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COMMENTARY
mediator
(Morguefile.com)

Some observers of our current system have said that we live in a disposable society in which too many people think of marriage as something that can be lightly tossed away. Indeed, many couples should work harder before giving up on a marriage, because divorce places additional stress on our society as a whole. Goodwill, generosity and respect are often in short supply when divorce happens.

To that end, House Bill 1277, by Rep. Travis Dunlap (R-Bartlesville), proposes to restrict courts from granting a divorce based upon grounds of incompatibility if one spouse objects to the divorce. The bill would prolong the waiting period for couples wanting a divorce and would also require that the party at fault pick up the tab for the litigation that would likely ensue.

Dunlap’s idea is that if the Legislature makes divorce more difficult, fewer people will seek a divorce. The problem with that logic is that divorce is already plenty difficult for the individuals involved, even under the best of circumstances.

Prolonging divorce ultimately hurts kids most

As a professional divorce mediator, I work with people who have made the difficult choice to end a marriage. Most of the couples I work with have made the decision after much consideration. For them, extending the waiting period would only prolong the uncertainty and chaos that is part of divorce. For most couples, the more time spent in court playing the blame game, the less likely a cooperative parenting arrangement can be established following the divorce.

This period of uncertainty can be especially hard on children seeking to re-establish equilibrium following a divorce. For the vast majority of children, their parents’ divorce is a frightening and difficult transition. Unfortunately for some children, the battle continues for years after the divorce is finalized.

Mediation holds potential benefits

More couples are looking for a respectful and relatively peaceful approach to ending a marriage. A desire to protect the children from the effects of a messy breakup usually drives such a decision. Couples also want to avoid the prolonged and expensive battle that often takes place when litigation ensues. The legal system too often pits parents against one another in an adversarial process that further increases hostility and reduces their ability to work together in the future as parents.

Policymakers wanting to reduce the negative impact of divorce might be wise to look at efforts intended to encourage cooperation between couples through and after divorce. Many states have successfully made mediation a mandatory step in the process of divorce.

With a trained professional guiding the process, mediation also has major advantages over the high-risk “do-it-yourself” divorce that often generates more problems than it solves. Most often, a professional mediator can guide individuals through a process that helps parents make decisions that benefit the children the divorce affects.

HB 1277 unlikely to help anyone

Effective solutions to the problems divorce creates are hard to find. While mediation doesn’t magically take away a divorce’s turmoil, it does increase the chances of a peaceful and respectful resolution.

Encouraging a court battle over who is at fault — as HB 1277 proposes — would be unlikely to help anyone get through the pain and stress that divorce usually involves.

(Editor’s note: HB 1277 passed out of the House’s Judiciary – Civil and Environmental committee by a vote of 7-5 on Feb. 21.)

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James L. Stovall, M. Div., is director of the Mediation Institute in Oklahoma City and is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. He graduated from Phillips Theological Seminary in 2002.