Talking About Divorce in a New Way
When I started practicing law in 1992, there was essentially one model when it came to divorce. The process took months or even years, cost a small fortune in legal fees, and involved facing off in a courtroom to fight about how to split up the assets and debts, how much alimony and for how long, and to present evidence on some of your most unfortunate parenting moments so that a judge could create a child custody and visitation schedule.
If that sounds like an ugly process, it was. Sometimes it was terrible, sometimes less so, but it always pitted one partner against the other in a bitter, bruising battle that forever changed their relationships with each other, their children, and their extended families. Nobody emerged unscathed.
So one day I decided to look for better solutions.
Divorce doesn’t have to be a struggle and a battle. It can be the first step on a journey towards a more hopeful future for each partner. When I started my solo private practice in 2005, I wanted to focus on Family Law and do it differently. That meant helping clients navigate their way through the challenges that divorce presents, with sound legal advice, and compassion for the intense emotionality of the experience.
Beginning in 2007, I sought specialized training in a practice called Collaborative Divorce. When describing what this is, it’s sometimes easier to make it clear what it isn’t. It’s not “conscious uncoupling,” the term popularized by Goop founder Gwyneth Paltrow after her own divorce. That was a five-step self-help process that focused on letting go of negative emotions and self-doubt.
Collaborative Divorce also isn’t mediation, which involves both parties meeting with a neutral professional skilled in conflict resolution but who may not have the skills to provide the other support couples frequently need during this process. Mediation is ideal for those who come into the negotiation on relatively equal footing, usually without a lot of finances to untangle or emotional baggage to unpack. And when it comes to bargaining power, both spouses should be comfortable advocating for themselves and know the same facts. While that may fit some situations, it does not fit them all. Sometimes a couple realizes they are over their heads on the legal, financial and emotional aspects of divorce, and they want more support.
I like to say that Collaborative Divorce is like “mediation on steroids.” Both partners have the benefit of their own lawyer, so their individual needs are well protected. But it’s anything but a lawyer-dominated process. There’s a team of professionals, from mental health professionals to financial experts, who help guide you through the necessary steps that are common to every divorce. The experts are there to make sure you feel safe and secure throughout the process.
What Collaborative Divorce doesn’t involve is a courtroom. Instead of leaving important decisions to a judge, as in a traditional divorce, you and your spouse make joint decisions about your finances, your children, and your future relationship. This happens through specifically scheduled meetings, where in a calm quiet setting, the two of you decide for yourselves what is best for your family.
One of the many problems with traditional divorce is that it’s a process where both spouses feel that they must prove that they’re “right.” The amazing thing about Collaborative Divorce is that it creates a space where neither person has to prevail at the expense of the other. It is not a zero-sum game. The goal is to help each person find their voice, use their words, and say what they mean without saying it in a mean way.
This reminds me of what award-winning journalist Krista Tippett talks about in her brilliant book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Art of Living. “We want others to acknowledge that our answers are right,” she writes. “We call the debate or get on the same page or take a vote and move on.”
Tippett wisely points out that the whole point of having a conversation is to actually listen to what the other person is saying. “There is value in learning to speak together honestly and relate to each other with dignity,” she writes, “without rushing too common ground that would leave all the hard questions hanging.”
As I learned more about Collaborative Divorce, I realized how much pain and suffering it could alleviate for couples going through what is probably the most difficult time of their lives. I finally could imagine a divorce process that creates hope by carefully untangling hearts and lives with an eye towards a more peaceful future. It has become an integral part of my family law practice.
I’m so proud of the work that my colleagues and I are doing with Collaborative Divorce. We’re talking about divorce in a whole new way. We are reframing the narrative about divorce so that it’s no longer just about winning or losing, success or failure, shame and blame. It’s about coming to real resolutions so that each spouse can confidently move forward with their lives as separate individuals and still part of a family.
P.S. Let’s keep the conversation going on social media!
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Wonderful piece. Moving away from the adversarial and into the realm of real problem-solving is so appealing. Keep up the great work!