Adv. Hamutal Gat has been a mediator of divorce and other family conflicts for over 25 years. She began her professional journey as a social worker and later became a lawyer. Most of her professional practice has been in the field of mediation which combines the therapeutic aspect of social work and legal knowledge. These are the two foundations of mediation, especially in this field of family mediation and specifically in divorce. Hamutal also trains family mediators and she recently launched advanced courses to improve mediation skills for professional mediators in every field.
The challenges in divorce mediation:
(1) The emotional aspect - The couple needs to make many decisions that affect almost every aspect of their lives in a relatively short period, while going through a very difficult personal crisis. The goal is to keep meaningful parenting of both parents in two separate homes. My job is to accompany people through this very difficult process and guide them on how to move forward as much as possible.
(2) The financial aspect – In Israel, there is a 40% decrease in the budget left to each party when splitting into two houses. This is a survival mode and people fight for basic existence in the simplest sense of the word. Some families do not divorce because they cannot afford to divorce, so we see families where the relationship is very toxic, but they hold off the divorce for months/years because they cannot survive financially in a divorce as long as the children live at home.
How COVID has affected divorce:
The main change I saw during COVID was that older couples were seeking divorce. I received two inquiries from couples over the age of 80. The direct reason for wishing to separate in both cases was COVID. They were over 80 years old, in relatively good shape, physically active, volunteer, and busy with hobbies that filled their week. Suddenly, they were in quarantine, and they had to stay with their spouses for months at home, and they had a hard time coping with it. When I asked one of the husbands “what happened after 60 years of marriage?” He replied: “Look, she just does not suit me, and I want to live my last years in peace.” I am happy to report that in both cases they decided to stay together.
The main reasons for divorce:
It should be noted that women are the ones who usually initiate the divorce, worldwide. The reasons for this are:
(1) The “feminist” approach says that the marriage deal is much better for men and less suitable for women, and there are studies that support this. When comparing the well-being of unmarried women to that of married women in terms of health, longevity, mental health, satisfaction, etc. The state of married women is worse than that of single women. The results were reversed when tested in men, meaning that the well-being of married men was much better than that of unmarried men.
(2) The biological approach claims that the biological need of men is to spread their sperm as much as possible, and therefore on the one hand marriage is very convenient, but in many cases, it does not prevent them from dispensing sperm outside of marriage. Women on the other hand have the urge to give birth but also to care for and nurture the children. Therefore, according to this approach, when children are old enough to be independent at a certain level, women say “My job is done here, and if I am not happy, I can separate.”
(3) There are a variety of other claims, including that women can afford to get divorced both legally and financially. Women work, and despite gaps in compensation, they can support themselves and they are more independent than ever.
The effects of divorce on children:
We can see a change over the years. Studies from the last century talked about huge damages to children. Studies in recent decades show much smaller gaps in the LONG-TERM effects of divorce on children. The fact that divorce is more acceptable and less stigmatized and has become something much more common makes it less damaging and kids are less ashamed of it. This is great because it allows children to process this experience and especially not to feel like there is something wrong with them.
Up-to-date studies show that most children with supportive families overcome the crisis and move on with life. When there is broader community support the children do even better.
Studies talk about three types of children’s responses in the long-term: (1) There are those who have succeeded in every way, and they often talk about the fact that the crisis of divorce has strengthened and matured them and has given them helpful insights for life. (2) There are those who say that they have certainly suffered and been hurt, but felt they overcame it. (3) There is the minority who are about 10% who experience a breakdown and or a very big setback compared to what could have been if the situation had been different.
Supporting children in divorce:
The most important part is that parents should not involve the children in their quarrels. The less children will be exposed to animosity between their parents, the better. Parents do not consider that their child whom they love so much is made up of 50% of them but also 50% of the other parent and when we defame the other parent, we also defame 50% of the child. It is better to protect the children and not to share complaints about each other.
It is important that parents maintain a relationship that is polite, but preferably as open and good as possible, at least as parents. Communication between parents should flow freely and it should not go through the children. Do not make children the couriers who convey messages from one to another.
Parents should be flexible. Parents make decisions about the children that will affect the next 18 years of their lives. Things change along the way and flexibility to revisit decisions is key. It really helps the children when parents express a willingness to have open communication and agree to be flexible and allow the children to live in a free and natural flow.
Parents should allow children to feel good about the other parent and not investigate children when they return from mom or dad with intrusive questions about the other parent. It causes children to hide their positive experiences in one parent because it offends the other parent.
When parents can maintain a certain level of economic well-being, it helps the children cope with the changes. We are talking about clothing, food, and housing, but also about the ability to learn, and to develop academically and professionally, which allows children to reach their potential as adults. In most cases, these are things that are in the hands of the parents.
Community support of children:
When the relationship with the grandparents is good it is perceived by the children as a very positive factor and as a place of refuge where one feels the family warmth and support - both financially and emotionally.
One of the most important aspects of the community is to accept the breakup and respond in a is non-judgmental, way. It’s important to contain the children including behaviors that are sometimes not easy to accept. They can be depressed or angry, and the community should understand that the first year or two around the breakup are crisis years and it is reasonable to expect unusual behaviors by the children.
The courts & parental alienation:
In Israel, there is a process called “hearing the voice of children” in the courts. There is a special team in the family courts, which consists mainly of social workers. They meet with the children and hear what they have to say, and their input is considered in the judicial decisions.
Early studies talked about 20% of children who were alienated. The numbers are actually much higher because the data are only from cases that have reached the courts. But there are cases where the alienation is so severe that parents do not allow access to children.
Legal solutions are never good enough and they always come too late. It is not the fault of the legal system. By the time these cases make it to court the damage is already done and it is harder to repair it in retrospect.
Court vs. Mediation:
Divorce disputes are bitter, difficult, long, costly, and very escalating. Naturally, the legal system is structured as one against the other, so one’s strong claim is hurting and defaming the other, which escalates the conflict.
In mediation, the process is much shorter. Mediation is also cheaper than the courts, which is important at a time when there is a lack of money. In mediation, the spouses must come toward each other to reach an agreement. It’s hard to do, but once you manage to do it you form agreements that they can live with. There is a sense of control and choice, therefore mediation agreements are much more stable over time.
What is the process of listening to children?
The idea of listening to children was born out of the thought that children also have things to say about the divorce. Often, children do not tell parents about their stress, because they do not want to hurt them. They are afraid that the parents will be offended or hurt so they go through difficult experiences and great loneliness, while the parents are busy with their problems.
Children can ask for confidentiality, but it is rare that they ask for it. I pass on the messages to the parents, and they are shocked because they have not heard it from the children. I have had a few cases where parents changed their decisions in light of what they heard from the children. Every time I meet with the children, it opens a completely different angle of understanding of what is happening. We usually talk to the parents about the children, but it sounds completely different when we talk to the children about the children.