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Mediation can soften the blow of divorce, other relationship woes

You know that old saw about half of all marriages ending in divorce?

Not true for the last three decades.

About seven in 10 marriages that started in the 1990s reached their 15th anniversary, a University of Michigan researcher told the New York Times, up from about 65 percent of those that started in the 1970s and ‘80s. Trends for those who’ve married during the new millennium show the divorce rate trending lower still.

Millions of breakups continue, however, and research shows the numbers are proportionately higher among those less educated and less financially secure.

So there’s still plenty of work to go around for Susan K. Burton, who started a mediation business in Amherst three years ago.

Burton, of East Amherst, holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration and marketing from SUNY Fredonia State. She has two children, Max, 19, a student at Clarkson University, and Samantha, 23, works for Burton Snowboards in California. She worked at several large companies, including as consumer affairs director for Fisher-Price, before she became a business consultant in the financial trades two decades ago. She went through a challenging divorce eight years ago, and learned through her mediation training and latest business venture, Mediation Point (mediationpoint.com,), that there was a better way forward.

“Mediation is a kinder way to undo a marriage that is over,” she said. “After mediation, people are emotionally stronger, financially more secure, having saved so much money, and more confident they are going to be OK.”

Q. How does someone become a mediator?

You have to take a lot of courses, a lot of training. I did an apprenticeship in Rochester at the Mediation Center for six months. I also apprenticed here with the Child & Family Services Center of Resolution and Justice. Now I’m on their divorce panel.

Q. How many mediators are there?

It has picked up momentum over the last 25 years. In fact, in the Greater Rochester six-county area, over 20 percent of the divorces are being mediated. There aren’t a lot of private mediators here in the Buffalo area. There are a few attorneys that are transitioning to do some mediation in their practices. Some of them have been attorneys for so long, they’re tired of fighting.

Q. How did your divorce help you do what you do?

I’ve learned there are so many things that can be discussed and ironed out at a round table instead of passing the letters back and forth from attorney to attorney. It took over two years to get divorced and it was very costly, not just financially but emotionally. I’ve done a lot of research and I have a lot of friends who’ve been really eaten up. At one of the lowest times in your life, you’re expected to make decisions that affect you and your kids forever. There’s an easier way to do it.

Q. What sort of family matters can be mediated?

Separation, divorce, child custody, visitation, pets. Elder care, when the children are trying to decide what to do with mom and dad. Community issues with neighbors. Organizational or business conflicts. Disputes between kids and their parents. Mediators are neutral. They don’t take sides. They don’t make the decisions. But we ask a lot of questions to get people talking and thinking.

Q. How does mediation work?

It’s voluntary, confidential. Both parties have to be willing to come in and sit down with each other and talk about their issues. With divorce, we walk through the steps of the process and go through every issue that is possible so they can make the decisions on how they’re going separate, what they’re going to do with the children – visitation, primary or joint custody – and then child support and maintenance payments. A lot of times, they’ll need other experts, like when they start splitting their IRAs. If somebody needs a business valuation, people can talk with their accountants or bookkeepers. We encourage them to get advice if they need it. I don’t give advice. I’m not an attorney, I’m not a business evaluator, but they can go outside and bring that information back in and we can use that for the mediation.

Q. How much might a litigated divorce cost compared to your services?

The hourly rate is about 50 percent less. You can go through the mediation for about $3,500 but you still have to have a scribe that takes the agreement, turns it into a legal document and files for a divorce. You can get through the whole process for about $5,000.

Q. If there is some fire and brimstone, how do you knock that down?

I let that go on for a little bit and then I’ll say, “I can hear you being very angry with each other. What are some things we might be able to table for now, put aside, and focus on what’s most important: your children and their care?” A lot of times, I ask them to take out pictures of the kids. … People want to get something on paper. If someone’s here writing it down – and you’re paying someone to help get you through it – a lot of times I’ll hear, “Let’s get through this.” Once they start getting agreement on a few things, the tension starts to go down.

Q. Do a lot of people understand the impact a split is going to have when they first come to see you?

No. I think when you first come in and you’re putting down a balance sheet – all your assets and your liabilities – many times it’s the first time a couple that has been married for 25 years realizes what they’re really worth. When they look at the value of their house and their cars, and take away the value of their equity loans and other things, it becomes very real.

Q. Does anybody come in here and start this process and think, “This is just too involved” and decide they’re going to stay together?

I haven’t had anybody.

Q. How often do you see tears in here?

Lots. They’re grieving the loss of their marriage and for the first time realizing they may not see their kids every day. The financial cost is sometimes pretty tough to see on paper, too.

Q. What’s the reaction like as you near the end of this process?

Usually, they’re relieved. Some of them are excited about starting over. Many times, one or both of them have met somebody else by now and they’re already transitioning into what’s next.

Q. Does infidelity cause almost all breakups?

I wouldn’t say all, but I would say a lot.

Q. Is this a way to put a positive spin on a very difficult situation?

I believe so. They’re deciding. I think mentally, people are much more positive going forward. They haven’t spent two years battling. It’s a much shorter period of time to be in conflict. The uncertainty about what the decisions are going to be is gone. It goes quickly.

Q. Can you talk about some of the more creative arrangements you’ve helped broker whether it involve living arrangements, children or pets?

The living arrangements are the most creative. Some people choose to live together or handle living arrangements so that the children’s lives are constant and the parents are going back and forth. The concentration of making time for special events for each other’s families, respecting that traditions can still continue even though you’re living separately, is very important. A pet might go back and forth with the children during visitation. One might be able to come over at lunch to let the dog out of the house, or come over and run the dog at night. People do love their pets. They’re part of the family.

Q. Can you talk about how mediation can be helpful with elder care, as well as workplace, school or organizational conflicts?

Adult children sometimes need to decide what to do with the geriatric care of their parent when it comes with arrangements and estate planning. A lot of times, they have to start disseminating the assets or taking apart the home because neither parent can live there anymore. They’ve got the two-story Cape Cod and now they’ve got to sell it, and with the money they get they may need to put their parents in assisted living or a nursing home. That’s an emotional discussion for sure among the siblings. Sometime the parents are here or sometimes one is not as present or not present at all. A spouse might be a little weepy and the kids might be angry about the whole thing (and disagree). But they get through it. They have to, and we have go through it like a business transaction, one, two, three, four, five. It does get people focused.

In a workplace, it can be employees who aren’t quite sure where to go. They feel stuck. I do some work with nonprofits when there’s a board that doesn’t always agree. With 30 years of business background, I’m so comfortable in that environment it’s easy to go in and facilitate.

email: refresh@buffnews.com

Burton will host a free informational session at 7 p.m. Dec. 9 in her office at Snyder Square, 4476 Main St. at Harlem Road, Suite 208; call 474-4673 to register.