by Sarah Grey
Of all of life’s great transitions —parenthood, marriage, retirement—one of the most difficult is divorce. Divorce requires a great deal of compassion that too often is missing. That’s why Natural Awakenings sat down with Keila Gilbert of Alpha Center, an attorney mediator who specializes in guiding couples through the divorce process with compassion.
How did you become a divorce mediator? I went through my own divorce about 20 years ago, and it was extremely painful. Instead of focusing on that pain and anger, though, I found a different way to channel my energy. I became a divorce attorney mediator in the hope of giving other couples a better experience than I had.
Twenty years later, you’re a pioneer in the field of divorce mediation. Can you tell us about how Alpha Center works? The biggest decision couples face is whether to divorce, but the second- biggest decision is how to divorce. When we hear the word “divorce” we think of two attorneys battling to the death in court. So many people don’t even realize that there are other options. We offer couples a seven-step program to guide them through the divorce transition in constructive ways that help them move forward emotionally, financially and legally.
Is mediation for everyone? Some divorces do need to go through the court system, such as when physical abuse is involved. In general, though, mediation is a more cooperative and compassionate choice for many couples. The Alpha Center also works to make it more affordable by charging a flat fee, so that couples are not racking up huge attorneys’ fees. We want this better alternative to be accessible to everyone.
What does it mean to offer a compassionate divorce process? Most divorcing couples go into the process with lots of emotions and very little knowledge. So our program is highly structured in a way that focuses on the future, not the past. We’re happy to refer them to therapists, but we try to step away from the emotions here so that both parties can put their energy into moving forward into O
the next stage of their lives.
Divorce can be financially devastating, so we have financial and tax experts who work with our mediators to help couples increase their cash flow and avoid financial conflict. Also, when children are involved, a parenting mediator, who is a qualified therapist, works with the couple to negotiate a co-parenting agreement that minimizes the impact on children.
We also do a lot of referrals to related services. On our website, we have a large directory of therapists, financial advisors, support groups and more, which we’ve vetted for quality.
What do you think is behind the epidemic of divorce? How did the divorce rate get to be so high? There are social, cultural and personal reasons for this trend. Women now have a greater level of freedom, education and opportunity than they had in the past. Prior to gaining these strengths, they were much more inclined to remain in an economically and socially dependent marriage due to lack of other options. Social mores have also changed, from stigmatizing divorced individuals to accepting them.
When looking at the individual causes, you see people entering marriage too blindly and then failing to understand that good marriages take hard work. I’d love it if my services were needed less often. That’s why we also offer resources on our site about how to strengthen or save a marriage. We want to interrupt what I call the “marriage-go-round cycle”, which is when people divorce one partner only to date, marry, separate and divorce again. While 85 percent of our clients do complete the divorce mediation program, of the 15 percent who don’t, quite a few reconcile. Sometimes you see the light bulb go on when people realize they really can work together to save the marriage.
Fifty percent of first marriages, 60 percent of second marriages and 70 percent of third marriages end in divorce. The lesson there is that people often do not learn from their mistakes, but rather blame their partner for the problems, and therefore continue to repeat their past behaviors. Also, subsequent marriages carry the added challenges of blended families.
Do you offer resources for recently divorced people? Yes. On our website we offer resources and ideas for people moving on after divorce. We help them understand what they need to make good decisions about life’s most important relationship. We’re also committed to helping newly single people find quality financial advice.
To that end, can you tell me more about the educational programs you offer? Education is such a powerful factor in making important life decisions. It’s an important part of what we do. We offer workshops for couples as well as for professionals. Recently we did a community workshop focused on “Mended, Blended and Extended Families”. We also offered one for professional couples counselors called “Marital Stress Management”.
It must be very energetically draining to be with people who are in conflict around the ending of a marriage. What do you do to fortify yourself spiritually and emotionally? There is no doubt that you can get “compassion fatigue” when you place yourself in the center of the strife of over 5,000 divorcing individuals over the course of 20 years, as I have. However, it is extremely rewarding to know how much you have changed the trajectory of their lives and their children’s lives, as compared to those who follow the unhealthy path of years of emotionally and financially draining litigation.
I fortify myself by focusing on a healthy lifestyle and a strong meditation practice, and I rely on the support of my coworkers. I am especially blessed with my loving husband, children, extended family and friends. Also, I often retreat through my love of travel, reading, music and the many gifts of nature.
This is your life’s work. What has kept you in it, and what do you see for divorce in the future? It is my life’s work—but also my life’s passion. My original mission was to create an effective divorce mediation program and bring it to as many people as possible. That’s still true, but my work is now focused on training other attorneys to provide our program to divorcing couples throughout the nation. There are now 15 Alpha locations nationwide.
As for the future of divorce, I do believe it will stabilize as a result of three factors. First, people are now delaying marriage to later years, so they are a bit wiser; second, they are entering marriage with more mutual respect and equal footing; third, there are many more resources available to support and encourage healthy marriages. There is one other factor that may continue to decrease divorce, and that is a trend to live together rather than marry, which is a much more prevalent norm in Europe.
How does your commitment to compassion play out in your everyday work at Alpha? I have deliberately surrounded myself with good people who share my passion and commitment to serving our clients during this very vulnerable time of their lives. Though I remain a perfectly imperfect person, I feel that our work has left positive imprints on the lives of the many adults and children that we have been blessed to serve.
Alpha Center for Divorce Mediation is headquartered in Doylestown and offers its divorce mediation program in multiple locations and online. For more information, call 800-310-9085, email AlphaCares@Alpha-Divorce.com or visit Alpha-Divorce.com and AlphaResourceCenter.com.
Sarah Grey is a writer and editor whose work has been published in Saveur, Best Food Writing 2015and many more. To read her writing, visit SarahGreyWrites.com; to learn about her editorial services, visit GreyEditing.com.