When Chris and Naomi Schrecker decided to divorce, they felt they had lost everything. Their seven-year marriage was dead and their young sons were caught in the crossfire. Only a visit to their local Family Mediation Service restored their faith in the future.
Mrs Schrecker, 40, was suspicious of any outside interference in her marriage break-up. Her husband had moved out and there was no question of a reconciliation. Reluctantly, she agreed to go with him to the centre in Bury, Lancashire, and four years on, both partners are thankful they did so.
"We couldn't make decisions together or discuss anything. We couldn't communicate and it was frightening for the children," said Mrs Schrecker, a school teacher.
"I was very wary of going to mediation. I was on my guard and very defensive. I felt emotionally disabled when I got into that room and worried that they would get me to agree to all sorts of things that would prolong the pain."
Instead, like her husband, she found that the counsellors took the heat out of the situation. They attended a joint session once a month and slowly it became possible for them to make plans in the short term. Arrangements like Christmas and the holidays, as well as more mundane day-to-day matters, were always discussed within the confines of the centre.
"It made all the difference in the world," said Mrs Schrecker. "They were very patient and dealt with us very tactfully. Slowly our relationship settled down to what it is now. It's quite formal but we do support each other, particularly professionally. I now have a productive, happy life and hope that in the future we can bring up our children in a way that brings the best out of both of us."
Mr Schrecker, 38, contacted the Family Mediation Service in 1991 because he was worried about the children.
"What I was looking for at that stage was a way of actually coming to some sort of practical agreement over the children being able to see both of us in a reasonably confrontation-free atmosphere," he said.
At the time, his two sons, now aged four and 11, were living with their mother in the family home in Prestwich, Manchester, and he was visiting them for a brief, tense period each day.
"It was a difficult sort of arrangement. It was very stressful because a lot of feelings of anger and betrayal tended to manifest themselves at the times when we handed over the children," said Mr Schrecker, also a school teacher.
The Family Mediation Service, managed by the nation-wide charity NCH Action for Children, enabled the couple to air their disputes in a safe environment.
"The bitterness was moved to an arena where it was properly dealt with rather than being spontaneous outbreaks," said Mr Schrecker.
"The service helped each of us step by step to build a relationship with the children which allows for the other's presence."
Their divorce papers came through in June this year. The children now spend three days and two nights a week with their father and the rest of the time with their mother, a situation with which both parents are happy.
"Under the terms of the Children's Act the courts do now allow, thank God, for parties to come to their own arrangements over children," said Mr Schrecker.
"Unfortunately, I believe the service exists only in certain parts of the country," he added. "We are very lucky to have had the service in the area."