I attended a wedding a while ago where the atmosphere was tense rather than joyful because the bride’s parents had divorced ten years previously and animosity between them was still apparent from the seating plan.

Marriage, as an institution, has been steadily declining since the 1970s and the UK divorce rate is estimated at 42%. Cohabiting couples are the fastest growing family type year on year. Whatever the relationship, a bad feeling lingers after an adversarial separation which continues to spoil the atmosphere of family gatherings in future years.

So what can a separating couple do to make sure they attend their children’s celebrations without ruining the happy day?

Mediation is the obvious dispute resolution option.

It is a civilised way of resolving separation and relationship issues, such as the timing of divorce, grounds for a divorce, parenting arrangements and finance. It has nothing to do with reconciliation or counselling. A trained mediator meets with a couple and helps them identify the areas of disagreement and explore the areas for settlement. The process is confidential and both parties are encouraged to take independent legal advice. Ultimately, they take control of their own separation.

A good example is a mediation I conducted recently with Susanna and Alan. They had accepted that their marriage was over but were still living in the same house and wanted to reach an agreement about their children.

Alan had a new relationship and this was upsetting for Susanna. She was also worried about how it would affect the children.

In mediation, it was possible to agree a parenting schedule so that Alan was spending frequent time with the children. He agreed that the children should not be brought into contact with his girlfriend until after he had separated from Susanna. The couple then went on to agree that the family home should be sold but Susanna would receive a greater proportion of the proceeds to reflect the fact that Alan had more pension provision. Both Alan and Susanna had independent legal advice, but their legal fees were kept in check as most of the hard work was done in the mediation process. An agreement was reached without them having to go through slow, expensive and emotionally traumatic legal proceedings.

Mediation is a flexible process.

It is equally valuable for married and cohabiting couples and those ending civil partnerships. It is usually a three-way process (either face-to-face or by Zoom) where the couple discuss their separation and outstanding issues with their chosen mediator. However, in high conflict situations a couple may choose to be in different rooms (or Zoom rooms) with a mediator moving between them (known as shuttle mediation). It is also possible to attend mediation with legal advisors (known as hybrid mediation).