An attorney from the mid-west, Stu Webb, developed collaborative divorce over 10 years ago. He and some of his colleagues had noticed over their years in practice that the adversarial legal process they learned so well in law school did not seem to serve divorcing couples well. Rather than help them through one of the most difficult times of their lives in a positive way, the adversarial model tended to inflame fear and anger, with the emotional well-being of the adults diminished in the process, and children as collateral damage as they experienced the fallout of this fight-to-win process. So he set out to find a better way to approach divorce, one with more of a win-win versus win-lose approach.
Stu has described in his books and trainings that soon into that journey he had an ah-ha moment, realizing divorce is 80% emotional. Every decision to be made in divorce, whether financial or regarding the children, is driven by history, perceptions, hopes, dreams, fears, beliefs, values, visions, etc. Attorneys and financial specialists can assist with the 20% of divorce which involves providing legal and financial advice, but the real work of divorce is muddling through the emotions each individual is experiencing so individuals can make decisions they feel good about and reach an agreement they feel is fair.
To that end the attorneys and financial specialists educated in collaborative divorce are trained to be aware and respectful of each parties’ emotions. But the real work of the emotional aspect of divorce is done by coaches, child specialists, and the parties themselves. Coaches and child specialists are licensed mental health professionals specially trained in how these roles are utilized in the collaborative process to protect the emotional well-being of the children and adults involved in this family transition. Already having education and experience in the emotional aspects of peoples’ lives and how to assist people through difficult times, mental health professionals are the best suited to work with the emotional aspects of divorce, which are the bulk of the process. However, it is important to be clear the coach and child specialist are not providing therapy in the traditional sense, but rather their interventions are designed to help the collaborative divorce process stay on track to reach an agreement in a timely manner and in a manner that is emotionally healthy. A description of these roles will help you picture how they are utilized.
The divorce coach is an amazingly helpful role, which is interesting since people sometimes have a hard time envisioning the role the coach plays. But anyone who has had coaches as part of the process soon sees how valuable they are. Coaches prepare you for successful amicable negotiation of a settlement agreement. They help you identify your underlying emotions and needs/interests/concerns, so you can prioritize issues, and be fully prepared for meetings. They help you develop a plan for effective communication of the importance of those issues for you. As part of that they learn your unique impediments to effective problem resolution (we all have some!), and prep you to get past those so meetings can be effective. For example, they can teach assertiveness in communication as needed, patience, timing, or teach to control one’s temper in meetings. A coach might create a private signal for you so you can be reminded of skills you practiced, such as a brief hand on the shoulder to cue you that your temper is interfering with negotiations, or a signal that you tapping the table with your pen in your left hand means you need a break. Coaches also help handle emotional issues that might otherwise get in the way of the settlement process so each person can think clearly about the future, prioritize issues, communicate effectively, and move forward. Thus your coach can help you deal with any feelings such as sadness, anger, fear, frustration, etc., that are impeding your ability to move forward. Overall your coach will work closely with you in many ways to aid your development and effective utilization of skills needed to deal with critical issues involving the divorce. In addition, when children are involved your coaches will also hear the feedback from the child specialist and will assist you and your spouse in developing your parenting plan, and can coach you in cooperative, amicable co-parenting.
While concerns about finances conjure up lots of emotions, there is perhaps nothing more emotional than the concern of parents regarding what will happen with the children. Parents worry about how their children will cope with the divorce, how much less time they will have with their children than when they lived in the same home, how the parent-child relationships will be affected, and how the children will feel about whatever custody schedule is decided upon. Yet in traditional divorce the children’s voices are typically not formally part of the process. In collaborative divorce, the child specialist is a neutral who meets with each child to check in on what they are feeling and thinking about the divorce. The child feels respected as this meeting provides recognition that the child is experiencing a huge life change too, and will have feelings and thoughts about that which should be heard. The child specialist shares that discussion with the parents, and is able to bring the voice of the child to impasses regarding child issues, which often helps parents get past the disagreement. Another important role the child specialist plays is to provide information on divorce and children. Your child specialist should be knowledgeable about the current research on children and divorce, parenting plans at different developmental stages, and how to help your child get through the divorce with as little stress and pain as possible. If you are not using coaches on your team, the child specialist can also help you come to agreement on a parenting plan, and develop skill in cooperative and amicable co-parenting.
Every aspect of divorce is emotional. The need for financial security is imbedded with emotion. The desire to create a positive childhood for your children and have a close relationship with them is deeply emotional. The transition of your life and creating a new life vision is highly emotional. Each of these arenas has hopeful emotions and emotions of concern attached to them. The coaches and child specialists in collaborative divorce are able to help you navigate these emotions so you can reach resolution and begin to move forward in a healthy way, for your own well-being and for your children’s happiness.
This article was written by Dr. Tina Lepage who serves on the Executive Committee of NCACDP. For more information on Tina see her bio under Members on this site, or visit her web site at: www.lepageassociates.com.