Have you ever wondered about how to do something that felt daunting but maybe not super complicated (baking a perfect soufflé, building a patio, learning to golf) and decided to follow the advice to “Just look on YouTube!” So you find several videos on YouTube, select the one in your language, and set off to do this thing on your own. How difficult could it be? The Catch: It’s generally harder than it looks on YouTube Those demonstrations are done by people with lots of experience and expertise, who make it seem effortless. And this will be the first time you’re doing this. Perhaps all will go well, but if it does not, your understandable reactions could include: “Why didn’t anybody tell me soufflés need different baking times and temperatures at different altitudes! How many times will I have to experiment to get this right?” “What am I supposed to do now? I hit a big tree root while digging the patio foundation?” “Golf has a lot of moving parts! I really do need lessons.” Because we don’t know what we don’t know, getting the right kind of specialized or expert help at the beginning of a project can be very valuable, can save time and expense and will help prevent frustration and anxiety. What Does this Have to do with Divorce? When ending a marriage, many couples hope to minimize conflict, expense and time by choosing an uncontested divorce process. These range from DIY divorces using down-loadable forms to hiring professionals who do alternative or out-of-court dispute resolution. I am one of those professionals, a neutral child specialist who assists parents and children in a variety of ways during the transition from marriage to getting unmarried. Though I can work with any process, I often work on Collaborative Practice teams offering respectful, out of court, problem solving support for the legal, financial, relationship and parenting issues that are part of a divorce. Those of us doing this work know that there can be complications, unexpected issues, lots of moving parts, and pieces of information not necessarily available to the general public about how laws work. We especially like to help families at the beginning, to set people up for success. I know there are many couples who do not need or want professional services to have a respectful and equitable divorce, and I wish them all the best! But if it becomes more complicated than it appeared on YouTube, please do not hesitate to call.
While researching for this post, I came across a number of divorce-related blogs. The blog medium provides an efficient and concise opportunity to share information and educate the public. This blog focuses on the collaborative process — where clients commit to an out-of-court, non–adversarial process. Here are some other blogs that may provide additional information as you navigate the divorce process:
- Jeff Landers writes in Forbes Magazine about complex financial issues that women face in divorce. He is a Certified Divorce Financial Planner who has extensive experience with high asset divorces. His blog is informative and financially savvy.
- Divorced Girl Smiling is a personal blog written by a woman during – and now after her divorce. It is a personal account of her experience, as well as a gathering of resources for others who may be going through the same thing. The archived blogs provide a great path through the litigation process, and provides some insight into why a non-adversarial approach may be better.
In an election year, we are exposed to an abundance of rhetoric. As candidates debate and advertise to convince people to vote for them, I listen for words reflecting respect, dignity, the ability to listen deeply and the capacity to work effectively with those who may hold different beliefs. High conflict resulting in governmental gridlock puts people at risk, especially those who are most vulnerable. Yet listening to potential leaders, I hear repeated versions of “I will never compromise.” Though this may be intended to project strength and resolution, does it not also sound rigid and contentious? What human values does this type of rhetoric represent? How expensive in time, money and emotional resources does endless gridlock become for the people depending on resolution? Divorcing parents are faced with the necessity to make many decisions affecting the future of their family. Their children are the most vulnerable family members, counting on their parents to work things out. What happens to children when their parents disagree and then refuse to compromise? When parents become rigid and disrespectful of each other, how does the ensuing gridlock impact their children? How expensive in time, money and emotional resources does this process become? Collaborative Practice is a method of alternative dispute resolution incorporating the values of respect, honesty and fairness. From the beginning of the process, clients are supported by their attorneys and by neutral professionals on their team to engage in interest-based negotiation to ensure both parents’ true concerns are heard, rather than positional negotiation that can easily lead to heightened conflict and expensive gridlock. For more information about how Collaborative Practice might work for your family, please check out the website of the Collaborative Law Institute of Minnesota.
In the Twin Cities, many family law attorneys offer a free consultation to learn about your options. This is a time to meet your potential new attorney and ask your questions. The consultation can serve three main purposes. First, you can learn about your divorce options. There are four general processes for divorce:
- pro se/unrepresented where you go through the process without legal guidance;
- mediation where a neutral third party helps you come up with the agreements;
- collaborative divorce where both parties commit to a respectful out of court process with lawyers and other professionals guiding the process; and
- litigation, the court-based traditional process. A good consultation should educate you on all of these options.
An amicable separation and divorce can sometimes become strained when new relationships start. New significant others often cause new emotional reactions that can subsequently impact parenting. In order to preemptively address the problems that can arise when new relationships start, in collaborative divorce, we often come up with parameters to address significant others. Here are some potential options to consider when thinking about agreements on significant others. Any or all may be included in a parenting plan.
- One option is to not allow the children to be introduced to any significant others without agreement of the other parent.
- Sometimes parents like to have a period of time (such as six months or one year) after the divorce is final when no significant other shall be introduced to the children.
- An introduction to a significant other may only occur when a neutral parenting expert (such as a child specialist in the collaborative divorce process) recommends that it is appropriate to do so.
- Parents often keep some aspirational language in the decree such as: “Both parents understand that it is in the best interest of the children to support the children’s relationship with any long-term significant other of the other parent and shall make all reasonable efforts to do so.”
0In his book The Four Agreements, author Don Miguel Ruiz articulates four principles which, when regularly practiced, will enable people to avoid conflict and live a peaceful life. The agreements one makes with oneself are: 1. I will be impeccable with my word. 2. I will not personalize anything another person says, does, thinks or believes. 3. I will make no assumptions. 4. I will do my best today. I teach my Collaborative clients about The Four Agreements and encourage them to read the book while we are creating their parenting plan. I help them recognize when their words or actions contradict an Agreement and get in the way of problem solving. I believe these are core concepts not only for effective interest-based negotiation, but for living a centered life. One of the most difficult agreements to follow is not making assumptions. When two people live together in intimate circumstances, they pick up many cues about each other. Humans are wired to read cues and reach conclusions. Problems can arise if the conclusions are inaccurate or incomplete, especially if the conclusions are not checked out with the other person. This is especially the case when people are in conflict and already feeling mistrustful of each other, as is so often the case with divorce. In a recent client meeting while discussing a sensitive co-parenting issue, I observed both parents making assumptions, and then getting into an argument about their assumptions. One parent assumed the other had become too absorbed with his own needs and was not taking steps to monitor their middle school-aged son’s homework and school progress during his parenting time. The other parent assumed the first parent had made disparaging remarks about him to their son during her parenting time. Both were responding to their son’s recent drop in grades and negative attitude. By making assumptions instead of asking questions, parents entered into a blame game that only served to escalate tensions and distract them from effectively understanding and addressing their son’s difficulties. When I was able to talk with their son, I learned he was feeling overwhelmed by the demands of taking three honors courses while also dealing with the stress of the divorce and being on an elite soccer team (which he loved). He felt he was letting his parents down, especially his dad, and this made him edgy and irritable. With this feedback, parents were able to move away from their inaccurate assumptions, reframe their understanding of their son’s behaviors and, as co-parents, take appropriate steps to help reduce his stress.
Today I met with two very attuned and caring parents who have, after many efforts at repair, made the decision to end their marriage. Topmost on their list of concerns was the impact their divorce might have on their children, specifically that the decision to divorce might result in their children losing hope for the future. I have so much empathy for parents burdened with worry about the painful crisis their divorce might create for their children. It is important to keep in perspective that it is entirely possible to keep the emotional crisis of divorce from ever becoming a trauma for children. Crises are difficult turning points, but inherent in a crisis is the potential for healing. Traumas inflict deep wounds and can derail healthy development in children. In addition, the effects of trauma will reverberate across generations unless repaired. Two negative potential consequences of divorce can be especially traumatic for children, especially those who have secure attachments to both parents: 1. that the conflict between their parents never resolves, and children are perpetually kept in the middle of that conflict; and 2. that a parent’s contact with their children is so limited after the divorce that the children feel abandoned (or as one child sadly told me, “I didn’t know I would be divorced too”). How parents choose to divorce is key. Any process that supports parents’ ability to maintain loving focus on the needs of their children is valuable for many reasons. For the parents themselves, it helps to set the stage for the transition to effective co-parenting. Respectful co-parenting creates the environment in which children can be resilient and thrive. A child-centered divorce process can also have immediate benefits for children in the following ways: children will likely be more calm and centered when there is a tone of respect rather than acrimony between their parents during the divorce; it benefits children when they can experience predictability and lack of drama during an already uncertain time; children are kept out of the dangerous middle of adult-level discussions and conflict; children feel safer and are soothed when parents begin to co-parent effectively. Collaborative Practice is one way to create a child-centered divorce process. For more information, please visit the Collaborative Law Institute of Minnesota website.
In”The Importance of Attachment: Part I“, I outlined the key developmental value of a secure attachment relationship between a child and a parent. Secure attachment is the foundation of resilience. Adverse life events, like a divorce, can be mastered by resilient children, especially if their secure attachments are not threatened by the divorce. As a Neutral Child Specialist, my goal is to make sure that the crisis of a divorce does not become a trauma for a child. I recently attended a workshop on the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI), a series of questions that allows researchers to understand how well an adult has integrated his or her own life experiences, both positive and adverse. Adults who have managed to integrate their experiences into a coherent narrative are considered securely attached. Unfortunately, according to a number of research studies, only about half of all adults have secure attachments as measured by the AAI. The remainder have not been able to integrate adverse experiences, and remain either highly anxious or disconnected from them. Some insecurely attached adults who were traumatized as children live in constant emotional chaos. Researchers speculate that the quality of adult attachment is related to how capable a person is to form an emotionally safe, committed and loving relationship with another adult. Numerous longitudinal research studies have discovered another impact of adult attachment. There is a very high level of correlation between how an adult responds on the AAI and the subsequent quality of attachment that adult is able to create with his or her own child. Compellingly, the life story a person tells on the AAI is a stronger predictor of quality of attachment with his or her child than actual observed parental behavior. In other words, the impact of emotional distress and trauma in childhood will reverberate across generations unless a parent gets the necessary support and healing to integrate his or her life into a coherent narrative. It is possible for adults to shift from insecurely attached to securely attached, but it requires the healing that comes from therapeutic relationships. Obviously the best way to ensure secure attachments for generations of children is to prevent trauma in their lives. Of all the reasons to select a divorce process that supports respectful and healthy resolutions and builds the foundation for effective co-parenting, it is the legacy of secure attachment that will be left for your children and future generations. Collaborative Practice is one such process.
Attachment is the term used to describe the emotional relationship between two people. The earliest and most significant attachment develops between an infant and his or her primary caregivers. This attachment is based on how consistently, accurately and soothingly the adult reads and responds to the cues of the baby Most infants form a secure attachment with their parents based on consistent and responsive care. The quality of the infant attachment relationship has lifelong implications for how a child develops into an adult. The human abilities to manage anxiety, show empathy, regulate anger, trust others and feel hope for the future all have their roots in this first attachment relationship. If a parent is unable to provide emotionally consistent care or is emotionally rejecting, the infant’s attachment relationship becomes insecure. If the care-giving is emotionally chaotic, the attachment becomes disorganized. Disorganized attachment has profound negative impacts on future development. Disorganized attachment history often has its roots in parental trauma. One life event that researchers link to parental trauma is their own childhood experience of a divorce with the elements of high conflict and/or abandonment by a parent. I often tell parents with whom I work that divorce is a life crisis that does not need to become a trauma for a child. A respectful, healthy divorce process that is child-centered or child-inclusive can help a securely attached child continue to feel safe. With effective co-parenting, these children can maintain secure attachments with both parents and continue to thrive after a divorce. This becomes the root source of children’s resilience. My next blog will focus on what we know about Adult Attachment and its implications for future generations. In the meantime, please learn more about the Collaborative child-centered and child-inclusive divorce process on the website for the Collaborative Law Institute of Minnesota.
In divorce many people hire attorneys with the hope of receiving what the law entitles them to receive. They focus on their rights and ask their lawyer to help them get what “the law” provides, perhaps believe that this is the best way to protect their interests. Most people don’t realize how focusing on the law and “rights” is setting the bar very low and on occasion, guarantees them that they will need to settle for the very minimum rather than trying to achieve their most important goals. Divorce laws are created to establish minimum standards for the government to apply if the family cannot come up with a solution on its own. For example, the child support guidelines give you an idea about the minimum amount that would be required for the support of your children if a judge is required to intervene. The property division that your lawyer tells you will be ordered under “the law” merely describes the minimum that the law will compel. The parenting schedule normally describes the minimum times that you must be allowed to see your children. Nevertheless, it is a curious aspect of divorce law that people often start out focusing on those minimums and do not stop to reflect on what might be possible. Striving for minimums is an unusual way to begin down any path, particularly with something as important as family relationships. Outside of divorce, few of us would ever think that we should provide only the minimum to our family members. We would rarely respond to needs of our children, or our spouse, or a parent or even an aunt or uncle for that matter, and say “what is the very minimum that the law would compel me to do?” To the contrary, faced with these situations outside of divorce, we would be drawn to think in terms of doing the right thing; doing the best we can do under the circumstances. Yet, as soon as we enter the divorce world, we automatically assume this “minimum only” mentality and we hire lawyers to fight over those minimums. No doubt some you are thinking that divorce is different because you are dealing with an ex spouse and that the rules of conscience and decency should not have the same sway as with a real family member. But is that really how it is? First of all, if there are children involved, it is difficult to enforce minimums without catching them in the crossfire. Because your children will live in the same house as your former spouse for a significant portion of their lives, there is no way to force your spouse to accept minimums without impacting your children, at least to a degree. In addition, is your spouse, the mother or father of your children, someone who can be immediately relegated to the role of non-relative and allow you to feel a complete indifference to their well-being, (or worse)? No doubt, many divorcing people have found ways to view of their ex spouse in this way. However, most people, once they get past the anger, fear or sadness, admit that they do not hold this complete indifference and, in fact, express real caring, and concern for their ex spouse. So, how do we shed the “minimums” mentality and approach divorce by setting the bar much higher? It will take more than one blog to cover the many different ways to create better settlements by appealing to higher standards. But here is a start. Go to www.collaborativelaw.org or to www.divorcechoice.com and find a divorce professional who speaks this language. You may be surprised by what is possible.