by David Royko, Psy.D.
Last week, I learned that elevators can be great little rooms for big
epiphanies, or at least re-epiphanies. This shouldn't surprise me since
I've come to appreciate those brief descents for the opportunities they
provide for feedback and quality control.
As the Director of Marriage & Family Counseling Service (MFCS), the
Office of the Chief Judge's department that provides, among other
things, mediation for custody and visitation disputes filed in Domestic
Relations, I am the person who gets the occasional call of complaint
from a client who is displeased with how their mediation proceeded, or
how their attorney is handling the case, or how that idiot they are
divorcing is evil, or how nobody has ever really had a chance to hear
their side of the story, or all of the above rolled into one wrenching,
But the elevator eavesdropping in which I can't help but engage
frequently provides a candid take on how a client's MFCS experience
felt to them. Sometimes I share these overheard comments and
impressions with our staff. Funny how people will say some things--
positive or negative--in a crowded elevator that they might not express
directly to the people they are talking about. At least they give me a
good excuse for not taking the stairs.
But last week, a young woman expressed something that she was willing
to say directly to the person at issue--me.
While we were waiting for the elevator to take us down, she held the
hand of her 4-year-old son. I said hi to the boy, and inquired as to
the identities of the characters in his hand, even though I was already
well-acquainted with both Big Bird and Cookie Monster. As he told me
that they were his favorite Sesame Street "people," the elevator
arrived. As we stepped in, his mother asked if I was a mediator, to
which I answered "yes."
"I thought I recognized you, especially your voice," she said. "I think
I might have been one of your clients." Not recognizing her, I asked
when that was.
"When I was 13."
In the remaining moments of the elevator ride and a few more on the
first floor, she explained that her parents had gone through a divorce.
She didn't realize it at the time, but her parents had been gearing up
for a custody fight, and were ordered to go through mediation in our
department. I was their mediator, and as part of our mediation process,
I had interviewed her, 12 years ago. She was now 25, going through a
divorce herself, and had just completed mediation.
"We reached a full agreement, just like my parents did, thank God," she
said through a sigh of relief. Her boy tugged on her hand, bored and
eager to get outside and to some place more interesting than the lobby
of 69 West Washington.
But before she let him lead her off, she thanked me, and got a bit
teary, probably brought on by what she was going through as a divorcing
parent stirred together with what she went through herself as a child.
Or maybe for what she did not have to go through as a child.
She explained that, when she met with me as a kid on the cusp of
adolescence, she didn't even know her parents were arguing about
custody. Her mother only informed her of that part of the tale when she
herself filed for divorce earlier this year. Her mother warned her not
to let things drag on, to work through the problems quickly, to settle
things before they got out of hand and hurt the child, and to take full
advantage of mediation. "Without mediation," her mother said, "who
knows what would have happened, to all of us."
The woman finished by telling me that, after their divorce, her parents
did a great job of "keeping things cool," and that was her goal as
A depressing story? Not to me. Yes, it does represent the all-to-common
divorce cycle of history repeating itself, but that is something that I
have seen thousands of times in the years I have done this kind of
work. I long ago accepted, despite the admonishments, if not scolding,
of researchers like Judith Wallerstein, that divorce is, was, and
always will be a reality for many families, and cycles will repeat.
But my re-epiphany--re, because it was one that I first had early on as
a mediator--was just how important it is to keep conflict away from
kids, and also that, even if divorce rates remain high, maybe the
message of alternative dispute resolution is getting through.
Here was a woman whose mother prepped her for mediation by stressing
how different life might have been had the family slogged through
litigation to settle what they themselves had the power to settle
themselves. Divorce and the aftermath, like marriage itself, can be for
better or for worse: mediation is usually the best bet for "better,"
while litigation is often the recipe for "worse."
Having worked for 13 years with families going through what is usually
the most stressful period of their lives, I am still reminded of the
importance of mediation on a daily basis when I see parents and
children as they enter our offices, their faces tense, sad or angry.
What has been heartening is how many more attorneys are interested in
mediation now as opposed to when I entered this field. I am frequently
contacted by lawyers who are seeking advice on where they can receive
high quality training in mediation. Some of these lawyers are not even
planning on being mediators themselves, but wish simply to add
mediation skills to their toolbox for the legal work they perform for
One detail that the woman in the elevator mentioned to me was that her
attorney had "prepped her well" for mediation, encouraging her to enter
into the process seriously and to keep in mind what is at stake--her
child's well being. "He sounded just like my parents," she said to me.
You may be tempted to insert your own lawyer-joke punchline here. Me? I
just smiled, thankful for solid advice from good parents, and good
David Royko is a licensed clinical psychologist, author of the book,
"Voices of Children of Divorce " (St. Martin's Press), and has been a
mediator with the Circuit Court of Cook County's Marriage & Family
Counseling Service since 1988, and Director since 1993.