woman reminiscing There has been some buzz about the new film on Netflix called Marriage Story about a couple, Charlie and Nicole, with a son, Henry, going through divorce. I decided to watch it since this is my area of practice and a prospective client referenced it last week in a consultation.  It started with the couple stating all these things they loved about the other person with pleasant images of life together.  I was ready for an uplifting movie, until about 8 minutes in, when I learn that the couple is in a divorce meditation session and Nicole refuses to read her list out loud of what she loves about Charlie.The mediator says he likes to start mediation with a “note of positivity” to set the stage for working together.   Noble idea, but is that the best way to start? I don’t know any mediators that start that way.  I wondered if people now think that is how all mediations start.  While I too try to start from a more positive place, I start by asking clients to identify the goals they each have for the process and outcomes so we can see if they have any common visions for the future in separate homes.  I am amazed how often people have common goals around their kids and other outcomes and many times support goals that are specific to one person.  But I don’t think I would start by asking them to share a written list of qualities they love about their soon to be former spouse.  That is more appropriate for marriage counseling. What a different dynamic that sets in mediation.  When one person wants the divorce and the other one doesn’t, it starts the process from a place of internal conflict.  It was visible in the movie.  I just don’t think mediators do that and it paints an inaccurate picture of the process. But, I appreciated how Charlie and Nicole were trying to work together in mediation.  Unfortunately, the film spent very little time on the topic of mediation. Instead, at the 20 minute mark, the story moved in the direction of the Nicole, played by Scarlett Johansson, hiring the LA attorney Nora Fanshaw, played by Laura Dern, a sexy, savvy attorney that you want to trust, but your gut tells you, “Not too fast.”  When Charlie, played by Adam Driver, goes to find his own attorney, feeling distraught that Nicole suddenly switched directions and hired an attorney, the first attorney he talks to recognizes that Nora is on the other side, clearly knowing how she operates, and says his rate is $900/hr, he needs a retainer of $25,000 and they will need to do forensic accounting for $10,000-$20,000.  Everything indicates an expensive, high stakes fight.  He then starts asking all these questions to elicit information so he can immediately start strategizing about all these angles to take and “Win!” Charlie realizes what he is walking into, leaves and eventually lands on hiring Bert Spitz at $400/hr, played by Alan Alda, after there is no one else to hire because Nicole has met with all the other “good attorneys” in order to get them disqualified from being able to meet with Charlie.  But in the end, reasonable sounding Bert isn’t tough enough against Nora so, Charlie decides to go with the $900/hr attorney afterall. Well, the whole thing devolves into a knock down drag out court battle over money, custody (including a custody evaluation), and the attorneys revealing every dark secret about the other parent and “slinging mud,” in order to convince the judge to rule in their favor.  Your heart breaks for Charlie and Nicole, but especially for Henry, caught in the middle. And then I heard my own voice say, “That is exactly why I am a Collaborative attorney, instead!”  It is clear that neither Nicole nor Charlie ever thought they would go down that vicious road but what is clear, is that the divorce took on a life of its own.  Nicole left everything to Nora to handle and decided not to question how she operated. What was also clear to me was who they each chose to represent them had everything to do with how things went.  Charlie and Nicole were not asked what was important to each of them or what they wanted for Henry.  From the moment they met the attorneys, the attorneys were building their case, setting up the chessboard and thinking about what moves to make to win the game despite the casualties. Why does that matter?  When an attorney can only think in the win-lose mind frame, that they have all the answers and that everything has to follow what they think is the right path, you are giving up all power over your family and your life. Most people I meet with want to be in charge of these major decisions that will impact their life and family.  It is important to stop and think about what is important for you, your kids, and your family.  You are still part of a family system, even when you are getting a divorce.  You are just changing the family configuration, setting new boundaries and expectations, and figuring out how to divide the assets and manage cash flow living separately.  Working with attorneys who understand this, who are focused on problem-solving and reaching a win-win outcome out of court, makes all the difference for clients and their family.  And if you have two attorneys who trust each other professionally, that is an asset to you and your spouse.  The Collaborative Divorce process offers just that: a respectful, transparent, child-focused, problem-solving out-of-court approach for divorce.  Ask yourself what story you want your children to say about their parents’ divorce when they are 25? Choose wisely.
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.”
Collaborative divorce is often considered the “respectful way to divorce.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that the divorce is always amicable (although it can be), it means the divorce is done with grace and courtesy. Here are some (of the many) ways in which collaborative divorce can be respectful.
  1. Cooperation. Resolutions are reached through cooperation and collaboration. Confrontation is inefficient and usually ineffective – it is therefore not a part of this process.
  2. Honesty. All information is gathered in collaborative divorce through voluntary, complete, and good faith processes. Clients and professionals work together to make sure everyone has all the information needed to make decisions in their own best interest.
  3. Input. In a collaborative divorce, all voices are valued and heard. Even if it is hard for a client to express their feelings or thoughts on elements of the divorce, the opinion of everyone is valued. Collaborative professionals help ensure this input.
  4. Creativity. In collaborative divorce, we know there are no one-size-fits all resolutions. We work together to come up with complete and unique outcomes that fit clients’ lives moving forward.
  5. Support. Clients are not alone in the collaborative process. Every client has legal support with an attorney. Clients can also have neutral financial and parenting specialists as needed. Mental health professionals are also available in the process to help with the communication and emotional challenges of divorce.
  6. Values. Collaborative divorce starts with development of goals. All the work and resolutions go towards meeting these goals. Clients’ values and interests are key to the process.
  7. Health. Divorce ends with a future beginning. The collaborative process keeps the overall health and well-being of the couple and the children at the forefront. That health is a focus throughout the process and moving forward.
Good collaborative professionals (attorneys, financial neutrals, mental health professionals) can help support these principles and keep the collaborative process respectful.
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.”
It is clear that the end of divorce is also the beginning of life after divorce. A good ending makes for a better beginning. In an adversarial divorce, the ending is often arrived at the pinnacle of anger and frustration. In collaborative divorce, where the resolutions have been arrived at through a respectful process, the ending is often peaceful. This peaceful ending leads to a solid and positive beginning.