Tonda with her new dreadlocks.
Well, I’m doing it. Right now. I am at the salon having my hair teased, twisted, and permed into dreadlocks.  I have been waiting a year for this, growing my hair out to six inches in length.  It was with dread and excitement that I made the appointment with the Hair Police salon.  Was this a stupid thing to do?  Does it have anything to do with the fact that I turn 60 this summer? My husband worries that it will be bad for my business as a Collaborative Divorce attorney.  My youngest child is appalled.  My two older children say go for it.  My colleagues are vicariously fascinated.  What will my clients think?  Will they take me seriously?  Will they want me to share with them their journey through divorce? My feelings are insignificant and yet similar to feelings my clients feel as they make the decision to end their marriage.  Many struggle with the decision for years.  It is with dread that they make the decision to start the divorce.  It will affect their spouse; it will affect their children. It will affect their family and friends.  The change will be momentous for all family members. For some couples, they approach their divorce together; with dread but also with a promise for the future that change provides.  For other couples, one spouse feels forced to undertake the divorce journey whether they want it or not.  For this spouse the trepidation can overwhelm any hope for the future.  But as with all change, there is always hope and opportunities.  By using a collaborative process for their divorce, couples can be supported to find the hope, the opportunity and the excitement that this change offers. For me, a change in hairdo, especially a change as strange as dreadlocks, is exciting, daring, liberating and refreshing.  Life after dreadlocks is something to look forward to.  
MTI Automotive Egypt | JLR Family Day Event | Cars & CigarsNo matter when a divorce commences, it is practically inevitable that there will be at least one special event—a child’s birthday, a graduation, a holiday, a family reunion—that occurs during the divorce process. Determining how to celebrate such events can add stress to an already difficult situation. It is understandably the case that many divorcing parents are not ready, willing or able to jointly plan or celebrate a family event, and they should not feel pressured to do so.  Children will feel supported by parents who succeed in keeping them at the center and out of the middle, and that alone is a huge accomplishment.  Despite how parents feel about each other, their children should experience freedom to enjoy special events and celebrations planned by each parent. Parents should be supported and encouraged to coordinate and alternate the hosting of special events for their children with as much courtesy and good will as possible. But what about divorcing parents who are not in high conflict and are generally co-parenting well?  Sometimes parents can feel pressured by cultural expectations about what should happen in a divorce, e.g. divorcing parents should have separate birthday celebrations for their kids; divorcing parents should not jointly host a graduation party; soon to be ex-in-laws should not be invited to an extended family gathering at the other parent’s home. Many parents opt to redefine cultural expectations regarding divorce, especially those that would limit their ability to jointly and positively celebrate milestones, holidays and birthdays with and for their children.  These parents are able to create an environment in which their kids can relax and enjoy jointly celebrated events.  As a neutral child specialist in Collaborative Practice, I have learned that many children value whole family celebrations despite parents getting unmarried. Some parents have asked me if their kids may misperceive joint celebrations as a sign their parents are reuniting, but that is unlikely to happen if parents explain the situation clearly.  “We have always enjoyed celebrating special times together with you, and we will continue to do this once in a while.  This doesn’t mean we’re going to get married again, but it does mean we love being your mom and dad.” I will never forget the little boy who told me, “You know the twinkle in their eyes that parents get when their son comes down the stairs on Christmas morning?  I’m sad that both my parents won’t get to have that this year.”  When his divorcing parents heard their son’s words, it was an easy decision for them to celebrate Christmas morning together that year.
Resolution is in your handA recent article in Time Magazine called The End of Alimony discusses some of the potentially unfair and unrealistic outcomes that can result from the current family legal system. The example highlighted in the article discusses a second wife having potential responsibility to her new husband’s ex-wife for alimony payments. The article looks at both sides of the equation – the new wife having unforeseen and unwanted obligations and the first wife having financial struggles and dependence on this additional source of income. It is no doubt a complicated issue. Many issues in divorce are complicated. The challenge in court cases is often to balance the rights of the participants with the need for efficiency and structure in the law. Courts do not always have the time and resources to give every case the attention it needs to find unique and realistic resolutions. Unfortunately, there are rarely one-size-fits-all resolutions. Collaborative law provides an alternative. In divorce, the collaborative law process provides for unique outcomes that are tailored to the individual situation of the couple. A good collaborative team can gather the information needed and then take a 360 degree look at resolutions to take unforeseen circumstances into account. Where the courts may have formulaic outcomes in mind, collaboration can lead to outcomes that can change as circumstances change. Alimony or spousal maintenance, for example, does not necessarily need to end upon remarriage (as the law often presumes). Perhaps the parties agree to look at the realities of new partnerships and see if there are ways to find resolutions that take everyone’s interests into account? The resolutions may not be perfect, but they are reached together with all stakeholders at the table.
In this upcoming series of posts I will outline what I think were the most important decisions I had to make when in 2008 I began the journey to end my thirty-year marriage.  It is my hope that readers of these posts will be able to reflect on their own circumstances and either find guidance, reassurance, or be prompted to reflect further on their own situation and realize they are not alone in this journey. In this first post, I will write about what to me was not only the most important decision but also the most difficult.  Decision point number one was to come to the realization that my thirty year marriage needed to come to an end and that I was the one to make it happen.  It took me an incredibly long time to reach this point.  I now realize that maybe our divorce or “getting unmarried,” as I will refer to it from here on, should have happened twenty years earlier.  As I reflect back over the years, I believe the process of my becoming unmarried did begin twenty years earlier and not in 2008 when I took the initial steps to end the marriage.  I suspect many, although not all, marriages begin to end much earlier than the time when one spouse takes that first step forward. You see, I had actually started thinking of getting unmarried twenty years earlier.  At one point I went so far as to talk with a family law attorney, engaged that attorney, and later decided not to proceed.  Four years prior to my legally beginning the end of my marriage, I began going to counseling on my own.  I pleaded with my spouse to come with me but to no avail.  I continued asking, but after her repeated unwillingness I stopped asking and continued on my own.  I had spent two years talking off and on with the pastor of my church about our marriage difficulties and that I was seriously thinking of ending the marriage.  I felt like there was nothing more I could do. I am sharing all this with you because for me, and I am sure for many others, I had to know that to move forward with “getting unmarried” I needed to answer the question, did I do all that I could, with an unequivocal yes.  I’m sure if you asked my former spouse today, she would say I could have done more.  In my mind I really felt as though I did all that I could do and that is what mattered to me.  Holding this feeling was and is comforting to me as I continue to move forward in this journey called life.  How would you answer, have I done all that I could? If you are considering  “getting unmarried” or maybe you have already made that decision I invite you to travel along with me on this journey, as this transition in life continues.  Watch for the next post of “Getting Unmarried” Part 2; How to get unmarried.  In Part II I will talk about decision point number two, deciding for yourself how you want to get unmarried.  How are you going to do it? Read Getting Unmarried Part II: How To Get Divorced here. 
Debra Messing recently expressed guilt over her divorce and the fact that she and her husband couldn’t give her son “the fantasy” that her parents gave her in a marriage that was now ending. She said she and her husband both wanted to make it work and last forever but weren’t able to make it “go the course.” If you and your spouse are uncertain about whether you want to end your marriage, there are resources for you to use before making the final decision about a divorce. This is not marriage counseling for people who already know they want to continue their marriage and need help in making that happen, but ambivalence counseling which helps couples figure out whether they really want a divorce. Some trained mental health professionals who do this work in the collaborative divorce community are Brian Burns and Karen Haase. If you ultimately decide to get divorced, this ambivalence counseling work may help you understand each other’s perspectives about what happened during the marriage and the differences that led to your decision to divorce. Ambivalence counseling could also result in your decision to stay married or hold off the divorce. If, after counseling on your uncertainty about whether or not to be divorced, you decide that you do want to be divorced, don’t dwell too much on guilt or past mistakes in your marriage. Yes, you can learn from mistakes made, but assigning guilt made for past mistakes won’t be a strong foundation for final agreement in your divorce. You may have different memories and perspectives about why the marriage ended and may not reach agreement on these issues. Instead, you should focus on the present and future issues you face – where you will live, what your parenting schedule will be, how you will pay for your living expenses in two households and how you will divide your assets and debts. Focussing on the future and problem solving about these issues will be more productive for your family than attempting to assign blame or allow guilt to guide your decisions in a divorce. During the collaborative divorce process, these feelings of guilt or anger are acknowledged and addressed but don’t drive the process. A couple who had these feelings of guilt and anger during their collaborative divorce have shared their experience in a video which follows the steps in their divorce process.
The True Color of LoveWhile the divorce rate in the U. S. has been decreasing since its peak in the 1980’s, divorce rates for those over the age of 50 is at an all-time high. The divorce rate for this age group has doubled in the past 20 years. There are many reasons for this trend, including longer life expectancy, the increased financial independence of women, changing cultural values and the aging of the “me” generation of baby-boomers. The causes of gray divorces are varied. According to a 2004 AARP study of midlife divorce, the most common reasons given were abuse, infidelity, falling out of love, use of alcohol and drugs, and different lifestyles. Spouses who become “empty nesters” when their children leave home can find it difficult to find common ground. Those who divorce later in life have fewer remaining years in the workforce. This means reduced opportunity to accumulate assets post-divorce. Therefore, making sound financial decisions is critical to both parties’ future well-being. Valuing and dividing retirement plans, securing affordable medical insurance coverage for both parties, establishing and funding separate households, and analyzing cash flow at retirement require expert legal and financial advice.
First vs. Second Wife Wow, the phrase “First vs. Second Wives” makes me cringe.  There is so much wrong with it, or at least so much to dislike or be uncomfortable about. Let me count the ways (Keep in mind that this is in the context of Spousal Maintenance). It implies that there will be another wife after the first, which is a fair assumption, but still.  It implies that the first and second wives will be at odds with each other over money, which is unfortunate and sad to think about.  It implies that the husband, at least in his first marriage, is the breadwinner. In our culture of perceived independence and self-sufficiency, it may strike us as dependent and therefore inconsistent with current cultural standards. It uncomfortably reminds us that many spouses, most likely the wife and often for good reasons, give up career and educational advancement, and so their future financial independence and self-sufficiency, to stay at home with children for the benefit of the greater family. Then, if they divorce, they are in big financial trouble without consistent and lengthy financial support from their ex. I’ve seen many couples divorce where the breadwinner doesn’t want to or just won’t acknowledge the homemaker’s non-financial contribution to the family and opportunity cost of being out of the workforce or taking a lower-paying, more flexible job.  I’ve also seen many cases where the homemaker never left home after the kids were older, when it would have been more appropriate to find employment, because re-entering the job market was likely the original marital intent. There is an interesting article in Time magazine’s May 27, 2013 edition titled “The End of Alimony” and a short radio segment, along eerily similar lines, on NPR titled “Alimony Till Death Do Us Part? Nay Say Some Ex-Spouses.”  The basic premise of each is that there is growing momentum (but I’m not aware of any such movement in Minnesota) to limit Alimony court awards, or what we in Minnesota call “Spousal Maintenance.” The irony cited is that while ex-husbands used to be the only ones against Alimony, now second wives are also organizing to do away with Alimony, which their husband’s are paying to their ex-wives.  The result, it is argued, makes for a pretty large constituency which legislators ignore at their own political peril. There is no Spousal Maintenance calculator in Minnesota.  Instead it is a case-by-case, facts-and-circumstances analysis. One of the hardest, and grayest, part of the law in divorce is Spousal Maintenance.  It often feels like pulling teeth to get a higher-earning spouse to even acknowledge that the lesser earning spouse has any reasonable financial need.  Striking a balance to reach a fair outcome is the key. Traditionally trained attorneys, in my opinion, often do a terrible job addressing Spousal Maintenance.  Just bringing it up is likely to start a battle that is out of proportion to the reasonableness of the request. That’s why Spousal Maintenance is a great issue to address with a Collaborative Divorce, because at the beginning of a Collaborative Divorce the attorneys and other professionals help the spouses identify their financial resources and shortfalls by analyzing their budgets in relation to their incomes.  They also help the lower earning spouse explore their future career options (including going back to school) and therefore their reasonable financial need.  The answer is not usually “yes” or “no”, in black and white.  The initial answer is almost always “let’s evaluate this”, which is appropriate given the complexity of the question and the importance of the answer.
Prof Mnookin at the CMR No.103F“I am so glad we came in together, this has been so helpful.” This is a comment I hear so often from couples after they come in to meet with me together to talk about their divorce process options. Not all attorneys offer the opportunity to come in together but it is becoming a more frequent offering by attorneys who practice Collaborative divorce. Who each of you meet with before you make any decision about how to move forward when there is a decision to divorce, can make all the difference in how things play out during and after a divorce for you, your spouse and children. Imagine, if one person meets with an attorney that focuses on gathering information (how much your spouse earns, nature and amount of assets, whether you want custody of the children, etc.) and assessing the outcome before you have decided how you will more forward with process (Mediation, traditional court process, Collaborative, etc.). It sets the tone for everything that follows, often times setting up a win-lose dynamic. But is that what you want? Most people want as healthy and positive co-parenting relationship going forward that they can have and want to achieve a win-win outcome. On the other hand, if a couple meets together with an attorney to learn about process options before getting into the details of the assets, cash flow/support, etc., you are focusing on the tone and manner in which you move forward, rather than the positions that can be formulated. Couples can then make a mutually informed decision about how to move forward. And the hidden benefit is that, if that attorney is hired by one of you, you already know the philosophy of the other key person in the negotiation; your spouses attorney. Imagine what a difference that can make in creating a more positive divorce experience. It can be an invaluable decision.
The Age of InnocenceMy wonderful in-laws were married for more than 71 years.   During their later years, visitors to their apartment were surprised to see a copy of The Collaborative Way to Divorce on their bookshelf.  The confusion was remedied after it they explained that they felt compelled to display the divorce book their son-in-law had co-authored. The situation with my in-laws always reminded me of the old joke about the couple who decided to divorce in their late 90’s,  claiming that they had waited so long because they wanted “to wait until all the children have died”. In my 30 years of divorce practice, I have never met a couple who waited quite that long, but I have often heard clients tell me they were waiting “until the kids were grown.” I sometimes fear that this approach may have caused them to postpone marital counseling, or other marriage saving measures, until the bloom has fully gone off the rose.   Still, I understand the desire to hold off on divorce to spare the children at least some of the pain. In practice, “waiting until the children have grown” generally means that, when the youngest child has reached the age of 16 or 17,  one of the parents decides they are close enough to the finish line to start down the path toward divorce.  These families are generally grateful that they have generally spared themselves the difficulties of having to work out a parenting schedule for young children.  However, most of them also come realize that their children, grown or not, are still affected about the divorce. Grown children want their parents to get along, maybe as much as young children do.  It is always sad to hear about a young man or woman who has to spend part of their wedding day worrying about whether mom and dad can be in the same room.   Thankfully, parents who want to spare their children from that anxiety choose methods like Collaborative Divorce, that allow them to remain friends, or at least retain mutual respect, that keeps their children out of the middle, long after they have grown.
Wedding GiftHave you ever attended a wedding where the groom’s parents refused to be in the same photograph? Do you know a bride who had to keep her divorced parents separated during the reception? The resulting tension can be palpable to everyone and can taint what should be a joyous occasion for the loving couple. A recent New York Times article describes the additional stress felt by children of divorced parents both before and during their weddings. When exes have difficulty communicating with each other, planning the event is more complicated and stressful for their child, who may be forced to consult with each parent individually. If either parent carries lingering resentment about financial issues, conversations about wedding expenses can trigger unresolved anger. Questions about who will participate in (or even attend) the ceremony may arise if the child’s relationship with either parent was damaged by the parents’ split. All of this unresolved anxiety shifts the focus away from the bride and groom and the happy occasion. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Divorcing parents who choose the Collaborative divorce process are asked to articulate their dreams for the future. These goals typically include aspirations for a healthy co-parenting relationship and financial security for both parents. Setting goals empowers them to co-write the ending to their own unique divorce story. Doing so restores some sense of control during a turbulent time. Less resentment means a more peaceful future for the entire family. How a couple divorces has a ripple effect, impacting a wide circle of family and friends, with their children in the center. How they divorce will affect each and every future family event. What better wedding gift can any parents give their children than a day filled with loving support?