| Magazine Feature |

There Is Another Way

Divorce mediation spares families from ugliness and rancor

Divorce is always painful, and believing Jews will explore every opportunity to save a marriage on the rocks. But when divorce is the only option, does the process have to be protracted, ugly, and inordinately expensive?
Proponents of mediation say there’s a better way. How does mediation give agency and control back to the divorcing spouses? When is it effective, and when is it a poor choice?
What are the benefits, and what are the pitfalls? A closer look at a medium that’s spared many families from the rancor that all too commonly accompanies divorce

When it became clear to Meira that her marriage of six years was over, she knew exactly what not to do.

“I was 11 when my parents divorced, and my family was absolutely decimated,” she says. “My mother’s family was well-connected, and succeeded in getting askanim on their side in a brutal campaign against my father. It was a ‘holy war,’ fought to ‘save the neshamos’ of the children from the influence of my father, who they viewed as not up to their religious standard. When I got married years later, my in-laws had to pay for the entire wedding because my parents were still slugging it out in court and didn’t have a penny. My father’s parents took out a reverse mortgage to help his defense; they were bled so dry that there was no money for my brothers’ bar mitzvahs.”

Was the holy war successful? “Two of my brothers and one sister are not religious,” Meira says. “Worse, two of them are married to non-Jews — my parents will have generations of goyim among their descendants. Many, many relationships were destroyed. And 23 years later, of the eight children in my family, I’m the only one on speaking terms with everyone.”

Years after her parents’ divorce, Meira faced the necessity of ending her own marriage — and she was determined to take a different approach. “We’re not stepping foot into court,” she told her husband. “I will not take that ugly route at any cost.”

Meira and her husband chose instead to work out their divorce agreement through a mediator. With the mediator’s help, they parted peacefully.

Divorce is always painful. But those who’ve taken the route of mediation say it doesn’t have to be protracted, ugly, or inordinately expensive. Unlike litigation or even arbitration, mediation puts both parties in one room, where a mediator facilitates a productive — albeit charged — conversation about the major issues. The immediate aim is to walk out of the room with a signed agreement that can be processed in court. But the bigger goal is to avoid the bitterness so often associated with divorce, and to lay the groundwork for stable co-parenting in the future.

Mediation Basics

In addition to the get which dissolves the halachic ties between man and wife, a divorcing couple in the United States must have an attorney sign their divorce agreement and file it in court in order to be legally divorced. But the details of that agreement — custody arrangement, child support, division of assets, etc. — can be negotiated in a variety of ways.

One option is collaborative law, also known as arbitration, where lawyers for each side duke out the details and settle out of court. Another option is to go to beis din, where a toen (a personal advocate well-versed in halachah) or a lawyer is hired to win the best possible award for their client. If someone is bent on winning at all costs, they can choose litigation: hiring a lawyer to take the case to secular court. (It should be noted that halachically one may not turn to a secular court unless he was given permission to do so by a qualified beis din.)

And then there’s mediation, a wholly different approach from any of the above; its objective is for both sides to win. A well-executed mediation will result in each side walking away with terms they feel capable of accepting, sans unnecessary bitterness and resentment. This doesn’t mean they get everything on their wish lists.

“A mediation is successful when both parties feel they’ve given up on something they are otherwise entitled to,” says B.Z. Halberstam, a rabbi and lawyer who serves as a pro bono mediator in Clifton, NJ — but it does mean that the long-term benefit will far outweigh the sacrifice.

It works like this: The couple together hires a mediator, whose job is to facilitate a joint conversation, issue by issue, with the goal of helping them design a postdivorce life that works for them both and promotes, as much as possible, the emotional health of all members of the family. The process typically takes three to six sessions, over the course of several months. Key to its success is a completely neutral mediator; if one spouse feels the mediator has a bias toward the other, their impulse will be to get a lawyer to defend their own interests, and the mediation is blown.

Ilana Blass is a family law attorney, divorce coach, and mediator in Monsey, NY. When clients approach her seeking to hire a divorce attorney, she first encourages them to seek mediation, which she considers superior in every way to collaborative law, her own bread and butter.

“There are so many advantages to mediation,” she says. “For starters, it’s a much quicker process, as well as less expensive. But most importantly, with mediation you have agency over your own decisions. No outside party (such as a court or beis din) is dictating the terms of your life. You get to decide what you can live with, and what’s not negotiable. At a time when one’s life is so out of control, having some degree of control makes the final outcome much more acceptable emotionally.”

Mediation also lays the groundwork for successful co-parenting, Blass says. In mediation, a divorcing couple figures out how to negotiate and resolve issues together, something they’ll need to do untold times in the years ahead. During their sessions they each learn how to stretch, thereby creating a template for future stretching. And if a sticking point does arise down the road, they will have a trusted address for postdivorce mediation.

Mediation isn’t easy — there’s no lawyer to hide behind, and you’re forced to face the person with whom you have a difficult history, to put your needs aside, and to consider theirs.

Both partners need to be healthy, peace-seeking, and up for really hard work, Blass says.

“If one spouse is a tyrant or bully, mediation will fail. I’ve had to stop mediations because one side had such an upper hand that the other side agreed to every demand. If he’s going to threaten or manipulate her afterward, will she feel free to take a stand for herself in the session? A weaker party needs a defender — so mediation won’t work in these cases.”

But when divorcing couples can summon up the strength to be forward-thinking, emotionally mature, and focused on the bigger picture, mediation is the ideal medium to arrive at an effective agreement while reducing the negativity in a very fraught process.

Around the Table

Yitzchok Gruenebaum, a professional mediator in Suffern, NY, estimates that there are fewer than a dozen Torah-observant individuals in the US and Canada whose full-time occupation is professional mediation. That said, almost every frum community has askanim who mediate for local divorcing couples, most typically pro bono.

One such individual is Evan Genack, who’s wryly described as “building homes by day and dismantling them by night.”

Between inspecting job sites and managing subs for his Lawrence-based construction company, Genack fields an ever-flowing stream of calls from couples whose divorces he’s mediating pro bono — about ten to 15 at any given time.

Genack has no formal training — 18 years ago he helped a friend get through a contentious divorce, and within weeks his phone began to ring and he fell into his new calling — but he’s devised a formula that results in a divorce agreement with efficiency and speed. The basic structure of the deal is typically established in two or three sessions, but getting it signed can take a lot longer if emotions are running high.

His describes his approach as document-oriented. “If I’d let them, the couple would sit for hours telling me how much they were hurt. But as sad as that is, it’s not relevant to the outcome, so I steer the conversation back to the task at hand: getting a document signed.”

He explains that people get divorced for a wide array of reasons. Sometimes there is a clear aggressor and victim, and the victim feels the aggressor should have to pay — but it doesn’t work like that; regardless of the story, the terms of all divorces are generally within ten percent of each other. Visitation packages are usually very similar, as are the formulas applied to determine child support.

The action happens in Genack’s home study, and he uses deadpan humor as often as possible to cut the tension. Before he begins, he asks whether they’ve been to therapy.

“I don’t want their divorce on my shoulders if they’ve never tried to repair their marriage,” he says. “If one side wants to stay in the marriage, I encourage the one who wants out to go for therapy, because until their spouse understands that there’s no hope for the marriage — and therapy can bring that to light — they won’t agree to give in on anything.”

The rest of his five-minute intro involves reassuring them about confidentiality, and explaining the two things required in order to divorce: a get from beis din, and a civil agreement that lays out the terms of the divorce, which mediation will help them negotiate.

Next, Genack introduces the meat-and-potatoes of the settlement, which he calls the Big Five: custody, visitation, child support, add-ons, and division of assets/debt. If there is substantial income, alimony is included as well. Once they answer these major questions, he tells the couple, an agreement can be drafted. There are secondary issues that need to be answered as well. How far can the custodial parent move from the marital residence? Who is responsible for life insurance?  But these can be filled in after the agreement is written.

Genack walks the couple through each of the Big Five. In quick succession, he asks a series of questions regarding their desired outcomes on each subject, and marks down each side’s position. Whatever they agree on will later be written into the agreement. When they disagree, he tries to negotiate a compromise, but if that doesn’t happen quickly, he moves on — hashing out the nitty-gritties will come later. The goal of Session One is to fill in as the most possible blanks in all categories, and to identify areas that need further negotiation. This process takes about 45-60 minutes.

One to Five

“First up is custody,” Genack says. “I explain that there are two components: physical custody, which refers to where the child will live, and legal custody, which designates who has decision-making rights in regard to the child. In over 90 percent of cases, there is joint legal custody, with the mother receiving physical custody. While some fathers push for joint physical custody, I explain how destabilizing it is for a child to live in two homes. Yet in some cases, physical custody legitimately belongs to the father.”

Legal custody covers three areas: medical, educational, and general welfare. Genack gives the couple examples of general welfare questions that come up:  A wife might want her daughter to take karate lessons, but the husband thinks it’s too masculine and not in her best interest. Or one parent wants the child to go to therapy, but the other says it’s too expensive. As he talks the partners through these hypothetical scenarios, they’re prompted to consider general welfare issues that might apply in their own lives.

After Genack marks down each side’s desired outcomes, a person they both trust is chosen as a mediator for potential future disagreements. A pediatrician is usually chosen for medical situations, and a principal, rav, or therapist are common choices for educational and general welfare questions. “If there are hot spots, such as their wanting schools with different hashkafos, we try to get as specific as possible in the agreement, to obviate fighting later on.”

The next of the Big Five is visitation. The idea of only being able to see his children at certain times is very scary for a father, so it’s a frequent flashpoint for disagreement. Genack introduces this category with a story to soften the edges.

“A father pushed and pushed for as much visitation as possible, and the wife fought him on it tooth and nail,” he relates. “A month after the divorce, the wife called me to complain: Her husband isn’t showing up for his visitation. ‘That’s unbelievable! It’s exactly what you wanted!’ I told her. She answered, ‘What do you mean? The only free time I have is when my kids are with their father!’ ” It’s a joke that portrays a more realistic perspective of the future than what they’re envisioning in the heat of the moment.

The standard arrangement is for the father to get visitation every other weekend from Friday through Sunday, plus either one midweek sleepover or two midweek dinners; vacations and Yamim Tovim are split equally. Genack presents this arrangement as a starting point, and then listens closely to each side’s reaction, customizing the arrangement from there.

“I try hard to get the wife to agree to send her boys to Avos U’banim learning sessions with their father, even when it’s ‘her’ weekend,” he says. A big question that comes up is the age overnight visitation should start.

Child support comes next, and it’s a tough one. Genack starts with the legal guidelines. In New York, for example, it’s roughly calculated as follows: 17 percent of one’s income for one child, 25 percent for two children, 29 percent for three children, etc. So if a father makes $100,000 a year and has three kids, he’d be responsible to pay $29,000 in child support a year, broken into monthly payments. Essentially, the more he makes, the more he has to pay, although it caps off at a certain point. (If he makes a million dollars a year, he wouldn’t be expected to pay $290,000.)

It’s not always that simple, though. When someone owns a business, establishing their true income adds another layer of complexity. And sometimes a father with a large income knows enough to threaten to take the case to beis din, because beis din mandates paying a flat fee per child, typically $100 per child per week; that’s a much better deal for him. “When that happens, I sometimes suggest going with the average of what the court and beis din would mandate,” Genack says.

Visitation and child support are usually the two most fraught issues on the table, and Genack has developed what he calls the Volcano Theory in response to what he’s seen transpire as couples work these points through. “In-session fighting can get intense — I’ve had couples throwing bottles at each other — and in the early years, I’d try to calm them down,” he says. “But I’ve come to learn that the aftermath of an explosion is the most fertile time for agreement. Lava pouring out of a volcano destroys everything in its path, but then that same lava becomes the most fertile soil for tree growth. In the same way, a couple can say the most destructive things to each other, but human nature has it that they feel badly about it immediately afterward and are more prone to compromise. So now I let them scream and go crazy until they’re spent — I’m not intimidated when they fight, because I know that breakthroughs will soon follow.”

Fourth up: Add-ons. These include tuition, camp, and medical expenses. Here again, Genack uses the court’s standard as a starting point: Each parent is responsible for the percentage they contribute to their combined income (legally known as pro rata). If, for example, the wife contributes 25 percent of their joint income, she’s responsible for 25 percent of the camp bill. “But you have to consider the specifics of each case and use your judgment,” he cautions.

And finally, division of assets: home equity, real estate, savings, stocks, etc., as well as debt. Assets are divided 50-50 (“I’ve even seen couples split the paper goods,” Genack says). In short-lived marriages, chassan and kallah gifts are returned.

At the close of the first session, many of the big issues have been settled, and areas of disagreement have been identified. The couple then sits through another one to two sessions to hash out the outstanding issues pertaining the Big Five. Genack then sends the information to a lawyer, who drafts a 60-80 page separation agreement. The couple reviews the document, makes any necessary corrections, and fills in the blanks on the smaller issues. Once everyone is in agreement, the document is signed, the get takes place in beis din, and then the lawyer files the document in court.

Secrets of the Trade

What inside hacks do mediators use to keep the process moving forward peacefully?

Genack says he keeps the focus on the overall package and maintains a steady pace throughout his sessions. “Occasionally people are intractable and it can drag on for months, torturing everyone involved,” he concedes. “But when people are reasonable, most things work themselves out over the course of the process. I try to facilitate package-deal negotiation rather than haggling over every item. The process generally moves quickly because I try to keep it unemotional and extremely outcome-focused.”

Yitzchok Gruenebaum’s strategy is to drill right down to the kernel of the issues. “Helping the couple identify all that they agree on, and then pinpointing their differences, will allow them to recognize that the differences are usually smaller than they realize. When you help them understand that they’re not arguing from extremes, the problem is suddenly bridgeable,” he says.

He also has each spouse explain why they want what they do, because that understanding often leads to the solution. “For example, one woman wanted a stipulation that all communication between her and her ex would be via text, but he only wanted to use email. One of them could have simply given in, but would have been annoyed each time they communicated. I had them explain their reasoning. It turned out that she wanted quick and easy access to him, but he found the constant pinging of texting distracting. We realized that email-to-text and text-to-email would satisfy both of their needs.”

Forcing concessions can be counterproductive, he says. “We don’t want anyone to give in on something out of tzidkus. That person will be miserable, and might later try to use that concession as a gambit for something else. If you explore the reasons for what they each want and use that as a basis for a solution, chances are a lot higher that both of them will be satisfied.”

Attorney Ilana Blass’s approach is to let the couple do the negotiating while she facilitates from the sidelines. Implicit in giving suggestions is your own judgment, and a client may feel pressured to accept the mediator’s suggestion so as not to appear unreasonable. Guiding the couple to come up with solutions themselves gives them ownership over their lives, she’s found, and leaves them much more receptive to the resulting terms.

Family members often try to involve themselves in the mediation process, out of a desire to protect their relative. It’s crucial for a divorcing couple to have the support of family — they should be there for hand-holding, general guidance, and babysitting — but getting involved in the minutiae of mediation is inappropriate, says Blass, and very disruptive: The only opinions that matter belong to the couple.

“If a family member shows up for a mediation session, I won’t let them in — unless they’re there to translate and the other party agrees,” Blass says. “I get calls from parents telling me they don’t agree with what we decided in mediation. Would you call your grown child’s doctor and say you don’t approve of his treatment plan?”

Possessing a certain skill set can spell the difference between a mediocre and highly effective mediator, Blass says. Being emotionally intelligent and empathetic is a must. You have to suspend your own judgment and allow the client’s mindset to be the reality of the moment.

“One woman insisted that the divorce agreement stipulate that her ex would dress the children in matching clothing when they were with him for Shabbos. My gut reaction was, Are you for real? But I set my judgment aside and discussed it with a straight face, because it’s about what’s important to the client, not to me.”

The air in the room can crackle with tension, and mediators must be skilled at reading all that emotion — sensing when a break is needed or when a session is fizzling and should end. And they should be excellent at active listening and reading between the lines, because clients can have a hard time clearly pinpointing and articulating their needs and wants.

The ability to think out of the box is another essential quality for breaking stalemates. “A mother wanted her son to get off the school bus at his regular stop near her home, even on days he was staying with his father, for the sake of consistency,” Blass shares. “But it was important to the father that he have the experience of taking his child off the bus, and insisted that on ‘his’ days the son get off the bus near his house. Neither side would budge, until I came up with an idea: On his days, he’d take his son off the bus at the regular bus stop near mom’s house. This worked for both of them.”

Beware the Pitfalls

As advantageous as mediation sounds, its landscape is actually something akin to the Wild West — the field is unregulated, and anyone can put up a shingle. It’s critical to choose a skillful mediator with a solid track record; the best referrals come from those who’ve gone through mediation with good outcomes, or from a rav who knows the lay of the land.

Mediating is a learned skill, so someone who’s professionally trained is ideal. There are 40-hour mediation training courses available that offer certification, and much of the learning takes place through role-playing. The general course is often followed by training and certification in divorce mediation specifically. Graduates often go on to intern at local courthouses.

Poorly-trained mediators can unfortunately bring tremendous grief to their clients. Suri, a divorced mother of two, relates how a sloppy, unprofessional mediation job led to her family’s postdivorce chaos.

“Throughout the document, after each agreed-upon issue, was the statement, ‘Both parties mutually agree to not unreasonably withhold consent,’” she says. “This in effect left everything open-ended, basically saying ‘we agree to agree as long as it’s reasonable.’ The word ‘unreasonable’ is completely subjective, and therefore meaningless — it allows you to negate the agreement if you decide it’s unreasonable.

“When I moved and had to choose a new school for my son, I wanted to send him to a cheder-style school, similar to his previous school. My ex insisted on a modern day school, and refused to pay for the school I chose. I told him he was being ‘unreasonable,’ but he disagreed. Because the agreement was so open-ended, he brought me to court, and since I couldn’t afford a lawyer, I lost everything on the table, despite the fact that according to precedent the judge should’ve ruled in favor of a school similar to what my son was used to. He ended up in a school that in part led him to the irreligious life he leads today.”

In contrast to Suri’s vague and open-ended agreement, an effective agreement will contain a very specific mechanism for solving future disagreements, which are inevitable — such as turning to a specific a specific rav, third party, or returning to the mediator. Had Suri’s agreement included this kind of specificity, tremendous heartache could have been avoided.

So why not take the legal route? Betzalel Rothstein, a mediator in Highland Park, NJ, explains that lawyers are trained in advocacy, and they tend to approach divorce proceedings as a zero-sum game: If I win, you lose; if you win, I lose. In fact, a lawyer’s responsibility is to get as much of the pie as possible for their client. Mediation, he says, is the exact opposite: Winning means going home with a bit less materialistically but so much more emotionally. A lawyer is trained to say, “If you want X, we’ll fight to get it for you. A mediator would caution, ‘If you fight for X, you might win, but your kids will end up hating you.’”

At What Price?

Mediators generally all emphasize these same words regarding litigation: You may win the battle, but you will lose the war. The casualties of that war — primarily your children — are too steep a price to pay.

Attorneys deal with the here and now, while mediators focus on the long-term picture, says Rothstein.  “I tell clients: Now that your marriage is over, there’s no more reason to fight. Will you be able to walk your kids down to the chuppah together? That’s all your children will want, so let’s work toward that.”

One might think that leaving the nitty-gritty details to the lawyers will spare the couple the unpleasantness of the process. It’s not so, says Yitzchok Gruenebaum. “You’ll be biting your tongue and looking at the other person like a monster with each concession you make. In mediation, you gain a better understanding of the conflict — why the other side thinks as they do — and so you don’t feel like a victim when you give in on something.”

Some hesitate to try mediation, because, their thinking goes, why enter the bullpen defenseless if I can hire the protection of a gladiator? Unfortunately, some people have to first taste the pain and damage of litigation before being willing to give mediation a try, says Rabbi B.Z. Halberstam.

To quote James Sexton, a celebrity family lawyer: “Using a lawyer is like using a chainsaw, while using a mediator is like using a scalpel.” In fact, Sexton once gave Gruenebaum a copy of his book, and signed it, “From the best chainsaw, to the best scalpel.”

Gruenebaum illustrates the analogy: “A couple came to me for mediation. The wife believed the husband was making much more money than what he claimed, so the husband suggested that she hire a forensic accountant to determine his true income. The wife refused to pay for one, and that was the last I saw of them. A few years later, I heard from the wife. She had gone the legal route, consulting with multiple lawyers and prolonging the battle, but three years later she was in the exact same place: She needed to verify his finances with a forensic accountant. What did she gain? Years of lawyers’ fees and heartache, because she used the wrong tool — she pulled out a chainsaw when all she needed was a scalpel.”

Bring in the Lawyers

Not all mediators are opposed to the involvement of lawyers in the process — but they do feel the involvement should be extremely specific and limited. Ilana Blass believes lawyers can serve as bookends before and after mediation to bolster the process. She knows some mediators would argue that consulting a lawyer before starting mediation is ill-advised and risky, because there are lawyers out there looking to rack up fees by fomenting war. But she maintains that as long as you choose one carefully, it can be very beneficial to involve a lawyer.

“Lawyers frame the mediation for you,” she explains. “They review all the topics you should make sure to cover, and they serve as a reality check on your wish list by letting you know what’s legally realistic and what’s just a fantasy.

“Even more important, once mediation is done, each side should hire a lawyer to review both the mediation summary and the divorce agreement — to make sure they’re protected, to ensure that nothing important was forgotten, and to confirm that the final agreement accurately reflects what they came up with in mediation.

“I belong to a group of frum family lawyers who advise people, in good faith, on what’s best for them. It will probably cost a few thousand dollars total for the initial consult and final review, but in the scheme of things it’s certainly worth it,” she says.

Mediators are often lawyers as well, and their knowledge of the law is advantageous to the mediation process. Blass gives an example: In New York State, the law states that child support can be revisited when there’s a change in income. But on the divorce agreement, you can opt out of this. She knows of a case where a mediator unschooled in the law didn’t realize he opted out for his client, and the agreement wasn’t reviewed by a lawyer. The husband was a medical resident and on his way to a lucrative career, but child support was locked into what he was able to afford on a resident’s meager salary. Years later, the case went back to court, and it took a small fortune to overturn.

Rothstein, however, sees the issue in the reverse. He believes that when lawyer-mediators engage in mediation, it’s hard for them to pivot out of legal headspace, which can be very limiting.

“In a case I recently mediated, the husband was being supported by his wealthy father, while the wife was a homemaker. The husband took it easy all the years they were married, since he had a steady income stream to rely on. I told him, ‘It’s true that after a long and expensive fight in court, you might get away with minimal child support based on your official earnings of $150,000, even though you’re really worth $10 million. But do you want your wife to resent you, and do you want to jeopardize your relationship with your children? If you give generously, your wife and kids will feel cared for and there won’t be animosity.’

“I suggested he completely disregard what a court might mandate, and we worked out a formula that was acceptable to both of them. My approach is not to restrict ourselves by legal guidelines that don’t understand or take into account the economic needs of a frum household.”

Divergent Lives

When divorcing parents are veering in different religious directions, emotions are especially intense. A skilled mediator can guide them in putting that emotion aside in order to do what’s best for their kids. But what, in such a case, actually is best?

Rothstein has thoroughly researched this weighted question. “Creating an environment with consistency is the most important factor for a child’s emotional health,” he says. If one parent chooses to leave Yiddishkeit, he’ll tell them, “You want to shake up your life, that’s your choice, but don’t destabilize your child’s life.”

Abrupt change is tumultuous, and so he encourages both parents to support the child in the religious lifestyle they’re accustomed to. For the less religious parent, this might mean agreeing to keep the child in yeshivah, upholding the basics of Shabbos when they’re together, or not offering them treif.

The more religious parent needs to bend as well, Rothstein says. “If the child lives with his mother who’s to the religious left, he’ll be getting more screen time, dressing differently, eating chalav stam. If the father tries to enforce his own standards when his child visits — if he says things like ‘We don’t watch movies in this house,’ or ‘Put on some respectable clothing,’ not only does the child have to deal with the confusion of mixed messages, it will also push him into the arms of the less restrictive parent. Before long the child will be saying, ‘I don’t want to spend time with Tatty, he’s too strict.’

“The father thinks he’s doing the right thing by imposing higher standards, but it might blow up in his face,” he cautions. “Religion as a flashpoint of conflict is always a mistake. If you want to stay connected to your kids and have a chance at influencing them, you need to accept them where they are.”

When each parent wants a different type of school for their child, he advises them to choose the school that is most in sync with the hashkafah of the child’s primary home, because inconsistency between school and home is particularly destabilizing.

Rothstein coaches the divorcing parents to absorb these concepts (often individually), and they are the guiding principles he uses in mediation to devise a plan that will lead to the best outcome for the children. The specifics are written into the agreement: hechsherim x, y, and z are acceptable, both homes will maintain Orthodox levels of Shabbos observance, and the like.

After the couple hammers out the particulars, they often ask, “How can I control what goes on in the other home?”

“I tell them that neither of them has that control, but if they don’t abide by the respectful spirit of the agreement — if they say things like ‘Your mother lives like a goy’ or ‘Your father is a fanatic’ — they’ll be pitting the parents against each other and forcing the child to choose one,” says Yitzchok Gruenebaum. That’s extremely painful for a child. “And,” he warns, “in the end, they may not choose you.”

Suri’s son describes enduring years of painful inner conflict due to growing up in two homes with vastly different religious styles. He says this is the primary reason he’s not religious today, at 22.

Through a child’s eyes

If the goal of mediation is to set the stage for a “good divorce,” what principles should guide the couple toward that end as they go through the process?

“Look at every decision through your kids’ eyes,” says Meira. She speaks from bitter experience; her father wasn’t invited to her wedding. After her own divorce, she did her best to run every decision through her children’s perspective.

When her son turned bar mitzvah, she took him on a trip to Israel and then threw a big party to which she invited her ex and his extended family. “It wasn’t easy for me, but my son told me many times that the absolute highlight of his bar mitzvah — better than the Israel trip and all the presents — was seeing me and my ex standing together and laughing over a comment someone made. The incident lasted less than a minute, but it created a massive impact on him.”

Rothstein underscores that extended family should only be a blessing in children’s lives; when kids are forced to deal with questions of loyalty regarding different family members, it destroys them. In his own family, with divorced parents and his own second marriage, children have been named after step-relatives, his mother attended the funeral of her husband’s ex-wife, and at his aufruf, his father spoke in his own ex-wife’s backyard. If co-parents can get along, they’ve hit a grand slam.

“It’s so healthy for kids to see you pick up the phone and call that ex-family member,” Meira says. “My ex’s mother isn’t known in my home as my ex-mother-in-law, she’s simply my son’s grandmother, which makes us family. Whenever I interact with anyone in my ex’s family — even if it’s just telling my son to wish his aunt mazel tov from me on her new baby — he can’t get enough of it.”

And the stage for that healthy, peaceful dynamic is set from the very beginning: If you go through the divorce process with an adversarial tone, it’s hard to reverse it, but if you start with a child-focused approach, that momentum carries far forward into the future, and your child will grow up with the emotional well-being he needs to thrive despite his parents’ divorce.

Having experienced the horror story of her parents’ divorce, Meira is grateful she took the other path. “Mediation lines up perfectly with Torah values — of not holding a grudge, not causing a fellow Jew pain, of seeking peace. It offers a guidepost for living like Yid, even through the toughest times.” —

Divorce Done Right

A first-person account of the benefits of mediation

Our marriage was over, but I was determined to get right our final act together as a couple: Our divorce would be as friendly as possible.

For the sake of my husband: because he didn’t want to get divorced, he was in a tremendous amount of pain, and I didn’t want to be the bad guy any more than I already was.

For my six kids: to avoid all the ugliness and minimize their suffering.

And for myself — because the thought of us going at each other like enemies on a battlefield was downright terrifying.

Our rav recommended we go to Yitzchak Gruenebaum for mediation. The idea of having the same person represent both of us was reassuring to me — it meant that person would have to be fair, and no one would be working against either of us (in contrast to an opposing lawyer). Plus a little hand-holding would make the process bearable.

I had practical reasons for wanting to avoid the legal system as well. My husband had little money, and I knew that the thought of spending money he didn’t have paralyzed him. If I wanted the divorce to move forward in a timely way, we’d have to work within his means.

I was extremely anxious before our first session, because my husband was very hurt and emotional, and I didn’t know how it would play out. I was also concerned about putting my husband through more pain.  As our screens came to life (the sessions were on Zoom), the tension and awkwardness were palpable.  Mr. Gruenebaum cut through that tension by speaking in a voice that was gentle, calm and reassuring.

He did a fantastic job — he didn’t let us interrupt each other, listened carefully to each side’s concerns, and repeated what he heard to make sure we all understood. It was very hard for my husband to accept that he wouldn’t be able to see his kids whenever he wanted to. The mediator got him to understand that it’s in his own best interest to have guaranteed time with them and that a consistent schedule is beneficial for the kids as well. Having an advocate validate what we were going through emotionally was very supportive for both of us.

I knew my husband needed time to come to terms with things, so I put him in the driver’s seat, scheduling each session only after he told me he was ready for it. Because he was highly emotional about the divorce, I didn’t want to come on too strong, not knowing how he’d react.

How did I maintain such a positive outlook throughout this wrenching experience? I kept two things front and center in my mind: One, it was only right for me to be patient with my husband, because his life was being pulled out from under him. And two, working things through peaceably was far and away the best thing I could do for my kids.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 963)

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