Divorce is a challenging and life-changing experience for all family members, and most divorcing parents worry about how their children will be affected in the short and long term. Because divorce is such a significant event for children, these concerns are understandable. As a neutral child specialist, when helping parents address their concerns, I encourage them to consider three guiding principles.

Guiding Principle #1: The crisis of divorce should never become a trauma for children. 

Although divorce will almost always be painful and difficult for children, it is entirely possible for parents to keep it from becoming traumatic. Children can be traumatized when trapped in an environment of high conflict, danger, abandonment or abuse. None of these words should describe a child’s experience of divorce.

Guiding Principle #2: Children must be kept in the center and out of the middle of their parents’ conflict.

It is understandable that divorcing parents will experience conflict with each other. It takes mindfulness and empathy for parents to set the kind of clear boundaries that keep their children from being drawn into the conflict. Being in the middle always impacts children negatively. It is toxic to use children as confidantes, ask them to take sides against the other parent or disparage the other parent in their presence. The decision to take the high road and not put children in the middle is one that parents will never regret.

Guiding Principle #3: There is such a thing as a good divorce for families.

Judith Wallerstein’s longitudinal research on the impact of divorce on children painted a bleak picture of negative, long term developmental, social, academic, emotional and behavioral effects. Wallerstein studied families who divorced in 1971, a time when family law was typically adversarial and divorce was socially stigmatized.  In 1994, Constance Ahrens wrote The Good Divorce: Keeping your Family Together when your Marriage is Falling Apart based on her own longitudinal study. Ahrens found that when divorced parents could reduce conflict, communicate effectively, and co-parent cooperatively, their children did not experience long term adverse effects.

These children continued to feel a reassuring sense of family, transformed from under one roof to under two. With the right kind of personal and professional support, parents can make a healthy transition from a divorced couple to effective co-parents. Making this transition successfully makes a huge difference in the quality of life for children.

Non-adversarial methods of divorce undoubtedly enhance parents’ ability to create child-centered outcomes. Since 1990, there has been a sea change in family law, including models of collaborative practice, mediation and cooperative divorce. When divorce must happen, choosing a child-centered divorce process is another decision that most parents will never regret. For more information on Collaborative Team Practice, please visit the website of the Collaborative Divorce Institute of Minnesota.

Jenny McCarthy 2012Recently, I was watching The View on ABC. The panel was discussing forgiveness when co-host Jenny McCarthy brought up how her views about her Ex had changed. She and her husband, John Asher, had a son, but apparently there were plenty of hard feelings attending the 2005 divorce. McCarthy described a change she recently went through concerning her child’s father. “I think when you have a child,” McCarthy said, “you create a soul contract.” She went on to explain the concept in terms of being there to provide what your child needs. And recently, she said she had started to view the man she had been married to much more as the father of their son, and much less as the former husband with whom she had been in conflict. She was able to love him again, in that parent role, because their son needed his parents to have regard for one another. What was even more impressive was that their son picked up on the change right away, and clearly appreciated it. That concept, that the relationship roles shift during and after divorce, is a hard one to internalize. It can be excruciating to cease regarding a person as an intimate partner (with its attendant pressure to run in the opposite direction) and simply regard a former spouse–and appreciate them–as the Other Parent of your children, but that’s often exactly what your children need.
Facebook is such a handy way to communicate what is going on in your life. It is a quick way to communicate life changes, events, accomplishments and information to people. And then people let you know they hear your news and can respond with a comment or message to you publically or privately or simply click “Like.” You know they heard your news! And chances are, you and your spouse are “Friends” of each other’s Facebook pages. So rather than telling the 200+ people you know individually that you are getting a divorce, whether by your choice or not, you can tell it once. CONVENIENT! PAIN-LESS! DONE! Oh, not so fast… So what does it mean when someone “Likes” your status update? Does that mean that your friend, mutual to you and your spouse, is happy for you? Are they loyal to you and not your spouse by clicking “Like?” Does your spouse find out you posted it because a friend comments on your status and types in your spouse’s name and then he or she sees all the comments and the fact that you have 50 “Likes?” Are your kids “Friends” of yours or your spouse? You know how the social network bleeds information. Do you post status updates about your divorce progress on Facebook? So what are some helpful rules to keep in mind when you are thinking Facebook and divorce? Because, what you say on Facebook will eventually get back to your spouse! Here are the Top 5 rules for Facebook in divorce: 1. Ask first. If you want to tell people via Facebook that you are getting a divorce, ask your spouse if he or she is okay with you posting that. 2. Have your spouse approve the message before posting. Once it is out there, you really can’t take it back. 3. Be up front with your friends. Tell your friends that you do not want them to “Like” the post, it is only for informational purposes and comments can be made privately. 4. Be kind in what you say. Don’t trash your spouse. And don’t post every step of progress in the divorce on your Facebook page. 5. Don’t post it on Facebook at all. Tell people directly in person, by phone or email. (Remember group email and “reply all”–not good) You are in charge of what information you share and maintaining a respectful divorce with your spouse. What you think is a “no big deal” can actually lead to a lot of conflict in divorce that could have been so easily prevented.  Ask yourself how you would feel if the message was posted about you. So think twice, and maybe thrice before you hit “Post.”
I just finished watching the documentary, Divorce Corp, and I have to admit that I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, as someone who has devoted his career to helping people understand that divorce should not occur in court, or even in the shadow of the courthouse, this movie may be a powerful tool in raising awareness of this very serious issue. On the other hand, as someone who feels dedicated to the truth and who feels a deep commitment to helping people fully understand their options in a fair and honorable manner, I bristled at some of the sensationalism and the broad generalizations made from some extreme examples. To the extent that the movie attempts to show that the problem with our family law system is that it is inundated with corrupt judges, greedy lawyers and dishonest custody evaluators, I need to state very clearly that I do not believe that to be true. Having worked in the family law system in Minnesota for more than 30 years, including two decades in court, I have found that the majority of judges, divorce lawyers and custody evaluators are honest people who care about children. Indeed, one of the reasons I strongly believe that the adversarial system does not work in resolving family issues, is that operating in the shadow of an adversarial system often damages families even when you have good people involved. There is much need for reform of our system and there is a strong need to raise awareness about the alternatives to court.  I had hoped that the movie would help people understand the existing alternatives to court rather than focusing almost exclusively on proposing legislative changes. To the credit of the movie makers, they did feature excellent commentary from two very credible peacemakers that I have come to know quite well. Woody Mosten and David Hoffman, two law professors who are worldwide leaders in mediation and Collaborative Practice, gave the movie producers valuable insights on how we can help families find a better way. While very few of those insights made it into the movie, the producers did release a trailer that discussed the benefits of mediation and Collaborative Practice as alternatives to court. An article by David Hoffman also does a good job summarizing many of the shortcomings of the film. As for the rest of the movie, I am recommending that people see the movie and draw their own conclusions. Even if you disagree with some of the exaggerations and proposed solutions, as I clearly did, it will at least get us all thinking and talking about this important issue. If you happen to be someone who is facing divorce, you should not emerge from this moving believing you will have found any answers or even a real grip on the truth of our family law system. Rather, my hope is that the movie will cause you to respect the important question about how to proceed with divorce so that you will seek out reliable information about all of your options. To learn more about Collaborative Law and other options that I believe are not clearly understood, go to www.collaborativelaw.org and www.divorcechoice.com.
Pre-K Graduation CeremonyDivorce lawyers, when trying to urge their clients to settle their divorce case and save fees, will sometimes point out that a costly divorce is, directly or indirectly, draining the college fund for their children. This is a stark reality that, on occasion, will cause clients to pause long enough to set aside some emotional issues in order to preserve their nest egg. I have found that comparing college savings to divorce savings can be helpful in other ways as well. In working with divorcing couples for more than 30 years, I am often very impressed by the enormous sacrifices that middle class Americans will make to assure that their children get a good college education. This seems to be so embedded into the American dream that is not unusual to see parents fund their children’s college education even if it means depleting all savings or incurring great debt. In many divorce cases, the college savings are the “sacred cow”, the last thing to be impinged upon, based on shared belief that “the children come first.” For the most part, this is incredibly admirable. College education, or other post-secondary opportunities, can truly make a difference for our children and watching parents sacrifice for the greater good generally seems like a good idea. However, during a divorce, the sacrifices made for post-college education needs to be compared to other family sacrifices. Many adult children, who have gone through college, as well as their parents’ divorce, claim that getting through their parents’ divorce was the bigger challenge. More important, it is often easy to see that the way their parents handled their divorce had an even greater impact on their future lives than whether they had to take out a student loan to cover a larger portion of their college education. It is easy to see why this would be true. Yet, it is a hard realization for parents to accept when they are asked to consider “investing” in their children’s divorce in a similar light to an investment in college. For example, in most cases we recommend that parents work with a child specialist during a divorce; someone who can make sure that we are truly hearing the needs of the children and who can guide the parents in creating and implementing a parenting plan that is truly in the best interest of their children. The investment in a child specialist generally ranges between $1,000 and $2,000, a relatively small investment when you consider what is at stake. Yet, I see many really good parents who balk at this investment, even while committing tens of thousands of dollars to make sure that their children are not overburdened by student loans. I get it, in a way. A college education seems like a more tangible thing and, if you have never been through a divorce or worked with a child specialist, it may be hard to envision the benefits of a child specialist in the same way. In truth, there are times in which working with the child specialist has only a slightly advantageous effect on co-parenting.  However, there are other times when the difference is life changing. And when you carefully consider what is at stake, I can usually, without hesitation, recommend that investment, even at the risk that it could (although not necessarily) add $120 to $200 per month to little Johnny’s student loan payments.
LuMaxArt GREYGUY014In a recent collaborative divorce case, we learned from the clients that a tax liability of about $60,000 would be owed if they did not get their divorce by the end of the year. It was only a few days before Christmas and past the informal deadline set by the court for submitting final documents for a 2013 divorce. Adding to the challenge, my client had just changed her mind about a key provision in the financial settlement. I had already prepared and circulated a draft of the agreement which had been reviewed by our clients and an expert who had helped them with planning and financial issues concerning their special needs child. Now it all seemed to be unraveling and I fought against the urge to find someone to blame and prove it wasn’t me (I bet these thoughts crossed the minds of the clients and others on the team). Instead, we got to work on the problems as a team. The attorneys met with the expert concerning the special needs child and reviewed her suggested changes, made phone calls to our clients for approval, and drafted the new changes into the agreement. The child specialist who had worked with the clients during the collaborative process reviewed the suggested changes and made adjustments in the parenting plan which would be part of the final legal document. We also had some preliminary conversations with our clients about the proposed change my client wanted in the financial settlement and shared our clients’ views. The proposed change concerned the timing of the sale of real estate and the neutral financial expert who had worked with us during the collaborative process had been contacted about this issue. We checked calendars with the clients and the financial neutral and scheduled a meeting–unfortunately, the husband’s attorney was not available at the only time which worked for the rest of the team and the clients. We agreed to meet and the attorney for the husband would be available during the meeting by phone and email. We also needed to get a judge assigned to our case. The Joint Petition, which had been prepared in the beginning of the collaborative process, was filed with the court, which got us an assigned judge. The attorneys discussed strategy and we agreed that the husband’s attorney would take the lead in the calls requesting an expedited court process. There were a number of complications, including the fact that the judge was leaving on vacation that day. I listened in on the calls and was happy to hear that the judge’s clerk, after consulting with the judge, agreed to email the agreement to the judge once it was filed and the judge agreed to review it while on vacation. We still needed a final agreement on the financial settlement. At the meeting the next day, the financial neutral took the lead and discussed the consequences of the proposed change, which would also affect the funding for education for their children. Options were considered and discussed. I was present at the meeting but had agreed on a ground rule with the other attorney that I would refer to her all questions of substance from her client. As we developed the terms of the final agreement, the substance was shared with that attorney in phone calls and emails. I prepared the final draft of the agreement with the new terms, the clients and attorneys (one by email) signed, and it was filed with the court that day after an all morning meeting. The judge signed the final document and the clients were divorced in 2013. The key reasons for our success in working through the challenges: 1) The clients and professionals focused on solving the problems rather than assigning blame for the problems. 2) Clients and professionals relied on the strengths and expertise of different members of the team. 3) Trust among professionals allowed for flexibility and candor in the process. 4) Clients kept uppermost in mind the big picture goals for the family as a whole.
MoneyMost divorce attorneys charge between $200 and $350 per hour. That fact could become a real obstacle in your divorce (and can even drive you a little crazy), unless you find ways to deal with it effectively. Here are some tips that I think will help you come to grips with this difficult reality. Take a Macro Look at the Hourly Fees.     Charging by the hour creates an enormous misconception about how a lawyer’s time is used. For example, if an attorney charges $285 per hour, it creates the impression that each hour they spend on behalf of clients is worth $285. Nothing could be further from the truth. When I look back on my cases, even the cases where I think my clients achieved a priceless outcome, I realize that many of the hours I spent on the case were not worth anything near that amount. Much of the time on the case is spent reviewing documents, listening to the client’s story about what has happened, describing the process to the client, going over ground rules, etc. Very likely, my client could find people to do some of those things for  $15.00 per hour. Those tasks, by themselves, have little value. On the other hand, when I look back on my most successful clients, the ones where clients made great decisions during their divorce, I realize that some of the moments that I spent with clients created a great deal of value for them. A tangible example might be a time when I, often in conjunction with the other team members on the case, came up with a creative financial solution that saved the clients thousands of dollars in future taxes or transaction costs. The work spent on developing that option may have been less than an hour or two but may have led to savings that were worth more than ten times my hourly rate. More significantly (and this is the most abstract part of our business), there are moments when the assistance of an attorney may be nearly priceless. When a client is struggling with the emotions of the divorce in a way that is causing them to mistreat their spouse and inadvertently harm their children, this may be when they need the most help from their “advocate.” A good divorce attorney can sometimes help them rethink what they are doing; sometimes in subtle ways, like truly listening to a client, helping them see the impact of their behavior, urging them to get the help they need to address emotional barriers, or simply making sure they understand their options. The impact of that work may not be obvious at the time, or even for many years. Yet, when they look back, the clients come to realize that certain decisions that they made, hopefully with skilled guidance from their attorney, helped them achieve a priceless outcome for their family.
Collaborative Attorney Carl Arnold had the opportunity to speak with experienced Neutral Child Specialist Deborah Clemmensen. Carl Arnold asked Deborah Clemmensen about her role as a Neutral Child Specialist and the conversation was recorded. The audio and the the transcript of the interview are available below. Interview with Deborah Clemmensen about the role of a Neutral Child Specialist. Begin transcript: My name is Carl Arnold, with Arnold Law and Mediation. I’m a Minnesota family law attorney and mediator and I’m here with Deborah Clemmensen. She’s a licensed psychologist and neutral child specialist. Carl: Hi Deborah. Deborah: Hi Carl. Carl: So, we’re here to talk with Deborah today about being a neutral child specialist and her services in that regard. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background in working with kids. Deborah:  I’m happy to. I’ve been a licensed psychologist since the late ’70’s and I’ve worked in schools and community mental health centers…and for the last 11 years, I’ve provided neutral child specialist services to help families have a child-inclusive, respectful process to developing parenting plans when they’re going through a divorce or breakup. It’s a very satisfying type of work. Carl: Well, let’s get right to it and say what is a neutral child specialist? How do you define that and what do you do? Deborah: Good question and I’ll tell you how I explain it to new clients and sometimes to the kids that I work with. Neutral means that I never appear in court, that I have the capacity to work with people in problem solving and interest based negotiation without having to be in court or testifying or doing any of the things that are involved with the court process. Child specialist means that I have a chance to work with everyone in the family and find out the point of view of all the folks who, not elders and pets, of course, but all the points of view of children and parents to understand what would be the most developmentally appropriate resolution for parents moving forward after their divorce or breakup. Carl: What is the benefit of this service compared to other ways that a family may go through a divorce or separation process? Deborah: Well, I am just a part of the divorce. I’m the parenting plan part of a divorce, so I can help people to create a road map for how they’re going to move forward as co-parents without having to be in any sort of adversarial process. I think the neutrality is a big help. We can get right down to business and problem solve and think about the developmental needs of children in the family. I think having it be child-inclusive means that kids get some support during a very difficult time. Divorce or breakup is a crisis for a family and to be able to provide kids with an opportunity to share their point of view, someone who’s listening, and to know that that’s going to be part of problem solving that their parents will do. Their parents will hear what I’ve learned from the kids. I think it helps kids to feel a little bit safer moving forward so that strategic support is very important. And I think that having a neutral look at what are the ages and stages of the kids and what do they have to say about how this could work best for them moving forward is invaluable. I have learned a ton from the kids that I’m working with. Carl:  What would be a typical step-by-step part of the process? How does it start? When does it start? What’s the first step and so on? Deborah:  Good question. I believe that having a child specialist on board from the very beginning can be helpful because we anchor the work in the developmental needs of the kids and what’s best for the family system. I like to work with parents from the very beginning. Many parents come to me with the question of how do I talk to my children, how to we talk to our children about what’s going to be happening to our family. I love to help parents create developmentally appropriate “we” statements that they can share with the kids to start that journey. My process begins with a joint meeting with parents and it’s focused on their kids, getting developmental histories, understanding what the parents’ concerns are moving forward and from that point, it sort of branches off based on the ages and stages of the kids. If the kids are in preschool, we might have a joint family playroom meeting just so I get to know the kids, experience them firsthand and provide that kind of support. We may, at that meeting, talk about what’s happening in the family and give them some grounding. I tell parents to describe me as the helper advocate for kids. If kids are school aged and older, then I do have a structured process: two meetings, one with the siblings together and one with each child independently and we do structured activities to help keep them at the center and out of the middle, to understand how they perceive family roles and functions. What are their hopes? What are their fears? How can we best be responsive? From that point, I do a feedback with parents. At that juncture, parents can decide if they would like to continue to work with me as a neutral child specialist to develop a parenting plan, which allows them to continue to think of themselves as parents making decisions, rather than people in a custody battle. We don’t use those labels. We talk in a different language that’s more family friendly. Carl:  So when people come to you, are they in the out-of-court processes like mediation or collaborative divorce or are they in court? How would you describe to people in what way do you relate to those processes? Deborah:  That’s another really good question. I would say the majority of the work I do is with collaborative teams. Collaborative being a type of alternative dispute resolution process that’s all outside of the court but works with teams of professionals – two attorneys, a neutral coach, a neutral financial person and a neutral child specialist – to all bring our skills to a very systematic and efficient way to help parents and families through this process. Some of my cases, though, come from other routes. I’ve worked with mediators in a team to do a child inclusive process for the parenting plan and I’ve worked with non-collaborative attorneys who believe, along with their clients, that this part of the divorce or the breakup really belongs outside of court, that if it can be done in a neutral setting, that that will set the stage for more positive co-parenting moving forward. Carl:  Where can people find out more information about your services for a neutral child specialist? Deborah:  I have a website. It’s www.deborahclemmensen.com and I go through that process in some detail so parents are prepared for what to expect coming in. I also have a web page on the Collaborative Law Institute of Minnesota website. That’s www.collaborativelaw.org. On that website, there are lists of professionals. I’m not the only person doing neutral child specialist work, so if folks were looking for someone in a particular geographic location, that would be an excellent resource to find a neutral child specialist. Carl:  Thanks a lot, Deborah. I appreciate having this conversation. Deborah:  It’s totally been my pleasure, Carl, thank you. Carl:  This has been Deborah Clemmensen, Licensed Psychologist and Neutral Child Specialist, and my name is Carl Arnold of Arnold Law and Mediation.

We were deep in the holidays, a time of love, a time of sharing, a time for forgiveness.  Heading home from work last week, I was brought up short by a stunning story of forgiveness that originated in the Twin Cities, and that begs the question, “What is really important to me?”

Recently, I’ve had to deal with questions such as, “Am I going to have to pay the capital gains on the property I was awarded?” or, “I don’t think it’s fair that I should have to pay more maintenance than $______,” or, “I want to know what she’s spending the child support on!” Mary Johnson, a Minneapolis mother, lost her son 20 years ago in a party fight that escalated into a murder. The man responsible, Oshea Israel, was sent to prison. In her StoryCorps interview with Oshea Israel, Mary talks about the change that happened when she visited Oshea in prison, a change which eventually allowed her to forgive him. She founded From Death to Life, an organization that supports mothers who have lost children to homicide, and encourages forgiveness between families of murderers and victims. I can’t help but wonder, when people complain about everything they’ve “lost” in their divorce, what they would say to Mary Johnson. And I wonder whether they’ll ever be able to forgive each other for fighting about the “stuff” and take the time to cherish their children. I think I know what Mary would tell them.
Telling your spouse you want to get a divorce may be the most difficult conversation you will ever have. The decisions you make during this critical time will affect you and your family for the rest of your life. While there are many things to consider, my view after working with divorcing families for 30 years, is that these three considerations are the most important. 1. Make sure you are doing the right thing. If you are unsure about whether divorce is your best option, make sure that you have fully explored all options. If you think counseling might work, take the time to find a counselor with experience and expertise in marriage saving. In addition, make sure you are aware that other divorce saving options, apart from counseling, that have been found to work, including programs like Retrouvaille, or programs offered through local churches and synagogues. 2. Make sure you understand all of your options before you move forward with the divorce. Divorce is no longer a “one-size fits all” process. Today there are many divorce process options and you owe it to yourself to find the option that will work best for your family.   Simply going to a traditional divorce attorney and starting a traditional divorce can be like going to a surgeon before you explore whether surgery is necessary. If possible, speak with professionals with knowledge and experience in all of the primary options, such as mediation and Collaborative Law, to make sure that you are getting accurate information about the choices available. To find professionals who can competently explain all options, go to www.divorcechoice.com and www.collaborativelaw.org. 3. Take some time to determine your most important goals.  One of the biggest mistakes people make when they are starting the divorce is to get locked into short-term thinking and ignore their real priorities. The sense of urgency in their current situation causes all of their attention to focus on putting out fires rather than achieving their most important goals. As a result, they look back on their divorce many years later wondering why things did not work out the way they had planned. To avoid that problem, take some time to really think about what will matter the most to you in your future life and make sure all of your divorce decisions focus on these important long term goals. It is never easy to think about ending a marriage. However, if you can focus on preserving what is most important in your life, you can make your future less difficult. Divorce is about the end of an important relationship and the beginning of a new life.  The decisions you make at the beginning will make a tremendous difference in the quality of that new life.