About 3 and a-half years ago, a family in the Collaborative Divorce process was working with the Neutral Child Specialist . It was stated by my client that dad’s alcohol use was the primary basis for her seeking the divorce. She couldn’t take it anymore. She had been involved in Al-Anon and working on no longer being codependent and practicing stronger boundaries. Dad denied that he had any problems. Mom wanted their teenage daughter to have a relationship with her dad, but wanted it to be a healthy relationship that didn’t put her at risk. What came out in the work with the daughter was that she experienced her dad drinking and driving and she only wanted to spend time with dad when she felt safe. During the process of creating the parenting plan, the Neutral Child Specialist arranged for a meeting the parents both agreed to attend in which it could be determined, and possibly ruled out, whether dad did have any problems with substance abuse. This happened because of how the team of lawyers and professionals worked together thinking about the greater good of the family system. But at the meeting dad wasn’t ready to hear it, and again said he had things under control. So, a parenting plan was created that gave daughter the opportunity to have time with her dad in smaller chunks of time, but have a mechanism in place to end the time if she ever felt at risk. Mom could also say no to time if she had a basis to say that dad was under the influence. They created details that both parents, and their child, felt comfortable with because they could focus on what was needed for the child to feel safe as well as the importance of the parent-child relationships. After the divorce, about a year later, I received a note from her client. She said that dad was finally pursuing treatment with the two professionals the Neutral Child Specialist had arranged the meeting with during the work on the parenting plan. She said that dad finally hit bottom and was ready to begin his recovery. When I look back on this case, I believe that a seed was planted and a relationship was started with people that dad could finally hold his hand out to for help when he was ready. And, because you can not force someone to make change before they are ready, a parenting plan was created that was responsive to the needs of the child. The dad was not dragged through the mud and vilified, and denied access to his child. Rather, a child responsive plan was put in place and now this family is on a better path. The mom said in a note to me, “I really appreciate the entire collaborative team. The support through this most difficult time was immeasurably helpful. I found [your] and the team’s understanding, when dealing with a substance abuse spouse, extremely insightful. [The Neutral Child Specialist] was direct, yet kind in dealing with both [dad] and myself. The entire team had our daughter’s interests at the forefront. [Dad’s] attorney also was helpful in this aspect, aware of the pitfalls in dealing with an alcoholic….thank you…in helping me through this, supporting my goals and providing a positive environment.”
In parts 1 and 2, we defined vortex as: 1) a whirling mass of water or air that sucks everything near it towards its center; 2) a place or situation regarded as drawing into its center all that it surrounds, and hence, being inescapable or destructible. As discussed in previous months, the “divortex” can be avoided by choosing the Collaborative Process. Prior articles describe what Collaboration is – it is a process that avoids court and may use a team of experts to help clients create the best settlement option possible. The professionals on a team are, generally speaking, the two attorneys, a neutral financial professional, a neutral child specialist, and a neutral divorce coach. Although the inclusion of financial and mental health professionals in the divorce process is nothing new, the manner in which they are used in the Collaborative process is unique. The attorneys’ roles are different in Collaboration, as well. While each spouse retains his or her own attorney, the attorneys work together to help the clients achieve an outcome that works for the entire family. The attorneys give legal advice to their individual clients, but more importantly, they help their clients realize what their interests and goals are. The objective of Collaboration is to get to a place where everyone is OK (a win-win) rather than a win-lose. The attorneys are trained in the Collaborative model and interest-based negotiation. A financial neutral helps the divorcing couple with property division and cash flow. Financial neutrals are financial experts and are CPAs, CDFAs, and CFSs who are trained in the Collaborative process and who understand the legal process. A child specialist is a neutral who helps the couple with creating a comprehensive and viable parenting plan. The child specialist is a therapist who is also trained in the Collaborative process. The child specialist is the voice of the children and not only helps the children during the divorce process, but helps parents help their children during this transition. A divorce coach is also a therapist and a neutral in this process. The coach’s role is to the help the couple communicate better. It is important for each spouse to have a voice in this process and the coach can help with that. In high conflict cases, a coach helps the process move along more smoothly. Although it seems like there are a lot of professionals involved in Collaboration, every professional has a specific role. In a non-collaborative case, the attorneys are acting as financial advisor, child specialist, and coach. And while attorneys can help with those pieces of the case, attorneys are not experts in those areas. In the Collaborative process, you get the best advice from the various professionals who are trained to help you reach a settlement. Consequently, a Collaborative team CAN help you avoid the divortex!
In Part 1, vortex was defined as: 1) a whirling mass of water or air that sucks everything near it towards its center; 2) a place or situation regarded as drawing into its center all that it surrounds, and hence, being inescapable or destructible. The second definition provides a visual for what many think a divorce “looks like.” While the end of a marriage is emotionally tumultuous and devastating, the actual legal process of uncoupling does not have to be. But, it is critical that you choose a process that promotes healing. The Collaborative Process does just that. Collaboration is a holistic approach to divorce. It can be utilized by couples who are ending either a marriage or significant relationship, or who have a child or children together. Although some people question whether it is an appropriate process when domestic abuse or mental health/chemical dependency issues are present, many others think it can (and should) at least be attempted. If you don’t want to be another “divorce horror story,” the Collaborative Process will likely be a great fit. Collaboration focuses on the future (i.e., the relationship of co-parenting in two homes) rather than the past (i.e. the vilification of one spouse); is a win-win for both partners (rather than a court-imposed win-lose); and emphasizes the well-being of the entire family. You don’t air your dirty laundry in court, and you aren’t (literally) judged. In fact, you never set foot in a courtroom. The negotiation model is interest-based/win-win, rather than positional/win-lose. You pay attorneys to help you solve problems, not argue and keep you stuck in the past. Every family is unique, so every family deserves a unique solution. And if you have young children, please keep in mind they need you present and available. You can’t be present when you are fighting the other parent in court. In Part 3, we will discuss the various professionals in the Collaborative Process and how their expertise can help you avoid the divortex.
Vortex: 1) a whirling mass of water or air that sucks everything near it towards its center; or 2) a place or situation regarded as drawing into its center all that it surrounds, and hence, being inescapable or destructible Sound familiar? In Minnesota, it’s tornado season, so many of us in the Midwest think of a tornado when we think of a vortex. Regardless of where you live, if you are going through a divorce, this definition might sound like something you experience rather than something you see, and so, the term Divortex seems appropriate. Unfortunately, too many people have the vortex experience when they divorce. It is all too true: the whirling mass of chaos, negativity, and craziness suck everything into its center. The tornado analogy continues with “destroying everything in its path…leaving nothing but…rubble.” Not a pretty picture. You don’t have to be part of this, however. Divorce is devastating. No one plans to get divorced. Marriages end for various reasons. There is undoubtedly anger and sadness. The clouds roll in, the thunder begins, and it rains. For a long time. But, the divorce process shouldn’t make your relationship worse. Unfortunately, the legal process often turns the rainstorm into not only a flash flood, but a tornado. The legal process contributes to the mess, and thus, the divortex forms, sucking everything into its center: your time, money, emotions, plans, life, EVERYTHING. You have absolutely no control over what it does or where it goes. You are helpless and at its mercy. All you can do is go to the lowest level (which happens inadvertently in litigation) in your home. Stay away from windows. And if you are a person of faith…pray. If you aren’t a person of faith, well, it’s never too late to start. With all due respect to the judges who hear and decide family cases, especially the difficult ones, court IS a whirlwind. You just never know what will happen. Fortunately, you can choose a process where, believe it or not, there is at least a faint glimmer of a rainbow at the end. (Probably not a pot of gold, but a rainbow, nonetheless.) Selecting Collaboration is the first step. You and your spouse decide what the outcome will look like (not a judge). You and your spouse have a voice and participate in the meetings and the decision making. Using a team of trained professionals, you will create your own rainbow. If you want all the colors of the spectrum, perfect! If, however, you’d rather have the cooler colors of green, blue, and indigo, you got it! No one is judging. Really. Sound too good to be true? Nope. (And no worries, I’m not going to bring unicorns into this story.) Next time, I will discuss HOW Collaboration can help you avoid the Divortex. Stay tuned.
Listening to the voice of the child is increasingly becoming a mainstream concept in family law. This is a welcome development, as careful attunement to children’s perspectives and needs can guide resolutions and parenting plans that are truly in the best interests of children. Having worked with children of all ages for many years, I am aware that the language of children has its own rhythm and cadence. Children do not always use words to express their inmost feelings and concerns. Very young children express themselves through play and behaviors rather than spoken language. When distressed, young children may temporarily regress to earlier behaviors. This is a normal process, but may need professional guidance to resolve if it becomes persistent, especially when accompanied by patterns of anxiety or angry outbursts. At the opposite end of the developmental spectrum, one of my favorite essays about teenagers is entitled “Please Hear What I am Not Saying.” Children, especially adolescents, often have difficulty expressing their feelings directly. To fully understand their child’s experience, parents need to be observant of patterns of behavior that may indicate feelings the child is unable or unwilling to express directly. Asking a child, “What’s wrong?” or “Why are you acting that way?” may not yield much information. Another approach is to express empathy and the offer of support, “It looks like something is bothering you. I’m here if you want to talk about it.” If a problematic behavior pattern persists for more than a few weeks, it might be the right time to consult with a child or adolescent therapist to get neutral, professional help in decoding the problem and helping your child find healthy ways to cope. Consulting with a neutral child specialist during the divorce process can enhance your understanding of your child’s perspective and feelings. Collaborative Team Practice is designed to provide a sounding board for all family members during a difficult time of transition.
I’m not always a very wise shopper. I tend to fall into the trap of thinking something is a good deal if I save money. And at least in the short term, my cheaper purchase may do just fine. But inevitably, cheap purchases lack staying power and don’t hold up well. I was reminded of this recently when looking in dismay at the boots I bought on sale at a discount shoe store. After one season of wear, the leather has frayed on the toes of both boots, and they won’t be wearable next season. In contrast, the Frye boots I splurged on when I was accepted into graduate school decades ago still look great. I knew at the time that these boots were an investment meant to last. When some potential clients hear about Collaborative Team Practice, their first response is, “That sounds too expensive. I don’t want to spend much money on a divorce.” Because most people have to budget money with some care, it can easily feel like professional fees are not where limited resources should go. But be aware of the trap of thinking something is a good deal if it saves money. A quality divorce process is an investment in the future, especially when children are involved. Collaborative professionals are experts in conflict resolution and creative problem solving, and can respectfully support families through the crisis of divorce to sustainable resolutions. Collaborative professionals are deeply knowledgeable in their areas of expertise—family law, financial resolutions, children’s needs in divorce, parenting plans and co-parenting skills. Simply put, the right Collaborative professional will help you understand what you may well not know about how to make the best possible decisions on behalf of yourself and your family. The least expensive divorce options may seem adequate at the time, but the results are often not sustainable. This may mean heading back into a post-decree legal process that is guaranteed to be costly. Collaborative Team Practice is not the best fit for all divorces, but when it is, it is clearly an investment in quality outcomes with staying power for the future. For more information, check out the Collaborative Law Institute website.
A core value of Collaborative Team Practice is keeping children at the center and out of the middle. But what does this mean? Why this is distinction important? It is because divorcing parents are writing the life story their children will tell. Mindfully keeping children at the center helps focus decision-making during and after a divorce on the best interests of the children. It encourages parents and the professionals assisting them to consider children’s developmental needs and temperaments to create customized parenting time schedules, relationship plans and financial plans. Bringing children’s voices into the process means the perspectives of all family members are honored. Parents who keep children at the center are doing the important work of becoming effective co-parents and communicators. Their children do not experience parents arguing or criticizing each other. They do not have to worry about taking sides or being disloyal to one parent by continuing to love the other. Children at the center are given empathy, support and patience as they grieve the loss of their familiar family structure, but are also reminded that though parents are unmarried, the family is still a family. Children at the center can have hope for the future, with rewarding relationships with both parents strengthening their resilience. What is the experience of children in the middle? Unfortunately, these children are regularly exposed to their parents’ active conflict. They may frequently hear parents badmouthing each other or calling each other names. Children in the middle have often been told adult-level details about their parents’ marriage and their divorce. They may be actively encouraged by one or both parents to blame or take sides against the other parent. Parents who are not focusing on their children’s needs may be more likely to become emotionally disconnected from them or even to move away. Children in the middle are children in distress. Children at the center are given support to feel emotionally safe. They do not have to grow up with the anxiety of worrying about whether both parents can be invited to the same life event without creating undue stress and conflict. In contrast, children in the middle often experience the crisis of a divorce as a trauma, and the negative impact reverberates throughout their lives. Children in the middle have a much more difficult time with trust and fear of abandonment as adults. Collaborative Team Practice offers potential sources of emotional support to all family members during and after a divorce. Neutral child specialists offer a child-inclusive process to help parents create and implement developmentally responsive parenting plans. Neutral coaches help parents create a relational plan to support their co-parenting and manage current and future conflicts. Both the parenting plan and the relationship plan are designed to keep children at the center, and have their life stories about the divorce end peacefully.
Most of my work as a lawyer involves representing clients in Collaborative divorces, and most of those cases involve the use of neutral experts to advise the couple on finances, child development, and communication/relationship dynamics. The idea is to provide them the best professional information in a non-adversarial setting so that they can make well-informed choices when resolving their divorce issues. Very often, the first of these professionals a couple visits will be their neutral coach/facilitator, whose responsibility, if hired, (among many others) will be to help couples appreciate where their communication styles get in the way of decision-making. I’m fortunate to have some wonderful professionals available to serve my clients in that role. In recent years, the coach I work with most often is Lee Eddison, someone who embodies the art of compassionate listening, but who doesn’t hesitate to call a spade a shovel after more nuanced attempts at guidance have been unavailing. One of the assessment tools she uses is to ask each member of the couple to say three positive things about their spouse’s parenting ability. “He doesn’t suck,” doesn’t count, either. She knows that if someone can appreciate a positive contribution to the family made by someone they dislike, there’s an excellent chance they can have an interest-based conversation en route to a resolution. That’s not to say there aren’t other bumps in the road, or good reasons to end the intimate partnership. But the ability to appreciate that duality in their partner at a time when it counts–when you’d least like to–gives that appreciation a power and a significance it won’t have later. It has proven to be a fair bellwether of success in a Collaborative process. Very few individuals who go through a divorce are all good or all bad. There’s a saying in the court system that “In criminal cases, we see bad people at their best, and in family cases we see good people at their worst.” It’s a sound bite, of course, but it’s often true. For divorcing couples who can appreciate the good things their partner has contributed, the chances of escaping the not-so-good parts without making it worse are much higher.
In a recent first meeting with new clients, I was obtaining family history to help ground me in both parents’ perspectives on issues related to their divorce. A comment by the dad struck a chord for me. He said, “I believe the way I can become the best parent to my child is by getting a divorce.” At first glance this comment seems counter-intuitive. Most children would prefer their parents remain married or partnered and under one roof. Divorce is usually a life crisis for children and their parents. Divorce is necessarily about grief and loss. How does it follow that a divorce can result in better parenting? The answer is that many parents whose marriages don’t work are able to enter into a co-parenting relationship that does work. In these families, children remain at the center of their parents’ concern and out of the middle of their parents’ conflicts. Especially if the decision to get unmarried is mutual, and a reservoir of trust and good will about parenting has been preserved, it can relieve a great deal of stress in the home to decide (though often with great sadness) to let go of the marriage while embracing a new lifelong role as co-parents. Children can continue to feel safe and loved in the context of a healthy co-parenting relationship. Effective co-parents are mindful and committed to being present for and attuned to the needs of their children, and this is the foundation of their children’s resilience and hope. Collaborative Team Practice offers specialized mental health resources to support and reinforce healthy and effective co-parenting during and after a divorce. Neutral child specialists and neutral coaches help parents create Parenting Plans and Relationship Plans as detailed and unique guides for positive co-parenting. It is indeed possible to divorce with the goal of becoming the best parent one can be.
In Part I we learned that advocacy in the “rights-based” Court Model is hard on the people involved because by focusing on the 3rd-party decision maker, e.g., the judge, the parties care little about each other’s view. As a result, their relationship can become more adversarial. In Part II we learned that by removing the decision maker in the “interest-based” Collaborative Model the parties become the decision makers who resolve mutual problems based on their defined future needs, interests, and goals. But is the removal of the 3rd party decision maker enough to create a process that is truly “soft” on the people? Most people who have gone through a divorce agree that divorce is much more than a legal event. More importantly divorce is about changing relationships, improving communication, establishing co-parenting, engaging in problem-solving, and securing a stable financial future. But many divorce processes do not adequately address these more important concerns, thus limiting divorce to simply a legal commodity. To gain the added value of improving your relationship with your soon-to-be ex-spouse, of becoming successful co-parents, of mutually planning for the future, and of customizing your financial arrangement to meet the needs of all family members within the resources available, requires the assistance and expertise of NEUTRAL professionals. These neutral professionals include a Neutral Financial Professional, a Neutral Coach, and a Neutral Child Specialist. This team approach is the “secret sauce” used in the Collaborative Model that can transform the experience of this life event into something constructive, affirming, and even peaceful. Obviously, this is of great benefit to children. In addition to the support and expertise provided, the neutrality of the neutral professionals balances attorney advocacy. This permits the attorney to stay in the problem-solving and interest-based advocacy role for his or her client, while the neutral professionals hold the ground for resolution on behalf of the whole family. This interdisciplinary, holistic approach to advocacy and expertise is what distinguishes the Collaborative Model from any other model out there. Collaborative professionals like to say this model contributes to world peace one family at a time. If this approach makes sense to you, tell your friends, family, and colleagues about the Collaborative Model and contribute to world peace.