Collaborative Divorce is an integrated cross-disciplinary system for problem solving in a divorce situation. Collaborative Divorce requires collaborative lawyers to coordinate their work with other collaborative professionals who specialize in addressing the emotional and financial problems of divorce. Working together as a team, they seek to contain conflict and to help the family to restructure from a single-family system into a two family system. This team system facilitates the use of the collaborative process for families at varying levels of serious conflict by forming a safety net that helps the parties through difficult situations: putting out wildfires and generally dampening down minor conflicts threatening to generate the heat that could easily lead to major conflict.
Because each individual hears the respective professionals’ different perspectives of the family undergoing divorce, he or she gains a more balanced view of the problems faced and the family dynamics involved. This process also allows the professionals involved to better understand the whole family system. Gaining this new knowledge and a broadened view can be essential for finding creative solutions and working out strategies to solve problems. As the old adage goes, two heads are better than one. When this knowledge comes from “heads” from several different disciplinary approaches, the resulting synchrony can result in vastly enriched patterns of problem solving. Working together, we can create more possibilities.
The goal of Collaborative Divorce is to conserve both the emotional and financial resources of the family. When mental health experts address the emotional forces that drive the conflict, their power can be significantly deflated. When that power is decreased, we have more effective use of the disciplinary skills of all involved professionals, including the more efficient use of specific legal services. The average range of cost of a Collaborative team intervention (typically $2,500 to $3,000 exclusive of attorney’s fees) is significantly less than the cost of a child custody evaluation. The fee for the teams’ mental health services includes all the psychological assistance described below.
An independently selected Collaborative Lawyer represents each party. In addition, the couple works with a male/female coaching team comprised of two-licensed mental health professionals (usually psychologists or licensed clinical social workers) who initially work with the clients individually and subsequently, jointly. A child specialist assists and enables the child to be heard above the roar of the conflict. One member of the team, usually one of the coaches, acts as a case coordinator to keep all team members abreast of situations that arise and to keep the process on track. The team also includes a practical counselor who works with both parties.
The Gender-Balanced Coaching Duo
As Deborah Tannen points out in You Just Don't Understand, the different socialization of males and females makes for difficulties in understanding one another. This problem becomes exacerbated at the time of divorce. A balanced gender approach helps bridge this difficulty. To address this difficulty, the licensed mental health professionals who serve as coaches meet individually with the spouses of the same gender. We have found that having the same sex coach makes gaining the new clients trust in the process faster and easier since their anger toward – and suspicion about their spouses tends in divorce to generalize to all people of the opposite gender. By having the gender – balanced team, we increase the potential for effective communication.
What do the coaches do? They assess the personality dynamics of the adults and their relationship through evaluative interviews and screening inventories while identifying and prioritizing each person’s concerns. They try to separate psychological facts from fantasy. They work with the individuals to reduce their personal stress by teaching them effective stress reduction techniques. They provide information about normal child development and coach positive parenting skills, especially for the less skilled parent. In this process each adult has a chance to tell a same-gendered person his or her own personal marriage story. With the pressure reduced somewhat; the coaches are able to teach communication learning is learning how to co-parent. Coaches thus form an active safety net for the clients to come to terms with the emotional issues and communication needs and to facilitate their change of communication patterns through four- way meetings.
The child specialist assesses the child individually and the child with each parent. The specialist is concerned with the child's development and temperament, her relationship to family members – including the extended family – her interests, emotional attachments and support structure beyond the family. The specialist assesses the child’s reaction to family changes, her worries, hopes, fears, and expressed needs. Our experience is that it is helpful for a child to have her own special "outside" person, the child specialist, to talk to about his or her view of the family changes. The parents also appreciate the opportunity to express their fears and concerns about the child with an expert in the field. It gives both parents and opportunity to focus their attention on the needs of their children. The child specialist presents feedback about the children and their needs to the parents at one of their four-way meetings with the coaches, which is followed by discussion.
The Financial Specialist
A practical financial counselor understands the fundamentals of household financial matters, has good interposal skills, can help gather information about assets and debts and can develop realistic budgets. The financial counselor is the neutral person on the Collaborative Divorce team who assists the couple in collecting the financial data needed for the divorce process. Both parties have an opportunity to take a look at their assets and liabilities, as well as the living expenses of a divided household. The financial counselor encourages the couple to see the process as information gathering and at this stage actively discourages either party from making claims or trying to negotiate any division of property.
The focus is on gathering information, identifying levels of understanding and identifying issues that look problematic. When needed, the counselor assists one or both parties to develop realistic budgets.
If one party is less sophisticated in financial matters, the counselor may spend time helping that person understand simple things, such as keeping a checkbook. Knowledge builds confidence and makes an unknown future less fearful. Fear often underlies anger; as this process abates fear, anger tends to diminish. This process allows clients to develop a realistic perspective while fighting what can be paralyzing fear that she will end up a bag lady or he will be working to the end of his days just to support his ex wife. It reduces the tendency for one spouse to suspect that the other spouse is hiding resources.
The information developed by the financial specialist is used not only by the attorneys, but also by higher-level financial specialists, such as Certified Public Announcements, financial planners or other business consultants whose expertise may be needed in a specific case. Our experience suggests that it is contact with the team during their work.
The Power of the Team
A direct result of the collaboration of the professionals on tea us the free flow of information within the team. Having the information relevant to each profession (at least in summary form) available to all team members provides a greatly expanded view of a family's problems, potential for future problems and positive possibilities.
This is true first because different disciplines – law, mental health and finance – tend appropriately to seek information relevant to concerns within their own areas of expertise. Secondly, this process is reinforced by clients expecting to talk budget with a practical financial person, express concern for an upset child with a mental health person, and ask questions of an attorney about child support issues and community property concerns. Hearing other professionals' information, taking advantage of their knowledge of their respective disciplines and the varying perspective of a family helps all team members gain a more balanced view of the problems faced and the family dynamics involved. This shared knowledge can be essential for finding creative solutions and crafting strategies to solve problems. When team members agree on priorities and strategies for working as a team, they can impact the family in consistent ways. We believe that it takes this system to change the family system in an effective way.
Clients get support from different perspectives. They are secure in their representation by their attorneys. They have the support for their coaches, whose focus is guiding them through the emotional roller coaster of divorce and teaching them ways of learning to communicate about important matters with each other. This process of talking and listening to different people often loosens the tyranny of set ideas and softens the seemingly fixed positions of both parties, allowing for the possibility of more creative solutions. As possible solutions to problems appear, fear diminishes and anger subsides. This makes way for better communication between the parties and the potential for meaningful understanding of the other’s needs. For those with children, the focus is on their children’s needs and on finding ways to minimize the impact of the divorce on them through positive co-parenting.
How Clients Enter the Collaborative Law/Collaborative Divorce System
Clients may enter the Collaborative Law/Collaborative Divorce System through any one of three doors; legal, mental health or financial. Some clients come to collaboration the traditional way: by contacting an attorney trained in Collaborative Law. The collaborative lawyer will explain the options available so that he and the client may decide together whether this new process might fit the circumstances of the client’s case.
Clients may also begin the Collaborative Law/Collaborative Divorce process by making an initial telephone contact with mental health professionals trained to work as Collaborative Divorce coaches. If the case seems appropriate, the coach will suggest that the prospective client ask his or her spouse to call a same gender coach for information about Collaborative Law/Collaborative Divorce. If that step is successful, the divorcing couple might then come in for a personal discussion of the process either together – or if emotions are running to high – separately.
Sometimes an attempt to refer to an attorney meets resistance. However, people who fear attorneys can be reassured that the engagement of an attorney will not escalate their fight by a frank discussion of the collaborative principles. The discussion is not only helpful to clients who fear attorneys, but also to those wary of lawyers because of past experiences in other areas of disputes when the process and the costs may seem to have gotten out of hand. It may take a firm stance and a keen sense of timing to make a successful referral to an attorney.
Some clients come to the process via the financial door. Clients coming to the financial specialist may see that they need help financially in dividing their assets and liabilities, yet resist or be unaware of the importance of the legal and psychological aspects of their case. The financial specialist must be sensitive to the interpersonal relationships within the family so that he or she can endorse the usefulness of the child assessment and the need to improve the adults' communication in order to learn to co-parent effectively.
What is Collaborative Divorce?
Collaborative Divorce is a systematic, interdisciplinary team approach that consists of specific steps and emotionally supportive patterns of interaction that facilitate a cooperative, non-adversarial divorce process. It is predicated on the willingness and ability of the clients to retain skilled collaborative lawyers in their community, because without effective collaborative lawyers in the case, the work if the Collaborative Divorce team may be thwarted.
The process draws on effective aspects of other processes. So although it is not therapy, Collaborative Divorce does not involve therapeutic interventions. Collaborative Divorce is not mediation, although mediation techniques are used and a shared goal is to assist the parties to come to agreements that will facilitate the family transition. Collaborative Divorce draws on some of the assessment approaches, including interviews and inventories common to child custody evaluations. And, as with child custody evaluations, the child is assessed to determine the individual child’s needs.
Not all professionals can work within the collaborative team environment. Some individuals become attorneys, psychiatric social workers and financial specialists in order to work primarily autonomously in their individual practices. Of these, some maintain a strong preference for independence and freedom rather than to relating more or less continually in the team mode that an organization may require. Their need to take responsibility predilection for adversarial situations. Many of these people would not be comfortable in – or willing to make -the shift to the collaborative mode.
For those with a cooperative conciliatory commitment, we would invite you to seriously consider expanding your professional and personal horizons by entering into the paradigm shift to collaborative mode, and joining with others working with families going through divorce as an interdisciplinary, collaborative team.