Divorce is a major life change that brings emotional and financial strain, and often bitterness between individuals.

Couples have an alternative method to going through the divorce process and possibly heading into the courtroom.

They can try co-mediation via a male-female multi-disciplinary team at Candlewood Mediation Center.

Attorney Katherine Webster-O'Keefe and clinical psychologist Dr. Thomas J. Condon officially teamed up to launch the firm, with offices in New Milford and Brookfield, in November of 2009.

Dr. Condon said co-mediation can provide clients with "quality" in terms of their divorce agreement, a co-parenting plan, if applicable, and long-term satisfaction and peace of mind.

"Our clients maintain total control in this confidential setting... They can brainstorm," Dr. Condon said.

Ms. Webster-O'Keefe and Dr. Condon serve as facilitators who help "manage the conflict in the room" and help the clients discuss, design and implement a divorce plan that meets both parties' needs, he explained.

"We remove the impediments and build on [the clients'] strengths to arrive at their best agreement," Dr. Condon said.

As a result, couples tend to have a "more enduring agreement" because they worked on it and made the decisions themselves, he said.

In their role as facilitators of communication and planning, Ms. Webster-O'Keefe and Dr. Condon make a concerted effort to ensure clients clearly articulate their needs because they "don't want people to not be happy [in the end], or to agree to something they don't want to agree to," the attorney said.

"They need to enter the agreement wholeheartedly," said Ms. Webster-O'Keefe, who has more than 20 years' experience as an adversarial divorce lawyer.

Co-mediation differs from what many couples chose to do when planning to divorce.

Generally both parties will retain lawyers through whom they will communicate, and sometimes a case may go to court.

With co-mediation, the goal is to keep couples out of court.

That doesn't mean legal documents aren't necessary. Ms. Webster-O'Keefe takes care of the legal documents of co-mediation.

"Katherine knows all the rules of the game... she knows if something will be acceptable in court," Dr. Condon said. "She knows the details."

However, Ms. Webster-O'Keefe does not represent either party; neither does Dr. Condon.

Dr. Condon brings 36 years' experience in clinical psychology to the table, which "allows me to help people contain the very raw emotions that prevent them from having meaningful discussions with each other on the issues that have to be resolved," Dr. Condon said.

"While my role in the mediation process has a therapeutic effect, mediation is not therapy," he said. "We are happy to refer individuals to qualified therapists to help them through the divorce process."

Former resident George Ayres, who now lives out of state, praised Dr. Condon and Ms. Webster-O'Keefe for their role in making his recent divorce end with an agreement to which he and his ex-wife both were satisfied.

They had "decided not to fight each other in the traditional lawyer and court system," said Mr. Ayres, who noted that after exploring other options, they settled on mediation.

"They were easy to work with," Mr. Ayres said of Dr. Condon and Ms. Webster-O'Keefe, with whom he met, along with his then-wife, on a regular basis throughout the mediation process.

He applauded Dr. Condon's role in getting the couple "through the stages of emotions, pointing out issues -- pros and cons -- and organizing [their] kids' future through co-parenting."

"Overall, the process was pretty good," he said.

Mr. Ayres pointed out that it cost less than a traditional divorce and was "less contentious."

Ms. Webster-O'Keefe said she finds "it striking and rewarding how quickly couples [who choose co-mediation] can resolve disagreements on major issues they previously believed were unresolvable."

The attorney said "a lot of people coming into this are afraid they'll be overwhelmed by the other spouse, that there's an unfair power balance."

However, Ms. Webster-O'Keefe explained, "the mere presence of a male-female team is so powerful" in that it helps clients feel they are represented fairly and without gender bias, since a member of each gender -- Ms. Webster-O'Keefe and Dr. Condon -- is present throughout.

`The experience of helping people solve problems instead of participating in a process that often alienates people and makes the problem worse is very satisfying," she said.

For more information, call 860-350-5009 or 203-740-9119 or visit www.candlewoodmediationcenter.com.