When a relationship begins to disintegrate, such as that between a husband and wife, they are often encouraged to get into counseling. Absolutely nothing wrong with that suggestion. In fact, I have known many couples who have been helped immensely by counseling. Counseling (also called therapy or psychotherapy) uses various psychological perspectives and tools to help bring about lasting changes in patterns of behavior, including changes in communication. Mediation is not that. There is a place for both counseling and for mediation and they do not serve the same function.

Instead of helping people change their patterns of behavior over time with the hope that those changes will endure (i.e. counseling), mediation seeks to intervene in a single moment of conflict and to move two or more people from division to some degree of unity. There is no intent to change established behavior and communication patterns in a lasting way. There is no weekly session. There is no training and practice in effective habits. However, when a couple experience success in resolving one conflict with help, a side-effect often is the ability to resolve another one without help. Relationships heading towards destruction often are redirected onto a new course through a single intervention in the conflict.

Again, I am an advocate of counseling, but if people have gotten to the point where divorce is filed or even planned, then they are incredibly unlikely to entertain the notion of marital counseling. Even if they do agree to counseling, most sessions are limited to an hour or less per week so it takes a number of sessions before the whole story is unfolded. Many will go to a few sessions, but their level of engagement in the process stops there before counseling even gets its traction. Also, in counseling, there remains the risk that what is said in those sessions could be brought out in court; the counselor could be compelled to testify. Lastly, counseling may give tools to communicate and resolve conflict, but it does not result in a resolution committed to paper that is legally binding.

In contrast to the time limitations and confidentiality limitations of counseling, and in contrast to the absence of any actual, binding agreement, mediation is a forum that exceeds those bounds. A mediation session lasts from two to several hours and can be accomplished over the course of a single day or a few days back to back. Ample time is given for the entire story to unfold and for each party to be heard. The telling of each person’s story as it relates to the issues in dispute clears the way for problem solving to occur. It does not guarantee resolutions of each issue, but it creates the potential for those resolutions better than any other forum. Mediation is not counseling and does not attempt all that counseling promises, but it is the intentional resolution of defined issues of conflict that are then committed to paper as binding agreements.

Do you feel that relationship is beyond the reach of counseling? Are you no longer willing to invest time and hope in therapy sessions? Have you thought an issue was resolved one too many times only for it to unravel leaving you with no way to hold the other person accountable? If any of these are true, it is time to seek the alternative conflict resolution offered by a professional mediator.