Throughout the evolutionary cycle of a couple or a family, one inevitably goes through multiple phases or situations in which, for very diverse factors (previous family peculiarities, situations that have occurred or simply the management of daily life where important decisions have to be made), its members have to face or adapt to these new realities that they have to live. The optimum management of these situations favours the growth of the family , but on other occasions the crises generated may cause difficulties and conflicts of various kinds.

For these problems, the interventions that have been shown to be most suitable and efficient are family therapy and family mediation , depending on whether shorter and more specific or longer and more extensive interventions are required.

Family therapy and mediation: differences and similarities in making good choices

Although these two ways of working with families have their own objectives and ways of proceeding, the distinction between them is often not clear. In order to clarify the fields of action of both approaches, we are going to talk, although very generically (with the risk of simplification that this implies) about their main characteristics and differences, which may help to determine which would be the most suitable intervention alternative according to each family and their needs.

Family therapy

The fundamental objectives of family therapy are the evaluation, accompaniment, orientation and psychological treatment of any problem or clinical symptomatology presented by the family as a whole. Although there is a specific symptom or demand that is of course attended to, psychotherapeutic intervention is considered in a broader way, covering the dynamics and relational patterns of its members, in relation to the problem and, usually, in connection with the history and biography of its members .

The temporal focus in psychotherapy is on the present, but in connection with the past: past stories and experiences are explored, with the understanding that the past is fundamental to understanding what is happening to them in the present moment. In this sense, the aim is to understand and resolve conflicts that are underlying or not evident at first sight by the family dynamic itself.

The general objective of psychotherapy, therefore, is to accompany and promote deeper and more structural changes that allow the family to acquire greater coping resources both in moments of crisis caused by the passage from one stage to another in the family cycle, and to attend to and resolve underlying psychological or emotional conflicts . For these reasons, the duration is usually much longer than mediation, as it can be reduced to a few sessions.

Family mediation

Unlike psychotherapy, family mediation does not focus on psychological treatment, but on the management and resolution of specific and well-defined conflicts (e.g., in a divorce, child custody). In the event that larger-scale problems are detected, mediation would not be the appropriate approach, unless the intervention is very limited to a specific objective and always as a complement to therapy as a general framework.

The temporal focus in family mediation is on the present and, above all, on the future: attention is given, preferably, to obvious conflicts and to concrete and practical aspects such as, for example, decision-making in relation to custody or access to children .

Mediation is therefore a process of cooperative conflict resolution in which the parties involved are encouraged to communicate appropriately and reach the agreements they consider most appropriate for their mutual needs.

Neutral attitude as a professional requirement

The family therapist, like the mediator, adopts a neutral attitude towards the members of the family , although he is usually more directive in the sense that he evaluates, guides, advises, offers indications, proposes actions, etc., always with the purpose of favouring or provoking change in dysfunctional dynamics and deeper and more general relational patterns.

The family mediator, on the other hand, adopts a less directive and facilitating role in communication (through the use of micro communication techniques), which helps the participants to reflect on their conflicts and disagreements, encouraging the creative search for possible alternatives, which allows them to make decisions and reach the mutual agreements they consider most appropriate according to their needs and interests.

The decisions that people can reach freely and voluntarily are made in a context of security and confidentiality , free from any kind of reciprocal coercion or pressure and without the meter directing them in any way: it is the interested parties themselves who have to reach, if they consider it, the agreements that they consider. The mediator neither assesses nor offers solutions to their problems.

Although one of the fundamental objectives of family mediation is that people reach agreements that allow them to resolve their conflicts, on many occasions, the most important thing is not so much the agreement itself, but rather generating a different and healthier relational space, as well as offering resources for the management of their conflicts, with a clear preventive component.

The legal aspects

When disputes may have legal consequences (such as in a divorce, with the consequent dissolution of the partnership or disagreements regarding the custody of minor children), mediation becomes the most convenient method of resolving these issues.

In accordance with Law 5/2012 of 6 July on mediation in civil and commercial matters, mediation can be used to draw up agreements which, in accordance with current regulations, can be subsequently transformed into a legal document to give it legal status. To this end, it is always advisable for the parties to be advised at all times by their respective lawyers , before reaching the agreement that will end up having legal effects.

A combination that works

As we can see, depending on the needs, one or the other approach will be the most appropriate, although, of course, they can also be complementary to offer comprehensive care to families and couples. To do this, it is necessary that professionals are trained in both disciplines.

Diego Albarracín Garrido: Psychologist, family therapist, couple’s therapist and mediator of El Prado Psicólogos .