Untying the Knot
By Diane Landis Hackett, Special Writer
Princeton Packet, 11/30/04
Behind the scenes, divorce mediators can make the best of
a painful situation.
Heading toward Trenton along Route 1 is a sign that
reads: Going to Court is Hardball. Princeton-based divorce
mediator Hanan Isaacs says it doesn't have to be that way.
Mr. Isaacs, who is also a divorce attorney, is one of
more than 100 accredited divorce mediators in New Jersey,
who practice what they believe is a kinder, gentler approach
"In mediation, the parties are truly interested in
solving a series of interconnected problems. Skilled
facilitators ask the right questions and discourage the
negative communication patterns the couple may be used to,"
says Mr. Isaacs.
After 23 years as a divorce mediator, Mr. Isaacs has seen
all manner of arrangements resulting from mediation. He
recounted a case where the wife paid the husband alimony. In
another case, a couple in their 60s were fine with their
divorce but were almost blocked from pursuing it by their
grown children. He also recounted a case where he mediated a
shared parenting agreement in which the couple kept their
main residence and shared child-rearing responsibilities by
cycling in and out of the house, so that the children's
lives would not be disrupted.
"When people arrive at my office, they are highly worried
and fearful. The primary provider is worried they will be
taken for their money and that the other person will
dominate the children. The other spouse may be worried they
will be left on the streets and be dominated by child care
and have no life," Mr. Isaacs explains.
By the time they leave the first session they will have
written a list of what they want the divorce to look like.
"Inevitably, the husband and wife's lists are the same,"
says Mr. Isaacs.
According to Mr. Isaacs, people want their children to
remain unscathed by the proceedings, and most couples wish
to get their lives back quickly and without an inordinate
amount of stress.
A typical divorce mediation may take as few as three
sessions or as long as two years — if the couple is not
ready to work it out, says Mr. Isaacs.
The areas covered in a divorce mediation include custody
and parenting; child support; spousal support regarding
alimony, and division of property. All of these issues are
resolved by the couple with a mediator and, if needed, with
specialists such as psychologists or accountants, in
complicated cases. The result of these sessions is a
Memorandum of Understanding, which Mr. Isaacs and others
recommend be shared with attorneys to ensure that it
represents each party as each wishes.
"Even when you get people in here who really don't like
each other, you can speak to them about what is in their
best interests and move on from there," Mr. Isaacs
According to couple's counselor and family
psychotherapist Elaine Hicks of Skillman, who recently
completed training at Rutgers to become a divorce mediator,
it is the ability to cooperate, rather than to compete, that
makes mediation so much more palatable than a traditional
According to Ms. Hicks and a number of her colleagues,
the reason to choose a mediated divorce is that it is much
less expensive (on average, a third of the cost of a
traditional divorce) and it allows couples to go through a
process that they control.
"For the right kind of couple, mediation is fabulous.
They learn to talk to one another and they go away with
tools that are helpful," says Ms. Hicks.
Ms. Hicks has practiced marriage counseling for 15 years.
She views divorce mediation as a natural outgrowth of her
profession. While she never takes on clients with whom she
worked as a counselor (confidentiality and ethics issues are
involved), she does believe that being a marriage counselor
helps her to understand the highly charged emotions and the
trust issues that couples bring into the mediation session.
"I understand the dynamics of a couple and can help them
creatively solve their own problems," says Ms. Hicks, who
will be offering a free lecture titled "How to Effectively
Handle Your Children During Divorce" at the West Windsor
Library on Wednesday at 7 p.m. The library is located at 333
North Post Road in Princeton Junction.
Douglas Schoenberg of Summit, divorce mediator and
teacher, calls himself a reformed litigation attorney. He
teaches the 40-hour divorce mediation course that Ms. Hicks
completed at Rutgers University's School of Social Work in
Mr. Schoenberg sees the choice between a litigated and a
mediated divorce as "the choice between a formal expensive
process that prepares for a trial or a process with a
trained neutral professional where the divorcing parties
have the control."
He added that only one out of every 200 mediated divorces
end in a trial; the rest are settled out of court. In his
classes, Mr, Schoenberg says he trains people who come to
him from a myriad of fields.
Anju Jessani, president-elect of the New Jersey
Association of Professional Mediators, says her background
in finance is particularly helpful when it comes to sticky
She worked at J.P. Morgan before becoming a divorce
mediator. Ten years ago, she went through her own divorce
with a mediator and was so impressed with the process that
she left her financial work in 1996 to become a divorce
"Divorce mediators are an extremely diverse group of
professionals, but we are a community. We are sole
practitioners and we use the mediation community to confer
with colleagues on a regular basis," says Ms. Jessani.
Of the 100 accredited divorce mediators in New Jersey,
approximately 70 percent are divorce lawyers, 20 percent
have psychology/social work degrees, and the remainder have
degrees in everything from accounting to engineering and
medicine. There are even two rabbis who are divorce
mediators in New Jersey, says Ms. Jessani.
The New Jersey Association of Professional Mediators (NJAPM)
provides accreditation to trained divorced mediators, which
is important to the consumer because, according to New
Jersey law, anyone can hang up a shingle and claim they are
Professionals must first complete a divorce mediation
course, offered by a number of institutions in New Jersey.
Then they must gain 100 hours of mediation experience, which
typically takes two years, and, finally, they must summarize
15 cases before receiving accreditation through the NJAPM.
"New Jersey accreditation assures the parties that a
couple's mediator has the education, experience, skill and
ethical standards necessary to address their conflict," Ms.
When asked what he saw as a successful mediation, Mr.
Isaacs says, "Success is when the couples feel safe
psychologically and interpersonally and when their goals are
met. We help people heal their differences and pain and come
out with money and hope and healing."