before the point of no return? After the pain has begun, but while respect and affection for each other is still present. While trust can still be revived. While the qualities that brought you together still have the power to keep you together. In short, while your love for each is still alive, even barely.

If that describes your relationship, as well as your hopes to avoid a divorce or a permanent break, marital mediation is a choice worth considering. This non-adversarial method helps repair and strengthen the frayed bonds of affection that certain kinds of problems have caused.

Here are just a few of the issues couples struggle with that Marital Mediation can help resolve:

  • Problems that threaten economic security, such as excessive gambling or day trading; impulsive shopping; overly expensive hobbies; Living for the Moment vs Saving for a Rainy Day.
  • Significant Life-style differences: stay-at-home vs. party animal; city vs. country; seashore vs. mountains; pet issues; traditional vs. non-traditional roles, etc.
  • Intimacy problems.
  • Dividing up the household chores: shopping vs. cooking vs. cleaning up, etc.
  • Moving vs. staying put.
  • Disagreements about relatives and friends: You know your mother hates me. Why do we have to go there? I don’t want your crazy friend Alvin in my house. Ever!
  • The Children:
    • Use of the family car.
    • Buying a car for your 17-year-old.
    • Payment for doing chores. Money allowances.
    • When to stop the babysitting?
    • Bad influences.
    • Old enough to travel alone?
    • Controlling their computers and mobile devices.
    • Dating rules.
    • Playing contact sports.
    • Schooling: Public vs. Private; In-state vs. Out-of-State; paying for college.
    • Behavior.
    • Clothing.
    • Where does parental oversight end and snooping begin?

We try to find and apply practical solutions to those and other problems, solutions based on your mutual and individual interests. This is not couples counseling or long-term therapy. It doesn’t require reaching back onto the distant past for original causes.

Counseling and therapy are, of course, valuable ways of treating psychological disorders that can cause havoc with any relationship. At the same time, many relationship problems (such as those listed above) can be successfully resolved if the following three ingredients are present:

  1. Your desire to remain a couple;
  2. Your willingness to work together to reach your goal
  3. A skilled and experienced mediator to help you achieve it.

I work with my clients on acquiring skills not only to repair their relationship, but also to help them solve future problems on their own. I call these the Five Key Skills for Successful Marital Mediation. Out goal is to reach a timely and durable agreement. Think of these skills as tools to be used only to the extent they are needed to help you achieve that goal.




The first thing most people do when they have an argument is start defending themselves by lashing out at each other: blaming, scoring points, nursing grudges and looking to the past for justification rather than to the future for solutions.

What’s wrong with playing the blame game is that when it’s over you realize that nothing positive was accomplished. What you are left with is the empty feeling of another opportunity squandered. You’re no closer to a solution, but your relationship has suffered another unnecessary blow.

Marital mediation will teach you both how forge lasting solutions by focusing your energies on the problem before you, and not on the person sitting next to you. You’ll learn how to sit side-by-side, identify the problem, discover your interests, and create realistic, durable solutions. That will take a commitment to learn new ways of interacting. That’s a commitment to persevere despite the stumbles and failures that come with learning anything worthwhile. There will be small victories at first; then larger ones, more frequent and more durable. You will learn the power of this key skill – separating the people from the problem – to permanently change the way you approach problem solving. You will free yourselves from the destructive behavior that has threatened to destroy your marriage or significant relationship. If the bonds between the two of you are worth strengthening, marital mediation will give you the tools to make that happen.



Before you can successfully separate the people from the problem, you must be able to understand the problem-solver seated next to you. How does your mate typically behave? How does he generally speak. Forcefully? Timidly? Does she usually ask you for your opinion before giving hers? Do you both frequently misunderstand each other’s remarks? Do you take them personally? How do you respond to them? With patience and restraint? Or with a sarcastic or angry retort?

Learning how to respond appropriately is essential to getting beyond the shouting matches we discussed in the previous section. Before you can sit side by side and attack the problem rather than each other, you must be able to defuse the flare ups that have prevented you from being successful problem solvers.

The key skill of reducing the tension that threatens cooperative problem-solving comes from the ability to understand each other. That skill is called empathy. We will work on acquiring and using this key skill from the very first day we meet. We will work on what the attorney-mediator, Bill Eddy, calls E-A-R or Empathy – Attention – Respect. You will use and own these key skills for the rest of your lives.



In Key Skill Number 1, SEPARATING THE PEOPLE FROM THE PROBLEM, I spoke about the tendency we have strike back when we feel verbally attacked. This inclination to defend ourselves – a relic from earlier days when failure to strike back could result in our being devoured by a rather large animal – is so strong and ingrained that we are rarely aware of its reflexive nature.

This lashing out is really a way of diverting blame from ourselves by attaching it to the other person. That’s why it’s called defensive behavior. It really masks our underlying – and often unconscious – fear of losing an argument by substituting blind aggression for reasoned discussion.

The result is that we are likely provoke the same type of defensive response in the person we are responding to. If that sounds familiar, it’s because conversations like that are so common. In fact, they are not conversations at all, but conversation stoppers. Learning how to avoid these responses is part of the important work we will do in our marital mediation sessions. You will practice and use such techniques as the neutral reply, modeling behavior, active listening and other ways of avoiding confrontation. And as you master his key skill you will both find new strengths that enable you to get to the heart of your problems in a respectful and productive way.



How many time have you heard this from people trying to solve a problem: My position is ….., or That’s my bottom line, take it or leave it? That sort of language usually dooms reaching agreement because it tells the other person only what you want (your position) not what you need (your interest). Here’s an example of the difference between wanting and needing, between positions and interests:

A couple is divorcing. They have chosen to litigate their divorce. Each of them has hired a divorce lawyer to fight for their rights. The father – or more accurately, his lawyer – puts his position on the table: I want sole custody of our son.

Naturally, the mother disagrees, and in defense now also demands sole custody. Each spouse has a choke hold on the other. The more they insist on their demands, the further apart they grow. Neither one will budge an inch, they are at an impasse and negotiations are over. The next step is to put the impasse before a judge who will decree how this man and woman will co-parent their child. So, rather than having the two most important people in their son’s life decide how he will be raised, a stranger in a black robe will do that for them.

That’s the unfortunate, but all-too-common result of positional bottom line bargaining. A much different outcome would have resulted if the father’s lawyer had asked him two questions: 1) What need or interest of yours will be satisfied by getting sole custody? 2) Do you really need sole custody to satisfy that interest?

Ask those two questions and watch as the take-it-or-leave-it, bottom-line positions peel away to reveal the father’s real concern: he wants more time with his son. Demanding sole custody was his way of expressing the fear that after moving out of the family residence, the bonds between himself and his son would be jeopardized.

And what of the mother’s counter-demand for sole custody? Well, when she understood the father’s true interest – not merely the position he took, she was all for him having as much time with their son as possible. After all, being the primary caretaker 24.7, is no bed of roses. She was grateful for all the help the father was ready to give.

Now it was easy to agree on a mutually satisfying parenting plan for both mom and dad. And, of course, the one who benefitted the most was their son. He could now depend on the 2-most important people in his life to be his loving co-parents.

Through marital mediation you too can discover the power of your individual and shared interests to reach your goals and heal your relationship.



This skill shows how both of you can use the power of your interests to negotiate a principled agreement. A principled agreement results from honest bargaining, not the kind of bargaining that undermines the other side. My role is to assist you in reaching that principled agreement. Here, in brief, is how it works:

  • Each of you identifies your interests and goals.
  • You discuss the available options that could help you achieve those goals.
  • You discuss the likely consequences, and the financial and emotional costs of each option.
  • If you have enough information, you can make a choice. If not, you can get whatever else you need to choose wisely.

Through interest-based marital mediation you can reach a durable agreement, and not just a patchwork fix. I call this skill: If you don’t need it, give it up, because each of you asks only for what is necessary to achieve your interests.

Thank you for spending the time learning about Marital Mediation. If you want more information on this subject, please either send me an e-mail at, or call me at 203-372-9055.



Harold Brienes