In a collaborative divorce process – there are usually tissues on the table. When a client first comes into an attorney’s office to tell their story or learn about divorce, it can be emotional and scary. Some people cry. Some of those tears come from sadness, fear, or worry about the future. Some people feel guilt or are mourning the loss of a relationship. Whatever the emotions are, in collaborative divorce, it is alright to express them. Indeed, expression of emotion can be key to the process – help clients process the transition and be more honest in the negotiations. Sometimes, clients cry quietly and silently in the process. The team may keep the process moving or take time to acknowledge the emotion. Clients can always take a break or ask for a moment alone. Silence may be a useful way to acknowledge the emotion. At other times, emotions may run hot and anger can result in intensified behavior. The team may choose to discuss the emotions or use a coach (mental health professional) to help keep emotions productive in the meetings. Clients may cry during joint meetings or when meeting with other professionals. Some clients cry while a lot others hardly cry. In a recent joint meeting, two clients were sharing each of their desires to spend Christmas morning with the children. The attorneys asked each client to express their personal reasons in the meeting. In front of the attorneys and the other spouse, they each shared their thoughts on this subject. Wife cried during her turn – the emotions were pure and real. After a moment of silence, Husband’s attorney acknowledged her emotion, saying “I know that was hard and I thank you for sharing your thoughts.” Husband expressed empathy as well. When he spoke, he acknowledged her by saying “It’s hard for me to share my thoughts now because I know how important this is to you.” Emotion is real and the collaborative process allows for its expression. Indeed, there will always be tissues on the table.
Mindfulness is a concept that has become part of mainstream American culture over the past decade. Hectic lifestyles, information overload and constant distractions have led more of us to look for a way to quiet our minds. In fact, many public schools, professional athletes, large corporations, and even the U. S. military, are using meditation exercises to reduce stress levels. Divorce is one of life’s most stressful experiences. Often much attention is focused on the past and the future, triggering both unpleasant memories and fearful expectations. As someone who knows first-hand the benefits of daily meditation, I see great value in using mindfulness principles in my Collaborative divorce practice. Starting the divorce conversation respectfully sets the tone for a more purposeful process. Awareness that the parties are often in different stages of divorce readiness is important. Becoming unmarried may be something that one spouse has contemplated for many years, while the other considers the marriage’s rough spots to be normal. Jointly exploring available divorce process options can also reduce fear and surprise. Processes emphasizing guided conversations between the parties, such as Collaborative divorce and mediation, reduce the likelihood of miscommunication and empower parties to achieve mutually acceptable solutions. Intentionally choosing the timing and method for divorce together establishes a calmer tone for the road ahead. Having patience during the process results in healthier outcomes. The strong urge to get things done as quickly as possible is understandable. It seems that the sooner the divorce can be finalized, the sooner life will return to normal. However, the decisions to be made are life changing with long-term impacts on the entire family. Trying to move too quickly can result in replacing one bad situation with another. Slowing down and accepting the divorce experience for what it is can allow for a deeper understanding of the issues involved. Acknowledging the good and the bad of the marriage without judgment provides valuable insight. Identifying each party’s contributions during the relationship can help the healing process begin. Recognizing one’s own part in the failure of the marriage can provide valuable insight for future relationships. Letting go of bitterness and regret is essential to moving forward in life. For divorcing couples with children, accepting “what is” allows them to redefine their relationship and communicate more effectively in the future. The ending of a marriage is, unfortunately, an all-too-common event. However, if done mindfully, divorce can be an opportunity for personal transformation and growth.
I recently viewed a TED video about the impact of divorce on children. Professor Tamara Afifi, a professor at the University of California Santa Barbara, presented the results of her research. Here are some of her findings: CONFLICT BETWEEN PARENTS, NOT DIVORCE, HARMS KIDS Conflict between parents during marriage can be more harmful to children than a divorce. The differences between children of divorced parents and parents who are still married are not that great. What makes a difference is whether the conflict between parents continues, whether they are divorced or still married. Children are hurt most by parents in conflict. DIFFERENCES IN DECADES The impact on children of divorce in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s has been different. In the 1970’s, there was a higher impact on children, which she attributes to the fact that divorces then were the result of bad marriages and more conflict. In the 1980’s, the impact was lower because people were divorcing for reasons having more to do with personal growth and self actualization. There may have been less conflict and better communication. In the 1990’s, the impact has been higher which she suggests was due to the closer relationship children had with their parents, communicating daily, and more involved in each other’s lives. Children became more involved in the divorce because they were generally more involved in their parents’ lives. NEED BOUNDARIES WITH YOUR CHILDREN There is a danger with this closer, more involved relationship between parents and their children. Children should not be burdened with their parents’ hurt or anger at the other parent or put into the role of messenger. One child described her mother as her “best friend” who asked her daughter for advice about an affair. Kids shouldn’t have to deal with this. A child shouldn’t be asked to “remind your mom” or asked “why doesn’t your dad tell me” about something. This puts them in the middle of the conflict or forces them to align with one parent. Establish boundaries about what is the adult conversation and what is the conversation with children about the divorce. AVOID HURTING YOUR CHILDREN DURING DIVORCE What can divorcing parents do to lessen the impact on their children? Work together on a co-parenting plan which redefines your roles following the divorce, work with a child specialist to establish the boundaries between adult and child issues in the divorce, improve your communication with each other, defuse emotions, and refuse to engage in bad mouthing the other parent. In the collaborative divorce process, child specialists and coaches can help you in all of these areas.
Collaborative divorce is often considered the “respectful way to divorce.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that the divorce is always amicable (although it can be), it means the divorce is done with grace and courtesy. Here are some (of the many) ways in which collaborative divorce can be respectful.
- Cooperation. Resolutions are reached through cooperation and collaboration. Confrontation is inefficient and usually ineffective – it is therefore not a part of this process.
- Honesty. All information is gathered in collaborative divorce through voluntary, complete, and good faith processes. Clients and professionals work together to make sure everyone has all the information needed to make decisions in their own best interest.
- Input. In a collaborative divorce, all voices are valued and heard. Even if it is hard for a client to express their feelings or thoughts on elements of the divorce, the opinion of everyone is valued. Collaborative professionals help ensure this input.
- Creativity. In collaborative divorce, we know there are no one-size-fits all resolutions. We work together to come up with complete and unique outcomes that fit clients’ lives moving forward.
- Support. Clients are not alone in the collaborative process. Every client has legal support with an attorney. Clients can also have neutral financial and parenting specialists as needed. Mental health professionals are also available in the process to help with the communication and emotional challenges of divorce.
- Values. Collaborative divorce starts with development of goals. All the work and resolutions go towards meeting these goals. Clients’ values and interests are key to the process.
- Health. Divorce ends with a future beginning. The collaborative process keeps the overall health and well-being of the couple and the children at the forefront. That health is a focus throughout the process and moving forward.
The popular media makes a healthy profit on promoting disaster, and casting everything possible in the language of disaster. “Shocking!” and “Horrifying!” are two words we see all too often. Regarding divorce, the popular media has created disaster myths around such topics as: failure of children (depression, suicide, academic failure, juvenile delinquency), financial failure, higher divorce statistics, etc. What is the truth? To begin with, the United States divorce rate among the general population has been misinterpreted and exaggerated – it is not 50% and growing, and may in fact be 40% or less. Rates are even lower among college educated couples in the United States and may be less than 30%! This means that the chance for marital success in a second marriage may much higher than you think, especially if college education is factored in. Hollywood celebrities and other limited criteria skew the divorce statistics quoted by the media. With respect to children, there are few long-term studies about the impact of divorce (specifically, 3 studies in the United States), and they do not determine disaster for children. The most recent studies indicate that it is the level of marital conflict – NOT divorce – which spells failure for children. What are the factors which can impact children in a positive way? These studies seem to point to two major protective factors:
- Not using the children as message carriers between parents
- Giving the children permission to love both parents, wherever they go in life.
Compassion overruled a machine gun this week. The actions of one courageous school clerk at a Georgia elementary school saved countless lives. The skills she demonstrated in convincing a desperate man to put down his weapons can teach all of us how to resolve conflicts. Most of us will (thankfully) never face a conflict as intense as Antoinette Tuff. Tuff is the school office worker at Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy whose actions on Tuesday stopped a shooter armed with a machine gun and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. On the 911 recording that was released, we can hear the remarkable way Tuff worked with the gunman. Three things stood out to me as valuable skills for peacefully resolving conflict. Connection. Tuff talked with the shooter, and connected with him. She stayed calm, and worked to understand what was happening for him and what he needed. When the shooter steps outside at the beginning and fires at police, she could have run or hidden. But she stayed and kept working with him. She relays messages to the 911 dispatcher and asks the shooter respectfully, “Now what did you want me to tell her, sir?” I imagine he felt understood and respected by Tuff, which calmed him down. Vulnerability. Tuff was willing to open up and share her own stories of struggling in life. She told him how she had gone through a difficult divorce and had even been suicidal before. She offered him hope by letting him know that she made it through her difficult times. Her willingness to be vulnerable deepened the trust she created with the gunman. Compassion. As the time goes on and she learns more about the gunman’s struggles, she shifts into a more nurturing mode and even uses terms of affection with him. She reassures him that he hasn’t hurt anyone and he is doing the right thing by putting down his gun and surrendering. Her compassion is breathtaking: “We’re not going to hate you baby. Its a good thing that you’re giving up so we’re not going to hate you. . . . It’s gonna be all right, sweetie. I just want you to know that I love you, though, OK? And I’m proud of you. That’s a good thing. You’ve just given up. Don’t worry about it.” If Tuff can do those things when faced with a gun, then the rest of us can do the same in much more mundane situations. These are the skills we work to develop with our clients in Collaborative divorce practice. Divorce can bring out high conflict, but it doesn’t have to lead to emotional destruction. Following Tuff’s lead can bring peace.
Many people contemplate and give great thought to starting a divorce. A person considering divorce wonders about cost and timing and how to tell their spouse they want to initiate the process. Many attorneys talk about filing papers with the court to start a divorce or serving papers on the other spouse. People also think about how to tell the children or extended family members they want a divorce. Very few people think about how the divorce process ends. On the one hand, divorce ends with a Judgment from the Court granting the divorce. However, there are many emotional and relational endings to divorce as well. In collaborative divorce, after couples have respectfully worked together to come up with resolutions, the end of the divorce can take many forms. Here are some recent examples of how the collaborative divorce process can end:
- In a particularly challenging case with a lot of anger and distrust, Wife reached across the table at the end to shake her then ex-Husband’s hand. It took a lot of effort to make that gesture, but it was well received by Husband. Years later, Wife told her attorney that the day they signed papers and shook hands was the day they began healing their relationship. For their children’s sake, that handshake started some necessary changes in their relationship. Over time, their co-parenting relationship greatly improved.
- One couple hugged each other at the end of the process. They went out to have a drink together and toast their new beginnings.
- One client was overheard telling her attorney she was “going to miss her” and may need to stop by her office just to catch up. The attorney provided needed support and guidance through this difficult transition and it was hard for the client to say “good-bye” to that support at the end.
- A child specialist sent an email to both parents at the end of the divorce process. The child specialist congratulated the parents for working so hard to come up with resolutions that kept the children at the center of the process (and not in the middle). The child specialist specifically identified strengths and positive characteristics of both parents and their children. He wished them all well and offered to be an ongoing resource if needed. He entitled the email “The Beginning.”
Children of divorce can provide unique insights. I recently had a conversation with a young woman whose parents had divorced more than a decade ago, while she was still in her teens. Looking back, she said she appreciates some little (and not so little) things her parents have done since the divorce to make their divorce a “good divorce,” including:
- Continuing to use the words “mom” and “dad” when referring to the other parent.
- Recalling happy memories of the marriage and her childhood (not erasing the past).
- Welcoming updates about the other parent’s post-divorce life.
- Communicating directly with each other to plan family events, without putting the kids in the middle.
- Taking responsibility for their own individual happiness.
- Having the kind of relationship that allows your kids to relax at family events.
Professionals who work with divorcing couples know that it is rare for couples to be at the same place in terms of deciding whether the marriage needs to end. In almost every case, there is one spouse who has taken more time to think about the life of the marriage and how it may have become damaging to both parents and children. What are some tips for those who have given the subject a great deal of thought, and think the future could be brighter in two homes?
- Make sure your spouse knows that you have heard their own complaints. On a consistent basis, when they start to complain about your behavior, let them know you understand they are unhappy also, and that you want them to be happy as much as you want to be happy. Life is short, and going around in circles over what can’t be fixed is wasted time. It’s important to acknowledge with respect that you may not be able to meet each other’s needs, even if you were able to do so at one time.
- Do your research. Find ways to approach a potential divorce as positive as possible, and will not end in your family’s ruin. Collaborative Divorce is a professional team approach to solving family differences which focuses on creating the smartest solution possible – with an intentional financial plan, and parenting plan. Find a way to contain the amount of time you need to make decisions, to contain the cost and get the smartest solution possible for your family. Share the positive aspects of your research with your spouse.
- Find a safe place to talk. This may NOT be your kitchen table, or the local coffee shop. It may be in the office of a family specialist with the knowledge and skill to create a therapeutic setting for tough conversations. Talk with respected friends and colleagues who may know a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), Licensed Social Worker (LICSW), Psychologist (LP) or other mental health professional who understands the dynamics of family systems and has a positive, proven approach.
How do you turn a divorce process into a healing process? By envisioning your highest goals for what you want to accomplish during the divorce and after the divorce has ended. This is what happens in a Collaborative Divorce process. Unlike the traditional divorce process where the focus is often what happened in the past, the collaborative divorce process focuses on the future.
At the commencement of a collaborative divorce, the divorcing couple identify and share their vision for a healthy divorce and a healthy life after divorce. Here are some of the visions couples have shared with me in my work as a Collaborative Divorce attorney.Beth and Peter’s Vision Children
- For our children to see us co-parent with each other in a non-conflictive way.
- For us to live in close proximity to each other while raising our children.
- For us to live in stable environments while raising our children.
- For our children’s lifestyles to be affected as little as possible by our divorce within the resources available to us (e.g., emotionally and educationally; that we continue with the educational plans we have made for our children; that our children live in the same community).
- For our children to have as much stability and security in their lives as they require.
- For us to be fully involved with raising our children.
- For both households to be financially resilient.
- For us to develop independently in terms of financial security.
- To have the flexibility in one’s work schedule to be present with the children as their schedules require.
- For Beth to have the opportunity to explore educational, training, and other career opportunities with the goal of becoming financially independent.
- To respect the financial decisions made by us and our families, including the decision of Peter’s family to leave him money.
- For us to be in a co-parenting relationship our children can count on.
- For us to be respectful of each other into the future.
- For us to create a new, healthy family relationship with each other.
- For us to look back on this difficult time in our shared life and be proud of how we handled a time of conflict and communicate it to our children when the time is right.
- That we have confidence in the decisions we make.
- That we make a transition to a friendly relationship when completed with the collaborative divorce process.
- That we have a feeling of peace and resolution.
- That we have a positive financial outcome that meets both of our needs.
- That we both have financial security.
- That the emotional distress of the divorce is minimized.
- That we are able to promote cordial relationships with each other’s extended family and mutual friends.
- That we keep in mind the possibility that Erin will move out of the State.
- That the settlement take into consideration Erin’s need to finish school.
- That Matt is able to remain in the homestead and maintain a reasonable budget.
- That Erin is able to purchase a modest home and meet her living expenses.
- For our children not to feel divided.
- For our children to feel comfortable with both of us.
- For us to convey a sense of harmony to our children.
- To have financial security for both of us.
- To get along with each other after the divorce; to have mutual respect for each other; and to have a pleasant relationship.