Ilse’s voice is light, airy; her arms spin like a windmill as she speaks. The actress is explaining why her marriage of four and a half years crumbled. “I married my best friend, but discovered the passion just was not there. We had no kids; we were very civil and did not want to make a whole drama out of the divorce.”
Michelle still stumbles over her name when she introduces herself; she begins with her married last name, then remembers she is divorced. “Reid, that’s my maiden name.” Michelle is statuesque, pretty, blonde and comes close to tears as she remembers, “I’m old fashioned, I believe in the happy ending and suddenly I was dealing with the end of my marriage without anyone to help me through the whole process.”
As his 22 year relationship crumbled, Brett and his wife grew distant and cold. He was hurt and angry as the world that he had built for forever after crumbled around him. “I wanted someone to pay for the end of my marriage. My attorney was quite happy to encourage me to go down that route, after 8 expensive months I realized that this was not the way to settle anything. It was not the way to move forward.”
What they all tried to forestall was the expensive process of recrimination that consumes the lives and fortunes of about 30000 South Africans each year: the unfathomable hurt of divorce. The solution that all three discovered was divorce mediation.
FOR Chantal Kur, a divorce mediator in Johannesburg, mediation is a faster, cheaper and more amicable alternative to litigation. Three sessions, at most in her experience, offsets the dreadful effects of a long drawn out divorce on children and your finances, “For some people it is more important to prove a point, so it can cost up to R300000 in legal fees to get divorced.”
Mediation is meant to ease the fallout from divorce, especially the treatment of children. Instead of accusing one another in a bitter court fight, couples are encouraged to sit down and come to some agreement.
In mediation a couple sit in the same room and haggle out agreements about their children, their finances and property with the help of a mediator and a flip chart. “I have had couples, where the demands show just how out of touch with reality one of them is. I’ve seen the lights go on as we work through their budgets, and their requests become more reasonable,” Chantal explains.
Chantal is quick to dispel a common misconception about mediation. “It’s not about getting people back together,” she says. “It’s for people who have already decided to separate. A mediator helps them to negotiate and have conversations that would often end in a row if they were alone.”
“I’ve seen the most embittered, angry and openly hostile couples come to an agreement that you know they are going to be able to manage because they have gone through a process where they are listened to and acknowledged as the experts in their family’s needs. Coming to their own decisions means they are much more likely to stick to them,” she says.
Mediators don’t tell couples what to do, or give financial and legal advice. Rather, they give them the information they need, so they can come up with their own solutions. For people like Brett, Michelle and Sdumo this is a major reason they sought mediation.
As Sdumo explained, “Litigation is harsh and lawyer friendly, mediation is just the two of us, looking past our dirty laundry to hash out the best solution for our kids. We had to sit and talk it out with the mediator as referee and guide. In the end we worked out an agreement that works for us, and we learnt to respect each other again.”
Sdumo believes that he offers his daughters the more stable home life, so getting custody was most important to him. But as a single father with a high pressure job he knew that he would not be at home when his children needed him to be there.
“My children will live with my parents until they begin school, by then their mum will be back on her feet, and she will be able to play a bigger role in their lives,” explains Sdumo. For him, and the others, the chance to find non traditional solutions is a big benefit of mediation
Once a couple comes to an agreement, which is valid for a year after signing, they can either file the agreement themselves at their nearest regional court or, for those who have lawyers, have them file the agreement. Chantal encourages her client to do it themselves, “It is a simple process and saves them about R10000 in lawyer’s fees.”
Is mediation the most appropriate way for couples who face the breakup of their marriage? Is sitting in a room discussing who gets to keep the marital bed with a stranger and soon to be ex the best way forward for everyone?
Brett compares divorce lawyers to pit bulls circling one another, eager to rip into each other for the benefit of the couple. “That could have easily cost me R100000, but we went to mediation and within days had worked out an agreement. Yes it was uncomfortable
Chantal has noticed that her workload has been growing over the past few years as couples become more aware of the option of mediation. It is not just the cost savings that appeal to her clients,
For Michele it was the “sweetness” of the whole process and the fact that she felt safe as her marriage ended that was the attraction. For Sdumo the fact that he and his ex had to talk through the dissolution of their life together was therapeutic. For Ilne it was the simplicity of the whole process, “We knew exactly what we each wanted to walk away with. The whole process was sympathetic and neat.”
SURPRISINGLY there are divorce lawyers who think highly of mediation. Len Nowitz, a prominent Johannesburg attorney, argues that mediators and lawyers are just working to find the best solution for their clients.
He explains, “It is a fantastic alternative to litigation, and creates a more beneficial outcome for the parties to interact post divorce.” But, he warns, both parties have to buy into the process. “If a party believes that he or she is being prejudiced they may withdraw and approach an attorney to safeguard their interests.”
Chantal says that if a client becomes distressed, she will suggest counselling or therapy, separate from mediation. This however is not a situation that has come up very often. She has noticed that a stranger in the room seems to force couples to work at finding solutions.
Sdumo reveals that this is in fact true, with a little nudging from the mediator. “When it came to my children I was tempted to play the bully card, but with a little nudging I saw what I could bite off. And the compromises I made were things I could live with.”
All divorces begin with a love story so no matter how much peace of mind you have when you sign your agreement you are still left with the death of a shared life. As Brett points out, “I had this dream of where I wanted to be, but my divorce has shattered that. That dream has fallen away and now I have to rebuild my family.”
Mediation is still a more optimistic, equitable way to end your love story.