You Say Mediator, I Say Alligator


I am delighted to feature a guest-post from my lovely bloggeague and divorce compadre Violet. Read on for her experience in hell with mediation.

One of the big pieces of divorce “advice” I received once my big separation announcement had gone out was to use a mediator rather than a lawyer. For couples that don’t unduly loathe one another and have fairly straightforward financial situations, a mediator is a good way to go. Unless your mediator turns out to have a strange, pathological agenda that has little to do with the law.

While divorce attorneys bill huge amounts by the hour and have no true incentive to pursue a speedy divorce process, a mediator (often an attorney) usually produces the opposite. They generally work for a flat fee and a fairly standard divorce agreement, tweaking it slightly to suit the couple and signing off on it in around five visits or so. In order for a mediator to make money, speed is of the essence.

My divorce was essentially simple for two reasons: my ex had money he couldn’t hide, and we had no desire to fight over custody. With both those ‘biggies” out of the way, a simple agreement seemed easy to iron out, once we found the mediator. The first mediator we interviewed seemed like such a nice man. He appeared mild mannered, polite, smiling, and empathetic. Naturally, my ex dismissed him as seeming “not as smart” as the other candidate, a colder older man with a conveniently (for the ex, anyway) located practice in West Los Angeles. I let the ex choose, figuring that anything that made him more comfortable was a plus, especially since the divorce was mostly my idea (reached after a very painful year of separation).

This mediator (I’m calling him Alligator) had a very nice office. He produced a set contract, said we could alter it as we saw fit, and dryly explained the six month waiting period before finalization, etc. While the first visit or so was uncomfortable, it wasn’t horribly awful either. It seemed like all business, at least for a while.

But by the third visit, when discussing support (both spousal and child) things started to go south. Alligator began fixing me with a cold reptilian eye. He began asking questions about my ability to support myself (admittedly not impressive, but it wasn’t any of his business). My ex, spurred on by this change in tone, began to cut me down. At the time, I had a new business to run, a business that had nothing to do with him and wasn’t profitable yet (the recession ate the thing a year later). I began to get prickly and defensive. I began to shut down and just nod yes or no. I began to look like Alligator prey.

“You know what happens to women like you?” Alligator said, “They end up living in the Valley.”

What fresh hell was this?  Per our agreement, I was getting the house, which unless it had magically been beamed to the San Fernando Valley, was situated someplace else. And what, exactly, was Alligator trying to imply? Oh, I’m being coy. As an L.A. native, I know exactly what Alligator was saying: that I would end up poor and living on the “wrong side of the tracks.” He seemed delighted with his observation. I merely pondered the idea that living in the Valley and divorced was still better than staying in the marriage.

I gave him the exact stare a doomed but proud chicken gives an alligator as it’s dangled by one scrawny leg over its gaping maw. ‘Up yours’ I thought.

It didn’t really get any better after that. Alligator had little use for either of us, but reserved real contempt for me. The ex got his revenge on Alligator by slicing up any documents he produced (there’s nothing worse than a lawyer hiring another lawyer). And I ended up with a pretty decent divorce, although I’d recommend to any woman working with a mediator to negotiate something better than a 50/50 split of school and camp fees, especially if the ex makes a ton of renewable annual income. Sometimes “fair” and “equal” are not the same thing. If there’s one thing I would advise anyone going through this process, it’s to pay attention to this section. If you don’t make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, and your ex does, a 50/50 expense split for private schools costing tens of thousands a year makes no sense.

I wondered about Alligator’s attitude. Why did he hate me so much? It was hard enough to sit in that room with my ex hating me; I had to have a virtual stranger (whom I was paying) hate me too? But then I felt better, because I spoke to a divorced friend who’d also used his mediation services. I told her what he said to me about the Valley.

“Really, is that all?” she replied. “Wow. He told me I was one of those women who ends up living under a freeway overpass.”

I guess Alligator just had a taste for women.

Violet has been divorced for four years. She has one daughter and is remarried. She tries to write for a living. Visit her at www.findatoad.com.

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About perilsofdivorcedpauline

I am a survivor of a world-class gnarly divorce. My dastardly ex-husband is suing me for full custody of my son, and more time with my daughter. He’s super-rich and I’m super-not. You get the picture.
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