Marriage and Family Therapy program helps attorneys find a gentler, family-friendly approach to divorce mediation

by Meredith Guinness

Fairfield’s Marriage and Family Therapy program helps attorneys find a gentler, family-friendly approach to divorce mediation

Michael Becker’s office is homey. Nestled on the second floor of a house-turned-office building, the well-lit space includes a coffeemaker and a basket of herbal teas, as well as a soothing sound machine and an inviting book collection. In the center of the room is a large round wooden table surrounded by three comfortable chairs.

It’s a safe, calm place – and it needs to be. Becker, M.S. ’10 is a divorce mediator. Every day he deals with couples who are going through what can be an extraordinarily sad and contentious change in their lives, and Becker believes he has to do everything in his power to provide safe ground for everyone involved.

“The spaces we create direct behavior,” he said. “The roundness of this table is important to the process of what I do here. No one’s at the head of the table. The energy kind of moves around it. And the size creates a feeling of closeness, but also a feeling of having enough space to yourself.”

Becker’s had 20 years to reflect on such details. After earning his law degree from New York University in 1987, he went into corporate law for a few years, assuming that’s where he’d stay. Instead, he got laid off.

“It was actually one of the best things that ever happened to me,” he said with a smile. “It was the springboard for the rest of my career.”

A friend suggested he look into divorce mediation, a practice just coming into its own in the early 1990s. There was no formal training, but Becker read everything he could about it and plunged ahead, opening a practice in Westport, Conn.

Then he took another plunge: To deepen his understanding, he applied to the Marriage and Family Therapy (MFT) program at Fairfield, graduating in 2010. For years one of Fairfield’s most popular graduate programs, MFT has graduated hundreds of local therapists, making a real difference for families across Connecticut and beyond.

“The Marriage and Family Therapy program was great. It helped me to be more sensitive, gave me dispute resolution tools,” said Becker, a past president of the Connecticut Council on Divorce Mediation who is now on Fairfield University’s MFT Advisory Board. “It brought the whole human piece to it.”

And Becker’s not alone. When he walked into his first class in the program, he was surprised to see a familiar face: Loren Smith, M.S.’08, a fellow attorney he had met years before. She, too, was looking for ways to blend her legal acumen with therapeutic skills to help people through dispute and conflict.

“It’s funny,” said Smith, sitting in her own Westport office, Evolving Families, where she provides parent coaching, family therapy, and other therapies. “Lawyers are never taught that they bring something to the room.” But the attitude of the attorneys can often be a factor in the level of acrimony that seeps into the dissolution of a marriage. An attorney’s presence “changes the dynamic,” continued Smith, who is also a member of the MFT Advisory Board. “I’ve learned that when we are more mindful, we bring more mindfulness to a situation.”

So why head to a mediator instead of divorce court? In divorce litigation, the parties are set up as adversaries, whether they entered the process that way or not. Some would rather shun the public court setting and spend time in confidential mediation, where they can decide the relationship they will have during and after divorce.

“In litigation, each party retains an attorney to ‘zealously represent the client’ and this often becomes advocating against the other,” said Smith. “This stance often escalates the underlying hostility between the parties and obviously has ripple effects onto the children.”

Others appreciate that mediation is not constrained by the court rules, so it moves at the clients’ pace and the couple can develop customized solutions. Research shows mediated agreements have a substantially higher rate of compliance, too, Becker said.

“Finally,” he added, “mediation is almost always less expensive than divorce litigation, and that is attractive to some as well.”

Becker and Smith – who was an in-house counsel for a large medical insurance firm for 12 years – soon realized their philosophies meshed so well they decided to work together. In recent months, Smith has interned with Becker’s practice, sitting in on divorce mediation sessions.

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