Academic journal article Journal of Family Studies

Money or Children? Power Sources in Divorce Mediation

Academic journal article Journal of Family Studies

Money or Children? Power Sources in Divorce Mediation

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT: In Western societies, family law has transformed from a hierarchical relationship into a system of gender-neutral equality aspiring terms. Many families however, still apply traditional, gendered patterns in their division of labour and family life, even in a country like The Netherlands which is characterised by strong gender egalitarianism. In this paper we argue that the division of gender-based roles in family life affects power distribution in divorce mediation as well as the use of certain power resources by men and women. To test this, we survey 60 experienced Dutch mediators and introduce a new classification model for power sources distinguishing between material and immaterial power. As predicted, in divorce mediation, mediators perceive generally an equal power distribution between men and women, but power bases differ strongly: whereas men were considered to rely more on material resources, women were considered to rely more on immaterial resources. Implications for mediation practice are discussed.

KEYWORDS: divorce mediation, divorce, mediation, gender, power, power sources, work and family

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Divorce has become a normative life event for many families in our Western society, not the least because of its frequency (Hughes & Kirby, 2000; Pryor & Rodgers, 2001). In fact, at least one out of five marriages in Australia (Australian Bureau of Statistics [ABS], 2007) and one out of three marriages in The Netherlands are predicted to end in a divorce (Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek, 2010). In the United States, 50% to two-thirds of all first marriages are disrupted by separation or divorce (Emery, Sbarra, & Grover, 2005; Kreider & Fields, 2001).

Recently, people rely more and more on mediation (Casals, 2005) as a tool to mediate over the actual divorce and/or about ancillary relief. In this study, we focus on heterosexual couples who decide to divorce or to terminate their registered partnership as well as on the dissolution of de facto cohabiting couples. All couples have decided to divorce and turn to mediation in order to arrange parenting and financial matters.

A core activity of the mediator is to manage the power balance between parties (Montada & Kals, 2007) so that open communication and mutual understanding of underlying interests is fostered (Goldman et al., 2008). To this end, the mediator assesses (mostly implicitly) parties' power and their interaction as well as the power balance. Subsequently, the mediator aims to redistribute power in a way that it is conducive to fair negotiation (Yarn, 1999). At the same time, it is important to take into account the potential influence of gender, especially when dealing with divorces, since power and gender are often historically as well as culturally intertwined (Fineman, 2000).

For a long time, men have been perceived as more powerful than women since they focus on developing career assets during marriage through which they acquire access to valuable resources such as money, information or expertise (power), whereas women are rather involved with parenting responsibilities (Thompson & Amato, 1999). As such, the immediate decline in financial resources and the quality standard of living post-divorce is often larger for women than for men in spite of family size (Bianchi, Subaiya, & Kahn, 1999; Smyth & Weston, 2000). More recent research however, shows that the picture is more nuanced and it is too simple to treat all men versus all women as being in the same positions. Instead, it is necessary to look at additional factors that may affect one's post-divorce situation. Data show for example that next to young, low income fathers, sole-parent families especially headed by mothers and older divorced women living alone (from long-term marriages), experience a drastic fall in financial living standards after divorce. Repartnering is an efficient pathway to alleviate women's post-divorce financial disadvantage (Smyth & Weston, 2000). …

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