People considering divorce mediation are sometimes concerned that venting will be allowed and that it will be unproductive and upsetting. I attended some training this week in which the trainer asserted that research has clearly shown that venting is not helpful for either the “ventor” or “ventee.”
Let’s define “venting” as “giving free expression to a strong emotion.“ The particular emotion that is most controversial and relevant to divorce mediation is anger.
Catharsis theory suggests that expressing negative emotions in a safe way can alleviate emotional pressure and stress and help a person become more calm and centered. However, the bulk of the research on catharsis theory hasn’t done much to back it up. It has found that venting anger doesn’t appear to reduce future anger. In fact, it has been shown sometimes to make a person angrier.
I find this somewhat surprising for two reasons. First, in my own personal growth I have sometimes used venting to good effect. By letting myself feel anger and then finding a safe, nondestructive way to express it, I have sometimes felt a helpful release of emotional pressure. Second, catharsis has been recognized as means of healing and cleansing throughout history. It’s not just a recent psychoanalytic theory. Even Aristotle talked about it.
It may well be that the way venting is done is important. And venting doesn’t seem to work for everyone. People who are completely invested in their angry point of view are unlikely to release it or temper it through venting.
Venting in Mediation Sessions
Some divorce mediators tell the spouses up front that they plan to limit or not allow emotional expression. I don’t do this although I do assure them that we will have a respectful and safe process. If and when an expression of anger occurs, I make a quick judgment as to whether it appears to be genuinely helpful for the ventor, tolerable for the ventee and likely of value to our mediation process. Most of the time I find myself curtailing the venting fairly quickly because usually it is about a past that can’t be changed and it’s not helpful to the ventor, ventee or the three of us in working things out for the future.
There are times when I think it can be valuable, such as when a timid spouse comes into his/her own authority in a healthy way or when a spouse is expressing understandable upset about a principle that is important to them. It usually boils down for me to whether the venting feels like a rant or whether it is a genuine attempt by the ventor to communicate something helpful to the process.
I conduct nearly all of my divorce mediations in joint session (with both spouses present). There is always the option of caucusing (meeting with the spouses individually) to give a venting spouse a forum to get something necessary off their chest without subjecting the other spouse to any distress.