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

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.

“I enjoy it a lot when we mediate together,” said Smith, a native of South Africa who holds degrees from the University of Wisconsin Madison and Albany Law School. “He’s really good at moving things forward, where there’s an impasse. He uses a lot of techniques he’s learned from Fairfield.”

Becker said he appreciates Smith’s insights during their shared sessions. “Loren and I are wired differently and that makes for a better team. It’s like having another set of eyes.”

That comes in handy. While many assume “only rich people” go to mediation, Becker said he sees people from all walks of life from across Connecticut. The average couple meets for six to 12, 90-minute sessions. In the beginning, the couple sets goals for each meeting, so the talks are focused, whether the issue is childrearing, finances, or dividing property.

Every family is different: Some require conflict resolution; others, simply a caring ear and gentle guidance. A major component is the ability to talk to both people at once and read body language. “You have to have good peripheral vision,” Becker said. “And all three of you need to be present with the conflict and not be afraid of it.”

The MFT Advisory Board members will likely spend much more time together as the program moves into an exciting new phase this year: In January, Fairfield opened the Kathryn P. Koslow Center for Marriage and Family Therapy, a state-of-the-art facility that will provide excellent training for students and sliding-scale services for the greater community.

Located in Southwell Hall near the Round Hill Road gate, the new center came about in large part because of a $500,000 gift from Kathryn Koslow ’05, a student in the program. Koslow, who is a member of the GSEAP Advisory Board, supported the renovation and has launched a $125,000, five-year challenge grant to support the program’s work on an annual basis. She will match up to $25,000 in donations each year for the next five years.

“Our faculty and students are so grateful to Kathy Koslow,” said Dean Susan Franzosa. “GSEAP’s Marriage and Family Therapy Program has grown in stature since its founding in the 1980s and is regarded as one of the finest in Connecticut. Now, with Kathy’s generous support, it will be able to reach more students, help us expand our collaborative research efforts, and serve a greater number of families in need.”

The new facility augments the program’s strong clinical training component by providing a professional space for MFT students to gain clinical experience on site. Such training is a major part of the program, which prepares graduate students to be eligible for licensure.

“Currently, students do the bulk of their clinical training at off-campus sites,” said Dr. Rona Preli, chair of the MFT department. The new center “enables us to expand our hours of service and offer more on-campus clinical experiences to our students.”

The new center also supports the University’s Jesuit mission to be of service to the community: It is open full time, but will continue its sliding scale fee structure to help underserved populations.

For Becker and Smith, the new center offers more opportunities for alumni as well. The two hope to add to the curriculum by teaching a course in mediation.

“I want to bring forgiveness into the realm,” Smith said, reflecting on how the family therapy process can work in complement with divorce. “And gratitude for what each (spouse) has gotten from the other. I look to a way of consciously parting instead of just divorcing.”

Becker agreed, saying divorce mediation often brings a positive close to a contentious situation. “You’re taking responsibility for people being able to agree, which is important. Often there are children involved,” he said. “I can go home at night and know I’ve added something to the world.”

Every once in a while, he does too good of a job. One young couple he counseled got all the way to the courthouse in Stamford, divorce papers in hand, and then called him to say they didn’t want to go through with it. “They asked me, ‘what do we do now?'” he said, “I told them to turn around, get in the car, and go home.”

To contribute to the Koslow challenge grant or to make a pledge or gift in support of the program, contact Jessica Colligan ’03, manager, Constituent Relations, at jcolligan@fairfield.edu or (203) 254-4000, ext. 3473.