Harriet Lerner writes in The Dance of Connection, “Perhaps nothing leaves us more vulnerable than the threat of relationship loss. When we are drowning in emotions, it is impossible to think creatively or clearly. We may think we’re thinking, but in reality we’re just reacting.” If Dr. Lerner is right that just the threat of relationship loss leaves us lacking in the ability to think, being in the midst of a divorce–the realized result of the threat–leaves people grappling to make sense of their reality and struggling to find a way through with their sense of self and dignity intact.
Divorce is, of course, more than just a change in legal status. It encompasses a complex disentanglement of complex emotional, financial and social relationships and, for those with children, a restructuring of the familial unit. Collaborative Practice uniquely has capacity to address all these elements of divorce and give clients support to work through the dispute from a stance of evolution rather than destruction.
Supporting parties to work through their conflict with a focus on what is necessary, important and meaningful to each of them and their children is what Collaborative Practice is all about. Collaborative professionals of all disciplines must be willing to and capable of working through the conflict between the parties without blame. We must all work to help parties imagine a place in the future where their conflict is resolved in a way that is satisfactory to them so they have the groundwork to move forward into a life they want to lead.
The role of the Mental Health Professional working in the Collaborative team can be crucial to the success of the Collaboration in structuring a positive outcome for the family. A positive outcome is more than a resolution of the divorce. It is an outcome that allows all members of the family the legal and financial stability to move forward in their lives without fear. It is an outcome that encompasses a narrative that leaves room for both parties’ contributions to the marriage as well as the divorce process. An outcome that honors the relationship of the parties and allows them to interact constructively in the future.
When I litigated, I used to tell my new clients that their lives were going to get better but that there was a good chance it was going to get worse before that happened. What I meant was that the traditional process of divorcing — at least in NY — was going to be a lengthy, scary and expensive process but on the other end they would be extricated from their marriage with a clear plan to move forward whether or not they thought it was a good one. In Collaborative Practice we hope for something better. We hope that the process itself will include important steps toward that better life. Steps that will allow clients to envision a good plan for their future lives apart and work toward building and enacting it together. This is difficult work for them as it is for us — the Collaborative professional team.
All professional members of the Collaborative team must be committed to a positive outcome for the family in order for the team to work at its best,. All Collaborative professionals, regardless of role, must be willing to see and be open to the perspective of both parties, observe the conflict dynamic as it arises as well as the teams’ role in that dynamic. Choosing to work in the Collaborative model is, in some ways, a brave choice for clients and they deserve the respect and attention of all professionals involved. Choosing to work with a Divorce Coach does not mean that the Collaborative team can resort to business as usual meaning some form of smiling negotiated settlement.
As a Collaborative Lawyer committed to an open, transparent and supportive process for both parties, not just my own client, I have worked with coaches for years. I have worked with coaches trusting that there was some emotional component to the divorce that I was not trained to help with yet I was not clear on exactly what is was that coaches do. This lack of understanding made it difficult to talk about the coaching role to clients in concrete terms and I found myself saying some of the same old ***s, none of which were all that helpful.
“Just go once so you have someone to turn to if you feel you need it later.”
“I know you don’t need a coach but your spouse might so its good to have one/them in place”
“Coaching isn’t therapy but divorce is really difficult. Why don’t you go talk to the coach and see how she might be able to help through this process.”
None of the above worked to explain what it was that the coach might do to help and none of it included the absolute fact that not one client has ever come into my office in over 25 years of practice saying, “my spouse and I communicate great . . .” I realized that I had a problem, in fact, two. One was that I didn’t really understand the role of the Divorce Coach in Collaborative work and so wasn’t explaining it well. The other was that, although I was working with coaches, neither they nor I were explicitly clear with each other about what exactly they were going to do or were doing and so we were not working as well together as a team as we might to best support the clients.
I began a quest to understand Divorce coaching from a lawyer’s perspective. Over the last year I have interviewed numerous coaches around North America about their role. I have talked with them about what they do and how they see their role and the evolution of coaching in the Collaborative process. I have learned that there are different styles and different approaches. Some Collaborative practice groups prefer that coaches create a parenting plan others do not and still others aren’t sure or clear about their expectations. I have learned a tremendous amount and made some important discoveries.
- People focus on their own needs rather than reacting to their partner
- People find their own authentic voice to express their own needs as well as express their pain and hurt in a constructive way
- Divorcing couples notice their conflict style
- People notice their conflict dynamic so it can change to one that is more productive
- I have started asking new clients, “how did you resolve conflict when you were together?” as one of my intake questions. I am amazed at how often people say that they didn’t really resolve conflict. Some actually say they had no conflict.
- Spouses be less reactive to each other so they can focus more on what is really important to them.
- People find a different way to hear and understand what is important to their partner without having to agree.
Divorcing is a complex untangling of a web of legal, financial and interpersonal relationships. The personal and emotional aspects are deeply intertwined throughout the full spectrum of the marriage. The more we learn about brain functioning, the more we know that it is not possible to separate the emotional from the rational. Simply put, coaches can help people manage the deep feelings that come up around the dramatic changes going on around them.