Domestic Violence and Incest Resource Centre: Preparing for Mediation – tips from women who have experienced domestic violence
The tips and quotes below are based on research about women’s experiences of using mediation services to try to resolve disputes with abusive ex-partners. Domestic Violence and Incest Resource Centre, in partnership with Relationships Australia (Vic) interviewed these women as part of a research project.
A brief tip sheet on this topic can be found here
The Federal Government’s vision for the future in family law is ‘to bring about a cultural change in the way family breakdowns are handled. Separating parents should sit down across the table and agree what is best for their children, rather than fighting in the courtroom’ (The Attorney-General’s Department, 2005:1). This ‘cultural change’ will be achieved by promoting alternative dispute resolution (ADR) or mediation services.
If you are attending a mediation session it can help to know what has helped other women to prepare for the process. These tips have been provided by women who have experienced domestic violence and who have participated in mediation. Some of these women had voluntarily decided to participate in a mediation session with their ex-partner. Others had to attend mediation as part of a legal requirement.
Preparing for mediation
Mediation is a process set up to help separating couples sort out arrangements for children, like:
- where your kids will live;
- who they will live with, and
- how much time they will spend with each parent.
Mediation is now usually called Family Dispute Resolution or FDR
It can be a fast way of reaching an agreement without expensive legal and court fees. It is also used to sort out money and property issues.
What is mediation NOT about?
Mediation is not usually about trying to reconcile your relationship and get back together (unless you both agree that this can be discussed during the session).
The mediator runs the process of mediation. Their role is to help people have a conversation with each other in a safe and respectful environment. The mediator does not give legal advice or tell you what to do.
How domestic violence can affect your ability to mediate
The aim of mediation is to try to resolve a dispute you have with your ex-partner.
If your ex-partner has been abusive or violent towards you, participating in mediation can potentially be difficult and stressful. The process of mediation presumes that both partners can speak their minds freely and confidently. But if you have been abused, it can be hard to speak up if you feel intimidated, pressured or afraid because of your partner’s abuse.
‘Because of the abuse [you can] feel in a position of having to ask for something rather than having an entitlement [to it] … that is a flow on from abuse and it does affect the mediation process’ – Kate.
‘I was completely unprepared because I didn’t know how that mediation would go along [or] what protective mechanisms were in place for me’ – Sophie.
It can be difficult to let services know that you have been living with family violence or abuse, but it is important that you do so if you can. Remember too that emotional abuse (for example someone putting you down, manipulating you, controlling your behaviour or threatening you) can be just as traumatic and difficult to deal with as physical violence, so it is important to tell the mediator about these experiences.
‘I did say that although he never hit me I was emotionally terrified of him… My ex-husband can be very charming, so I guess I was pretty scared that, even if I said anything [about the abuse]…when [the mediator] would meet [my-ex-husband] then my story would be negated. So it’s been very difficult … to trust whether someone’s going to believe me anyway.
Mediators have to have some level of neutrality, but they need to also know what that costs the person. I think for mediators to actually understand some of the effects of abuse on women, how incredibly difficult it is just to even talk about it, to name it; that to be visible is so dangerous. To even understand the triggering process that can take you back into an emotional timeless abused state [which] is not a very easy place to be [in] when you’re trying to answer questions’ – Kate.
Contacting the mediation service
- When you first contact the mediation service, there are a number of things you may want to consider asking.
- Find out about the mediation process. Find out what mediation is, what will happen in the session, and what happens with any agreements made. You could also ask if and how your children can be involved in the process, if that is what you wish. The mediation service should have information that they can send you, including examples of parenting plans, information about family law, Centrelink etc. You could also ask about complaint mechanisms and what you can do if you feel that the mediator treats you unfairly or seems biased.
- Tell the mediation service about the abuse you have experienced. As discussed above, it is important to tell the service about your experiences of abuse, and to find out how they can assist you with this.
- Ask for a separate intake session. Most services provide an ‘intake’ session before the actual mediation and negotiation occurs.
- At many mediation services, the intake session is done jointly with you and your ex-partner present. In this session you both discuss the background to the dispute, the issues you wish to cover in mediation, and anything that you feel may affect the mediation process. During a joint session, the mediators will speak to you together and also talk to you privately to check how you are feeling about the session and to discuss anything that you don’t want to say in the joint session.
- You can, however, also request your own separate intake appointment with the mediator. This can give you more time to privately discuss your experiences of abuse or violence, and how you believe they might affect your ability to participate in mediation. You can also discuss the kinds of outcomes you want to consider (for example, what safety measures are required in a parenting plan).
‘The [individual] session was limited to an hour and… I kind of blurted out part of my story. The time constraint [was difficult] – I had to … be able to use that time in order to take this first step of the process. I couldn’t explain all of what I had experienced. But it was important because I knew that my ex-partner could portray himself as anything that he wanted [to]’ – Annie.
If you feel like you haven’t had enough time to understand the process or to discuss your fears about the mediation session or the abuse, let the mediator know this.
Ask about practical arrangements to protect your safety.
‘I only got there a couple of minutes beforehand because I was really frightened that he might have been in the waiting room’ – Sophie.
Many women say that they were nervous about seeing their ex-partners before or after the actual mediation sessions. You could ask if the service can provide separate waiting areas so you don’t have to wait in the same room as your ex-partner. Can they arrange separate arrival times and departures? Where can you park your car? The service may be able to offer you ‘shuttle’ mediation (where you and your ex-partner are in separate rooms) rather than joint mediation, or ‘co-mediation’ (where both a male and a female mediator run the session).
Co-mediation can be helpful for victims of violence. Having a male and female mediator can make it easier for them to pay attention to communication patterns and issues of power in the sessions. For example, ‘Annie’ commented that having a male and a female mediator there was helpful for her:
‘I think he [ex-partner] had to check in on himself more…He couldn’t turn around [and] say one thing to me and a different thing to someone else. I think it affected him that there was another woman in the room, a woman in the position of real power… so I think that was really good’ – Annie.