What is it like to be a divorce mediator?

Who gets the dog? Long-time mediator Irene Jackson on how you can avoid pricey lawyers fees if you pick mediation instead

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This week TV cameras go behind the scenes of the UK’s family mediation services, where warring couples attempt to settle their differences instead of taking them to court. Here Irene Jackson, a mediator for nine years who features in the series, gives an insight into her work…

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The main bones of contention are property, money and access to children. Whatever the issue, it generally boils down to the fact that one person thinks they are entitled to something and the other person thinks they’re not. The focus varies: some couples will say they can’t even think about money until arrangements for the children have been sorted, others are completely in tune about where their children should live and with whom, and it is all about the pounds, shillings and pence.

The family pet can also be divisive. Dogs in particular carry a lot of importance for some people, even when there are children in the family. Emotions can run just as high.

The timing of mediation is important. Ideally you don’t want to work with anyone whose relationship has just ended because often there is a disparity between how each half feels. There isn’t an optimum time but ideally you are talking months – sometimes even years – as opposed to weeks.

I never underestimate how hard it is for couples to be there. When people come into mediation we are asking them to do something that
 is actually really alien to them. Sometimes they have 
just grown apart 
but more often than not something horrid has happened in their relationship, so the last thing anyone wants to do is sit in a room with that other person and talk amicably about how they are going to resolve their
 future lives.

People get fraught, upset and frustrated – but it’s rarely directed at us. No matter how angry people are they do understand you are trying to support them through a difficult time. I have never felt threatened. The only slightly hairy situation I have encountered is when, on one occasion, a guy got so worked up that I genuinely thought he was going to punch his former partner. I got between them because I thought that while he might punch her he wouldn’t punch me. It was pretty scary but I managed to get him out of the room and it was all fine.

Men and women behave no differently. They are both capable of anger, hurt, frustration. One thing I do see is that when it comes to arrangements for children some mothers tend to think the fathers are not terribly capable. They might have genuine justifcations for feeling that way, in that the dads didn’t do a lot while they were in the relationship. Equally they might not have had the chance because the mother did it all. My job is to try and unpick some of that.

Sometimes we have to mediate in different rooms. Clearly it works best when people are prepared to sit in a room together, but not everyone is able to do that. Sometimes there is just too much pain and anger, so one option is shuttle mediation, in which couples sit in separate rooms and I travel back and forth between them. It’s not ideal, but at least they are communicating in some way and I have seen this lead to resolution.

Sometimes you do want to tell people to grow up and stop acting like children. But as one colleague has pointed out, that sentiment is doing children an injustice! She was only half-joking…

I don’t just think mediation works, I know it does. Not for everyone, but for most people: on average around 70–80 per cent of the couples who attend walk away with a successful result. That doesn’t mean that for the remaining 20–30 per cent mediation is a failure, either, as there is often a longer-term impact.

I was surprised that couples agreed to be filmed. Many refused, but the others saw it as a way of spreading the word. They thought it would be a good way of informing people about their experience.

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Mr v Mrs: Call the Mediator premieres 9pm Tuesday on BBC2