CounselingAs a Collaborative Divorce Attorney, I have seen many clients who are ambivalent about getting a divorce. How do I know they are ambivalent? Because, in addition to the story they tell me, I ask potential clients to take the following survey: Even though divorce is a legal process, your emotions and your perspective on divorce, and those of your spouse, are very important and cannot be separated from the legal process. To assist me in beginning to understand your views about proceeding with divorce, please answer the following questions. 1.  People have different attitudes towards their divorce. Please check which of these statements most closely fits your own attitude right now.

(   )       I’m done with this marriage; it’s too late now even if my spouse were                            to make major changes.

(   )       I have mixed feelings about the divorce; sometimes I think it’s a good                          idea and sometimes I’m not sure. (   )       I would consider reconciling if my spouse got serious about making                               major changes. (   )       I don’t want this divorce, and I would work hard to get us back together. 2.  Readiness for Divorce People come to the divorce process with different degrees of readiness to divorce. Some may not want the divorce and are not emotionally prepared to participate in the process, while others have been ready for some time and feel impatient to get things moving. And there is a wide range of feelings in between. Please rate yourself on the scale below by circling the number that best describes your readiness for divorce today.   0        1         2         3         4        5        6        7        8         9         10 _________________________________________________________ I’m absolutely not                                                          I’m ready to move                           ready for this divorce                                                    forward immediately This survey was created by a group of collaborative divorce attorneys working with Dr. William Doherty of the University of Minnesota. After giving this survey to people whose divorces had already been filed in court (Hennepin County, Minnesota), it was determined that in 12.6% of the filed divorce cases both spouses in the marriage were not sure they wanted the divorce! This led to the recognition that there was a failure to provide services to this group of people. That has now been corrected. Couples who are ambivalent about divorce can now gain clarity about whether to move forward with a divorce or to move forward with a plan to restore the marriage to health. This clarity is achieved through specialized counseling called Discernment Counseling. Discernment Counseling is a focused, short-term process involving no more than 4 to 6 sessions. A Discernment Counselor helps the couple…
  1. gain clarity and confidence about what steps to take next with their marriage;
  2. understand what has happened to their marriage;
  3. look at problems from the perspective of each spouse;
  4. determine whether past counseling has been helpful or not so helpful;
  5. evaluate the possibility of solving their problems and restoring their marriage to health; and
  6. make a joint decision about whether or not to move towards divorce.
The clients I see who are ambivalent about divorce are greatly relieved to know this service exists. It provides them with a structured process where both parties can join in the decision of what to do about the marriage. If the couple decides to try to restore the marriage to health, they move to specialized counseling to create a plan for that to happen. If the couple decides to end the marriage, they are in a much better place to undertake a constructive and peaceful divorce. For more information about Discernment Counseling and to find a Discernment Counselor please go to and
Trust The “Rule of Relationship” is one of the most powerful forces in our lives. Often we are not even aware of its existence. In a divorce, it can be more powerful than the rule of law. Here is how it works. Let’s assume you and your spouse are separated but you do not have any legal document regulating your separation or parenting. You have informally agreed to share weekends with the children and you pick the children up from your spouse’s home of Friday, promising to return them by 6:00 p.m. on Sunday. What if you decide not to return the children at that time? You will not have broken any law since there is no divorce or court order. Yet the consequences of your decision may be even more severe than any punishment a court could order as you have violated the “Rule of Relationship.” You may have damaged trust in a manner that could be very difficult to repair. Maintaining some level of trust is crucial in almost all situations. It is tempting to think that, in a divorce, there is no trust. Indeed, your spouse may even have been unfaithful causing you to believe that all trust is lost. But, in reality, there is almost always some degree of trust that exists in any relationship. If you literally had no trust at all, you would not ever allow your spouse to even be in the presence of your children, since you need to trust them to provide for their well being and safety, for at least some portion of their week. Despite the broken promises that can give rise to a divorce, most people are able to find a way to retain some basic level of trust, out of necessity and concern for their children. Trust is generally regulated by the “Rule of Relationship” and not by laws. Trust can only be created or lost through behavior. When it comes to regulating day to day behavior no court or government, no matter how well intended, can intervene on a daily basis to address these difficult situations. Parents are often left with their own laws, the Rule of Relationship,” to help them parent their children and regulate their lives. That is one of the reasons more and more parents are choosing out of court solutions, such as Collaborative Practice, to help them resolve their issues out of court. Working parenting issues out of court, where the laws of relationship and responsibility can help rebuild trust, can help your parenting plan go more smoothly and gives your children a true role model for developing trust in their lives.
1979 CONCORD JAZZ FESTIVAL. Don Menza with The Louie Bellson Orchestra. by Gabriel Patrick NavarroStu Webb, who thought about collaborative divorce first in the early 1990’s, and is considered the founder of collaborative law, loves jazz. So do I. I listened to my 9th year of fabulous jazz music at the Detroit International Jazz Festival over Labor Day weekend, and also listen to jazz at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis. I have also been healed by a medical team at the Mayo Clinic in the 1980’s. I see a link between these practices –it’s collaboration. What makes collaborative team divorce like jazz and team medical practice? 1) Specialized trained professionals who bring unique skills to the team. In collaborative practice, the mental health professionals, financial professionals, and attorneys all have received unique training and experience. Jazz musicians–singers, sax players, trumpeters, drummers and others have all been trained in their own instruments. In the medical model, doctors specialize in different areas, nurses, and technicians have unique expertise. 2) The added value of collaboration by a team. Their unique skills and voices coming together give an added value, advice and music that could not happen without all of them together. For me, the Mayo medical model diagnosed a problem that required a detailed history of my several generation’s family medical history, plus specialists’ expertise and brainstorming together. Also, creative experiment with my diet (this was the 1980’s when diet and nutrition were not generally regarded as a mainstream medical approach). 3) Improvisation and creativity. Jazz musicians improvise, connect and play off each other in ways that could not happen with orchestrated works or solo compositions. Collaborative practitioners improvise based upon the immediate needs and realities of the families and children, and listen to the other professionals, connect with them, and create new options for the family. Medical teams creatively experiment, in my case with my diet, and find new solutions to medical issues. This is the power and music of collaborative practice.
My previous posts have covered: Making the decision to get divorced and searching out the various processes on how to get divorced, including collaborative divorce.  From my way of thinking, which is not necessarily how anyone else might think, the next step for me was to talk with my spouse. So filled with my newfound knowledge about collaborative divorce this is what I proceeded to do. While I was hopeful we could agree to use the collaborative process, I also realized that getting both of us to agree on this would be one of my biggest challenges. I think we both felt certain about divorce, now it was how to accomplish it. I spoke with her one evening (we were still living in the same house) and discussed what I had learned about collaborative divorce. I had a couple of brochures (not attorney specific material) provided by the attorney I had decided to work with, along with a list of about 10-15 collaborative attorneys and their contact information. I talked about the benefits for both of us in using this process (see my last post). I encouraged her to look over the material and to speak with another collaborative attorney or several so she could make an informed choice. I was still hopeful after this discussion that she would agree to a collaborative divorce. In the back of my mind, I had some doubts simply because during our 30 some years of marriage, there were many times when we would not agree on what I thought were issues of significant importance. A few days later my former spouse told me she had contacted another attorney, not one of the several listed as collaborative attorneys. She told me that this attorney recommended against a collaborative divorce, stating it was not necessarily less expensive or less stressful. It wasn’t until later when I found out she had talked to an attorney who was well known in family law circles as someone who vigorously opposed collaborative divorce due to the fact that if issues could not be settled, both of us would have to find different attorneys to represent us going forward. I wrote about this in a my previous post about collaborative divorce. What I liked about this feature was it put everyone, including attorneys, on the same side of the fence sharing the goal of reaching agreements without court. I ask you to think about this for a minute. The attorney I talked to did both traditional divorce litigation and collaborative divorce work. She could have recommended either.  My attorney recommended collaborative divorce after listening to my desired goals. The attorney my spouse talked with only did traditional litigation divorce, and so what do you think she was going to recommend. Did that attorney talk with my spouse about my spouse’s goals? Whose interests were being placed first? While the answer to this question seems clear to me, Go to my website and under “about us” click on the Collaborative Divorce Knowledge Kit. Especially look at page 2, outlining the differences between collaborative and litigation processes. I’ll let you decide for yourself which process places your interests first. It wasn’t until later, well into the divorce process, I found out this attorney had a reputation for contentious litigation, driving up costs for legal fees, and stretching out the time it took to get divorced. My spouse ended up hiring this attorney. It was my worst nightmare. Of all the attorney’s she could have hired she chose this one. Oddly, this should not have come as a surprise to me, and looking back now, maybe it didn’t. But it sure was a huge disappointment, to say the least. Hindsight being 20/20, if I were to go back and do something different, it would be to have asked my spouse to attend a meeting with a collaboratively trained coach. In most cases this would be a mental health professional, (not a therapist) and me together to further explore the benefits of a collaborative divorce vs. a traditional divorce and our own individual and joint goals for this process. While I have doubts my spouse would have attended such a meeting, since she had previously declined to participate in marital counseling, I wish I would have known at the time to ask for such a meeting. My advice to any divorcing couple is to take advantage of utilizing a collaborative coach even when exploring divorce options. I wish I had. But always remember it takes two to effectively collaborate. In my next post of “Getting Unmarried” before I get into my actual divorce process experience, I’ll talk a little more about choosing an attorney.
Dog, Jack
It turns out that dogs are great teachers about relationships. My dog recently taught me that I cannot get him (or anyone else) to do something simply by being right. Being right will not get you what you want in a relationship, and may even drive a deeper wedge between you and what you want. Our family recently adopted Jack from the Humane Society in St. Paul. Jack is a sweet, somewhat shy, dog who started his journey in Alabama. I think about Jack spending time in a shelter in Alabama and then riding in a kennel for the long drive to Minnesota–multiple kennels, surrounded by unknown dogs, poked and examined by well-meaning vets and volunteers and then coming to a new house with new people. So Jack was living a high stress life for at least the two weeks before he came into our lives. One night during his first week with us, I took him outside to pee before bed. Jack had been outside several times that day, but he hadn’t peed. I needed him to pee so we could sleep through the night. Jack was skittish, and easily distracted. Just as I thought he was going to go, a dog in a neighboring house started barking and Jack moved out of position.  He pulled on the leash and wanted to go back inside. I knew the right thing for Jack. He would feel much more comfortable all night if he just peed. I bet 10 out of 10 people on the street would agree with me. After 12+ hours, peeing is a good idea. I was tired, and I was worried about him. I became impatient. My voice took on an edge as I got more and more frustrated that he would not do what I was asking. I was right, after all. But it didn’t matter to Jack. My frustration, impatience and insistence only made him more stressed. And less likely to pee. What Jack needed was a way to reduce his stress. Staking out the factually correct position and insisting did not help Jack reduce his stress. This is true for anyone in a relationship. Couples going through a divorce sometimes get hung up on being “right,” but that’s not going to lead to an agreement if the other person is stressed out.  Sometimes you have to back off and let the other person relax and reach their own conclusion. We work very hard to minimize stress for everyone in the collaborative divorce process.  It helps people reach durable agreements. Jack never peed that night. The next morning, we were both refreshed, the sun was shining and I sat back and let Jack take his time. He peed, and we were both happy.
There is a very funny video making the rounds that shows a woman talking to her husband about this mysterious pain in the middle of her forehead.  Early in the video we are shown that the pain is being caused by a nail in her forehead. When the husband gently tries to point this out, the woman becomes upset with him for “refusing to listen” and for always “trying to solve the problem.” The video is really very funny. It is sure to make you laugh; and might even drive home a point. There are several insights to be drawn from this video. I like to focus on this very simple one:  Sometimes the causes of our seemingly complex problems are so plain that we need only to look in the mirror. Things that have become complex in our minds are quite obvious to those around us and, if we step back, could become obvious to us as well. I work with divorcing couples every day who struggle to find their way through difficult issues. While divorce can, of course, present complex issues the bigger challenge is that the emotions surrounding the divorce can be so intense that even simple solutions can seem elusive. During these painful experiences, our minds can so easily fixate on what other people could do to make things better. Most of my clients are quite skilled at identifying the ways that their spouse could improve their behavior. While their observations may be accurate (at least in part), changing a spouse’s behavior is often beyond our control. Yet, our power to change other things; our own behavior, our attitude, or our ability to accept what is happening in our lives, can often be quite plain to see.  Sometimes it is as even as obvious as a nail in our forehead.
A recent article in the New York Times suggests that big-money divorces provide lessons for less-wealthy couples. Regardless of a couple’s income or net worth, several questions are common to most marriage dissolutions, including:
  • How can we create a parenting plan that will benefit our children?
  • How can we divide our assets fairly?
  • How can we maintain control of divorce costs?
The Collaborative divorce process uses a team model to provide the information and support necessary to allow couples to reach mutually satisfactory answers to these questions. As the New York Times article points out, Collaborative divorce “focuses on getting to a quick, fair resolution.” A thoughtful parenting plan consists of more than a schedule of overnights. A Collaborative child specialist can help parents craft a plan that addresses the individual and developmental needs of their children. Discussions often include such issues as the schools the children will attend, future relationships with extended family, introduction of significant others, and future moves by either parent. Sometimes parents can reach agreements regarding possible future events, but often it is sufficient to agree on a process for resolving future differences of opinion. Either way, including such agreements in the parenting plan can provide a framework for the years ahead. Similarly, achieving a fair division of assets can be challenging. A Collaborative financial professional can assist with collection of documentation, valuation of assets, and tax considerations. Once both parties understand the relevant information, they generate and evaluate various settlement options to determine the best arrangement for their family. While keeping the costs of divorce as reasonable as possible is a worthy goal, conflict is expensive. In litigation, each spouse hires their own experts, often resulting in extreme positions, elevated emotions, and a sluggish process. Collaboratively trained neutral professionals, whose fees are shared by the parties, provide more expertise at a lower cost. Their neutrality also reduces the likelihood of impasse due to either spouse’s unrealistic expectations. If you are interested in learning more about the Collaborative process, please visit the Collaborative Law Institute of Minnesota website for more information.
Besides being a family law attorney, I am a divorced mother of a teenager. My daughter was 9 when her dad and I separated. Parenting is not for the faint of heart, even with a great kid. I cherish the fact that I have a strong co-parenting relationship with my daughter’s father as we celebrate the successes and face the challenges of launching a young woman into independence. So it bothers me when I see divorced women torpedoing the co-parenting relationship. I don’t seem to attract these kind of women as my clients, but I meet them socially or hear the stories from others (None of the moms below were my clients). The following is my advice to those women, because I have lived it.
1.  Stop calling yourself a “single mother.”   Unless your child’s father died or has no involvement in your child’s life, your child still has a dad. Calling yourself a single mom marginalizes dad. I know of a mom who sent dad a copy of the registration form for summer camp, since dad was paying half the cost of extra-curricular activities.  Mom put her name and contact information on the form and drew a line through the section for the other parent. Even if you have sole custody, respect the fact that your child has two parents. 2.  Communicate, communicate, communicate. Dads need to know what is going on with kids when they are at mom’s home, and vice versa. I know of a dad who reached out to mom to discuss how to handle a power struggle.  Mom responded by saying, “That’s between you and [daughter]. You have to figure it out on your own.” I wonder if mom would have said the same thing to a teacher asking for input. This isn’t a test where comparing answers is cheating. This is your kid’s life. And don’t forget there will likely be a time in the future where you are struggling to find the answer to a parenting dilemma. It is a relief and a blessing to have a co-parent when that happens. 3.  Communicate doesn’t mean micro-manage. The flip side is the mom who is hyper-vigilant and second-guesses every decision, monitoring every meal and activity. I know a mom who was critical because dad ate out at restaurants too much. Give yourself permission to let go of the small stuff.
When my daughter was younger, she was on a soccer team but was tired of going to practices. She was at my house and was supposed to be picked up in the carpool.  What I didn’t realize is that she texted her friend and said she wasn’t going to practice, and then she left the house and re-entered through the egress window in the basement. I found her hiding out in the basement. It was a relief to be able to call her dad and have a unified approach to dealing with honesty, and to also re-assess soccer as an activity for her. Unless there are domestic violence issues, do whatever you can to nurture a parent partnership. Let go of competition with dad.  Let go of anger towards dad. Let go of perfection. Trust me, life is so much better, for your kids and for you, when you have a co-parent.
Blue Jasmine MovieI recently saw the new Woody Allen film, Blue Jasmine. It stars Cate Blanchett and Alec Baldwin as a couple who live the high life and then the low life following divorce. The story line and themes in this movie seemed true to me based on my work with many divorcing couples, not just those who are wealthy. There were the underlying issues in the marriage–the husband’s cheating, both with sexual affairs and financial fraud, and the wife’s complicity through passivity and claimed ignorance (although she knows more than appears). There was denial by both of the problems, which included mental health and drinking issues. For the wife in this movie, her loss of self and identity following the separation and divorce was shattering and, in the end, her emotional choice to revenge resulted in enormous cost and loss to both of them. I am not saying that all divorces follow all of these themes in this movie. Like an opera, the movie highlights some dramatic truths about human nature and patterns in relationships. One pattern is that problems during the marriage which have not been addressed can pop up and control the divorce process, sabotaging efforts to reach a settlement. This doesn’t mean that a couple has to “fix” all the troubles leading up to the divorce, but could require acknowledgement of the problems and work toward a future that addresses the realities of their situation. So, for the couple in Blue Jasmine, it would be addressing the mental health needs and possible alcoholism treatment for one or both, college education for wife, and a top notch criminal defense attorney for husband. The instinct for revenge, which often causes hurt to both in the divorce, can be defused in a collaborative divorce process which focuses on the collective outcome for the family as a whole. In Blue Jasmine, that would include the outcome for their son, who was hurt by the divorce, and for the parents.
hugDivorce is never truly good. But a bad divorce can create many years of devastation.  If you have a friend or family member approaching divorce it can be difficult to watch the economic and emotional turmoil unfold, particularly if there are children involved.  As a friend, or a family member, you want to help; but can you? In my 30 years as a divorce lawyer, I have seen how friends and family members can provide much needed support and comfort that has helped my divorce clients get through this process in a much healthier way. At the same time, I have often watched well meaning friends and family members give my clients advice that actually made the divorce more adversarial. If you know someone who is going through divorce and want to help, here are five things to consider.
  1. Encourage them to seek counseling, if appropriate. Whether they are trying to save the marriage or simply manage the emotional turmoil and grief during this difficult time, a good counselor can be even more important than a divorce attorney. They will soon be making some of the most important decisions in their lives during a time in which their sense of reason and judgment may be impaired by emotions. Getting help with the emotional and psychological aspect of divorce is crucial.
  2. Give them support and encouragement; but not legal advice. If you have been through a divorce, or have experienced the divorce of close friends, you may be tempted to advise others based on your observed experience. This advice, though well intended, can often be quite harmful.
  3.  Encourage them to truly research their options. Most people rush into divorce without truly understanding their choices.  As  result they often choose a method that is not the best alternative for their family.
  4.  Help them understand that civility is not weakness.  Divorce can create fear and anger that tempt people to seek “a pound of flesh.” Few families can emerge from an adversarial divorce unscathed. Help them understand that resolving their divorce in a civil and respectful manner can actually get them a better outcome.
  5.  Avoid demonizing the spouse. Divorce often creates a delusional reality that causes people to see their spouse in a very negative light. Accepting  your friend’s emotionally impacted negative view off their spouse can even seem like the “supportive thing to do.” Usually it simply adds to the misperceptions that make future co-parenting more difficult.
People facing divorce need emotional support and friendship as much as they need professional help. If you can provide that support, without giving into the temptations to do more, you will be doing your friend or family member a great service.