By: Mims Vilma, Dutchtown
Photos: Altin Kaftira
English translation edited: Fareeda Shaieb
Divorce may bring an end to a couples’ romantic relationship, but when children are in the picture, the parents’ relationship must continue in a different way for many years afterwards. The emotional impact of a separation can be tremendous and can make it difficult to imagine how a new situation would be. But maintaining a healthy and respectful relationship is critical for the benefit of the children, no matter their age. So, how can this be achieved?
Tali Ben Weiss is a mediator, coach, and member of the Dutch Mediation Association (NMv). She specializes in family mediation and divorce, focusing on multicultural and Israeli couples who have decided to separate or divorce. Mediation can take place in Hebrew, English, or Dutch, and can accommodate for the cultural differences within the couple.
As part of the week of mediation (Week van de Mediation) held this week, I spoke with Tali about how she helps multicultural and Israeli couples, and why it may be wise to wait before hiring a lawyer.
From marketing to mediation
Hello Tali. How did you get into the field of mediation?
"I’ve lived in the Netherlands for 15 years with my partner, Martijn, and our two daughters Emma and Lynn. For many years, I held positions in marketing in the medical devices and pharmaceutical industry. These experiences helped me realize that working with people in challenging situations is what I love. I always knew that my passion for working with people would eventually lead me to a different profession, but the fear of change held me back for a long time. I was an Israeli mother of two little girls in the Netherlands, I didn’t speak Dutch; having a permanent job gave me security and comfort. I didn’t want to deal with the risks involved with starting my own practice. But finally, it became stronger than me: I realized that I needed to be true to myself and took the leap.
My journey began a decade ago, when I followed coaching studies at the Academy for Counseling and Coaching in the Netherlands. After that, I completed mediation studies with a specialization in family and divorce mediation at the Israeli Goma-Gavim Mediation Center."
Can you explain what divorce mediation is?
"Divorce mediation is a conflict resolution process during which an agreement is established between spouses who have decided to separate. The agreement can cover many things: child custody and visitation arrangements, alimony, education and health, special expenses, and division of property and assets. This voluntary procedure focuses on reaching compromises, not on winning or losing as with a legal process. In fact, this is a much quicker and more cost-effective route than going to court. I usually suggest that couple meet with me once every week or two and use the time between meetings to deal with their emotions, to look up any additional information they want, and explore what is truly important to them. Some couples reach an agreement within a few months. The final document goes to a lawyer for approval and submission to the court. From that moment, the agreement is valid."
Prioritizing the children’s best interests
Are there couples for whom mediation isn’t suitable?
"During the meetings, there is space for each spouse to tell their side of the conflict, and, very often, the underlying communication problems in the relationship - which eventually led to the crisis - become clear. But it is important to understand that divorce mediation is not couples therapy and is not intended to improve the marriage. If I detect an emotional imbalance or a resistance from one of the parties to engage in the process, my duty is to stop the mediation and refer the couple to emotional therapy. Sometimes, one party wants to focus on the problems in the relationship, referring to the past and the other person’s mistakes. My role is to create a safe space for this to be expressed, while leading a constructive discussion to establish solutions for the future. From experience, mediation is most suitable for couples who, despite the end of their relationship, wish to prioritize their children’s best interest."
How do you navigate through sensitive situation?
"I can usually identify which party initiated the divorce, and which one was presented with the decision. The instigating partner will have gone through a long process of soul-searching, of facing what they want, and has experienced stages of mourning and acceptance. For the other party, the news comes out of the blue. This immediately leads to intense feelings: shock, anger, accusations, and confusion. I am very empathetic, and I care a lot about the people who contact me, but I have to remain rational and neutral in order to prioritize the children's welfare and lead an effective process. I can't allow myself to be biased."
When people think of divorce, they often think of hiring a lawyer.
"True, but this isn’t always necessary. In fact, the court will often refer couples to mediation before a judge intervenes. Mediation is an informal, flexible process, focused on solutions. The legal procedure creates a loss of control, pressure, and fear that critical decisions will be made for you that will affect the entire family’s future. Mediation eases some of this pressure, allows more control over the process and outcome and facilitates open communication and consideration of many interests. Hiring lawyers is not always helpful: two lawyers, each trying to get the most for their client at the expense of the other side. It is important to remember that even though the romantic relationship is ending, the family continues exist in a different form. The relationship must be preserved, and unnecessary conflict should be avoided."
Do you work exclusively with couples?
"No. I also offer divorce coaching services to individuals. For example, I am sometimes contacted by people whose spouses have decided to file for divorce, or who have already hired a lawyer. Once lawyers are involved, mediation isn’t suitable for the couple. But I can work with one of the parties as a divorce coach. I use my coaching skills and my knowledge of divorce mediation to guide people as they make decisions for their future. Divorce is ranked as the second most stressful event in a person's life. It can be a shocking and lonely process, and people sometimes make unwise emotional decisions in a moment of weakness. My job is to help people act from a place of safety and peace of mind. Although it may seem impossible at first, divorce can be a stepping stone for personal growth and development."
Help in three languages
As an Israeli in the Netherlands, how can you help Israeli or multicultural couples who have decided to separate?
"I offer my services as a mediator and coach in three languages: Hebrew, English and Dutch. As an Israeli in a multicultural relationship, I focus on mediating multicultural couples and Israelis. I am comfortable with both cultures, which helps me create a climate where both parties can be productive, relaxed, and involved.
I am also familiar with the different divorce procedures in Israel and the Netherlands, and I can explain the various stages of the process. If the couple was married by rabbis in Israel and are divorcing in the Netherlands, they need to settle their divorce with the authorities in both countries. Once the divorce is approved by Dutch officials, the rabbis in Amsterdam are approached to carry out the Israeli part of the divorce. The change of status at the Ministry of internal affairs in Israel can be arranged through the embassy in the Netherlands, so that there is no need to travel.
What about the religious identity of the children, their citizenship, the type of education they will receive and the country in which they will live? Dutch courts prefer that the parents live close to each other to minimize the changes to the children’s lives. Also, parents need to remember that if one of them wishes to travel with the children to Israel, they must have written permission from the other parent. Otherwise, it could be interpreted as a kidnapping, which can have serious legal consequences, and may even risk the parent’s custody of the children."
The Israeli community is small, everyone seems to know each other. How do you preserve privacy in these situations?
"People are naturally drawn to seek out others from a similar cultural background and to communicate in their native language. This is usually more important to them than some loss of privacy within the community. I don’t mediate couples who I know personally, but I will mediate and coach virtual friends (ie from Facebook) who I haven’t met. Most people choose me because they feel lost facing a divorce in a foreign country, and they need someone who can provide security and cut through the mass of information for them."
Final question: you are surrounded by couples who are divorcing, so how do you maintain optimism?
"When I was 27 years old, I went through a divorce. It was in Israel, through the Rabbinate, before I had children. I was confused and fearful of disappointing my partner at the time, as well as our families. I know how emotional this situation can be and empathize with the couples I work with today. I have been there! My optimism comes from achieving successes in situations that initially seemed hopeless. Although each case is different, I almost always see that people can resolve their conflict themselves. As a mediator, I handle the process, but it’s the parties who are responsible for the end result."
Tali Ben Weiss is a mediator and coach, offering divorce mediation and coaching for couples going through a divorce. Meetings can be conducted in Hebrew, English, or Dutch, and can take place at her home in Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, online, or in meeting rooms throughout the Netherlands.