Therapeutic Family Mediation: Helping Families Resolve Conflict


Howard H. Irving & Michael Benjamin

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Part 1: Introduction

    Part 2: Therapeutic Family Mediation

    Part 3: Substantive Issues

    Part 4: Special Issues

    Part 5: Final Word

  • Copyright

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    Family mediation has become extremely popular in North America and in other industrialized countries around the world. This is so for pragmatic reasons. Divorce rates remain high and court dockets correspondingly clogged. Mediation provides an effective means of court diversion. Consequently, for the foreseeable future, litigation and family mediation will continue to go hand in hand.

    That said, family mediation is not a static approach. Rather, it continues to evolve and change, grow and develop. One aspect of that development refers to its growing professionalism. Mediation is becoming steadily better organized and more explicit in its commitment to standards of professional and ethical conduct. There is also steady movement toward some form of certification.

    Another aspect of that development concerns its steady proliferation. Once, labor-management negotiation was the only form of mediation available. In the 1980s, family mediation joined the roster. Now, in the new millennium, there is a long and growing list of fields in which there is a mediation component. Concomitantly, the number of professors, programs, and participants continues to expand.

    Such ferment cannot but affect practitioners and model builders. As to the former, both novice and experienced, an expanding research and substantive literature has made it increasingly difficult to remain current. At the same time, there is increasing demand for more and better ways of effecting the objectives of mediation—that is, creative and innovative skills and techniques—and the means to convey them simply and clearly. The same is true of the growing list of available family mediation models.

    As to the latter, among model builders, including ourselves, there is increasing pressure to convey available models in ways that make them accessible to an audience of practitioners and students that is decidedly heterogeneous. This is problematic in three senses. First, the heterogeneity of the audience is such as to define clarity and accessibility in different terms to different groups. Those with a mental health or social service background look to texts for particular information, whereas those with a legal background look to the same texts for different information. Either authors strive to meet both sets of needs by creating texts that are generic in character, or they speak to one audience while ignoring the other.

    Second, the field of family mediation is unfinished. Various substantive issues remain controversial. In the absence of consensus, vigorous debate is ongoing. That debate is a healthy sign and is the standard marker of evolution in a field of endeavor. Even so, such debate creates a dilemma for authors in the field. A text may either address and explicate these issues, or its author may prefer a text that is confined to the description of mediation skills and methods.

    Finally, models themselves do not remain static; they change and evolve with their authors. Thus, new texts are needed to introduce the models to students while apprising practitioners of recent changes and innovations. Similarly, the authors' perspectives on their own work may change. The prime movers of such change are the clients with whom they become involved. New clients constitute a new demand to adapt the model to their needs, with some clients being considerably more demanding than others. Contact with students and with colleagues is similarly demanding, as they repeatedly insist that authors be clear and specific in explicating the model they propose, thus changing the model in the process. Aging and personal change are also salient processes. Aging can bring into sharp focus processes in the lives of clients that were only dimly understood when the authors were themselves much younger. The same is true of personal experiences. Divorce means one thing when viewed from the smug confines of one's own happy marriage and quite another from the perspective of one's own unhappy divorce.

    Such were our dilemmas in considering whether it was timely to prepare another text on the mediation model we propose, namely, therapeutic family mediation (TFM). Our first text was published in 1987 when both of us were relatively new practitioners. It had the further disadvantage of being available only in Canada. The next text, published in 1995, contained some explication of the model but was largely an issue-based text. Thus, we were left with a situation in which we had nowhere fully explicated the TFM practice model. Changes in the field were also relevant and, to us, troubling. Of the flood of new mediation texts, the vast majority were generic in character; only a handful of texts continue to espouse a clinical or therapeutic approach. New students, then, were apt to conclude that the generic approach was synonymous with mediation, with the family merely one among a host of groups amenable to this approach. We concluded that it was high time to add our voice to those advocating for the benefits of a clinical approach to mediation, with the family seen as a unique social form that required specialized skills and techniques.

    Having decided to develop a new text, we then confronted the issues noted above. As both of us come to the field with a mental health background, that background will be quite apparent in how we define, approach, and discuss the various issues relevant to contemporary family mediation. However, this left us unclear as to how to speak to those colleagues who hail from a legal background. Given that their contribution to the field is substantial, we elected to speak to them in two ways, by addressing a range of legal issues and by trying to show that TFM can be as effective in court-based mediation as it can with private clients.

    Next, we both agreed that it was important to review and discuss a range of substantive issues while describing the nuts and bolts of TFM in action. We realized at the outset that this could be problematic for some readers, including those asked to review our initial manuscript. But the nuts and bolts of any model are not created through an act of spontaneous creativity. Rather, they are created in response to issues in the field. Describing such structures out of any context would badly distort their presentation and might be seriously misleading for students new to the field who would have no reason to be aware of these ongoing debates. We believe such discussion enriches the final text, adding depth to what would otherwise be flat and spare. Even so, descriptive text has been presented such that it can stand on its own; readers irritated by our discussion of issues are free to skip these sections and move on.

    Finally, those who take the time to compare this text with our first practice text from 1987 will not be surprised to find that the model has evolved quite considerably. These changes very much reflect our own professional growth, shaped in large part by the clients we have come to know over the years. If told this, the clients in question would probably be surprised, if not shocked, by the extent of their contribution. In their need, clients demand certainty and confidence on the part of their mediator. Typically, mediators are happy to oblige, in an effort to give support and build rapport. But inside, clients are perceived as an unceasing source of demand. Indeed, the most difficult and challenging clients are often the motive for innovation and change in clinical skills and techniques. In seeking to adapt TFM to meet their needs, changes were made that have become permanently incorporated in the model.

    In the 15 years since our first practice text, at the very least we can claim to have learned a few things along the way. On one hand, we are now more temperate in our claims, for it has become abundantly clear that all clients are not amenable to mediation; the question as to whether this is a failing of theirs or ours has ceased to be relevant. Such experience demands renewed respect for the enormous challenge of divorce and the many simultaneous changes it necessarily brings. If some clients find themselves overwhelmed in the process, who are we to cast aspersions? Our obligation is to try to be helpful, if only to refer them to others for the help they need.

    On the other hand, these same clients have demonstrated to us again and again that TFM works. It is an extremely powerful model that broadens the scope of clients to whom we can offer meaningful assistance in doing what is best for them and their children. Here, it is important to acknowledge that not all divorcing families are dysfunctional. Many are merely sad and confused and, with a little help, can do a fine job of mitigating the impact of divorce on their children while getting on with their individual lives. Of those who are dysfunctional in one way or another, these families range on a continuum, with only the most severely dysfunctional outside the reach of TFM.

    Whatever the status of the client, TFM stretches the practitioner. Such practitioners, whatever their disciplinary origin, are expected to have and maintain a wide knowledge of matters relevant to mediation with divorcing couples. Further stretching necessarily occurs as they apply their knowledge and expertise to clients with a diverse range of problems and issues. We hope the interaction between the two brings out the best—in creativity, empathy, and collaborative problem solving—in both. We hope that that intention to instruct and expand is all too apparent in this text, and we welcome your comments, for only you can determine how successful we have been.

    Howard H. Irving, Ph.D.

    Michael Benjamin, Ph.D.

    Toronto, Ontario March 2002


    We are most grateful to the many families whom we have worked with in mediation. They, along with our students and colleagues, were extremely helpful in giving their time, insights, and energy toward making this book a reality.

    A special thanks to the students and staff at the University of Toronto Family Mediation Program. We are in debt to Tat Tsang, Virginia Hamara, Andrea Litwack, Melanie Kraft, Jennifer Shuber, and Linda Chodos.

    Much is owed to the leaders and writers in the field of family mediation who have influenced and enhanced the ideas in this book. These include Joan B. Kelly, Hugh McIsaac, Isolina Ricci, Donald Saposnek, Robert Emery, and Mary Duryee, to mention only a few.

    We thank the editors and staff at Sage Publications for their continuing support and guidance throughout the project, from proposal to publications. Thanks to Nancy Hale, Margaret Seawell, Vonessa Vondera, Alicia Carter, and Gillian Dickens.

    On a more personal note, we are deeply thankful for the patience and understanding from our families. Thank you Fahla, Jay, Jonathan, Jennifer, Adam, Tamara, and Jessie.

    Finally, this book is dedicated to the memory of the late Susan Adler, Sylvia and Samuel Irving.

  • Name Index

    About the Authors

    Howard H. Irving is a professor at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Social Work, and cross-appointed to the Faculty of Law. He has served as co-director of the university's Joint Law and Social Work Program. Dr. Irving has been a practicing family mediator for more than 25 years. In the past few years, he has developed an international reputation, giving courses and speeches in the United States, Canada, Israel, Hong Kong, and Beijing.

    Michael Benjamin is a family sociologist, with specialized training in family mediation and family and marital therapy. He has been involved in family mediation for the past 20 years as a theorist, researcher, trainer, teacher, author, and practitioner, both privately and through the family court. Dr. Benjamin practices as a marital and family therapist, a custody and access assessor, and as a research consultant.

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