Wouldn’t it be great if families could complete their divorce in a conference room rather than a courtroom? That’s the thinking behind the Collaborative Process and what makes the Collaborative Law Institute of Minnesota so helpful to divorce professionals and divorcing families. Because of TV shows and just our general culture of “fighting” for our rights, we often think that we have to spend endless amounts of money and fight in court to get a divorce, but that simply isn’t true. In the Collaborative Process, we help families reach agreements without ever setting foot in a courtroom. The Collaborative Law Institute of Minnesota (CLI) trains professionals in areas of law, finances, relationships and mental health to work with families outside of court to reach durable and understandable divorce agreements that work for their families. Law school is focused on training attorneys for inside the courtroom. That’s why we need CLI to train attorneys and other divorce professionals to help clients outside the courtroom. This is a major paradigm shift for the legal profession, but it shouldn’t be so surprising that this is the help and advice that families need and want. Because, let’s be honest, who really wants to go to court?
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.
I have learned a few things over the years being a divorce and family law attorney and mediator. One thing I have observed is that men are often result-oriented in a divorce (and just generally in life, right?!). They frequently believe that they have a solution worked out. If only their spouse would listen to them, they could have been done with this whole process yesterday. I have also observed that while women are concerned about the terms of the final agreement, they also want to be sure that they go through a thoughtful process to get there. Part of this stems from women’s tendency to value relationships more than men. Another part of this is that men may not appreciate the extent that relationships matter in negotiations. If men understood how much relationships matter in negotiations, they would be more thoughtful in how they approach negotiations in divorce, because as a result they would frequently find that they would get better outcomes for themselves and their spouses. With more open communication comes more potential options that benefit both people. A great way to approach a negotiation is to start by trying to listen and ask open ended questions in order to honestly figure out what the other person wants and why they want it, in order to better understand their perspective. Without this knowledge, many potential settlement options will go undiscovered, which results in lost opportunities for both people. Of course generalizations about men and women are not always fair or accurate, but what negotiation professionals understand is that—regardless of gender—if a person feels valued and respected, they are more likely to show the same value and respect in return. The result of this mutual respect is that communication between the two people, in a divorce or other legal process, is more open and honest and more effective and efficient, which almost invariably leads to more potential options for settlement and better outcomes for both people.
Many people contemplate and give great thought to starting a divorce. A person considering divorce wonders about cost and timing and how to tell their spouse they want to initiate the process. Many attorneys talk about filing papers with the court to start a divorce or serving papers on the other spouse. People also think about how to tell the children or extended family members they want a divorce. Very few people think about how the divorce process ends. On the one hand, divorce ends with a Judgment from the Court granting the divorce. However, there are many emotional and relational endings to divorce as well. In collaborative divorce, after couples have respectfully worked together to come up with resolutions, the end of the divorce can take many forms. Here are some recent examples of how the collaborative divorce process can end:
- In a particularly challenging case with a lot of anger and distrust, Wife reached across the table at the end to shake her then ex-Husband’s hand. It took a lot of effort to make that gesture, but it was well received by Husband. Years later, Wife told her attorney that the day they signed papers and shook hands was the day they began healing their relationship. For their children’s sake, that handshake started some necessary changes in their relationship. Over time, their co-parenting relationship greatly improved.
- One couple hugged each other at the end of the process. They went out to have a drink together and toast their new beginnings.
- One client was overheard telling her attorney she was “going to miss her” and may need to stop by her office just to catch up. The attorney provided needed support and guidance through this difficult transition and it was hard for the client to say “good-bye” to that support at the end.
- A child specialist sent an email to both parents at the end of the divorce process. The child specialist congratulated the parents for working so hard to come up with resolutions that kept the children at the center of the process (and not in the middle). The child specialist specifically identified strengths and positive characteristics of both parents and their children. He wished them all well and offered to be an ongoing resource if needed. He entitled the email “The Beginning.”
In my collaborative legal practice, I consistently witness the power of communication in conflict resolution. A recent story illustrates this power. My father recently settled into his lawn chair in the backyard of his beautiful Southern California home when he heard a strange noise. As the noise was conspicuously and continuously coming from his neighbor’s yard, he peeked over the fence. He was surprised to find a dozen or so chickens running freely around the yard – clucking and pecking up a storm. They were destroying the yard and making a noise that over the next few days became a great nuisance. He first researched the “urban chicken” phenomenon and then reached out to animal control to learn the neighbor needed to have a permit. He informed me that he was going to report his neighbor to the county, which would likely result in a fine and perhaps an end to the noise. I suggested my father talk to his neighbor first. Begrudgingly, he did so and learned that the woman who lived next door had an adult son who recently suffered a traumatic brain injury. Due to his injury, he has fixated on certain activities for short periods of time. She has tried to allow her son these activities and is working with a physician to do so in a therapeutic way. The chickens are one of these activities. She expected the chickens to be gone within a month and offered my father fresh eggs as consolation for his troubles. He was not only sympathetic to her challenges, the noise seemed to subside after that conversation, and my father thoroughly enjoyed the eggs. The simple act of communicating resolved this conflict. A collaborative divorce provides a safe and effective way to communicate in order to find resolutions. While emotions often get in the way of open and honest communication, the collaborative process supports keeping the communication lines open. It allows clients to “reach across the table” (just as my father “reached across the fence”) and learn more in an effort find resolution. If there are children in a case, the parents need to have open lines of communication as co-parents. The collaborative process is the best process out there to use communication effectively, practice those skills and, with the help of collaborative professionals, even improve communication skills for the future.