The Spirituality of Collaborative Divorce

February 11, 2015

Psychologists tell us that divorce is one of the most stressful events people experience in modern society, second only to the death of a spouse.  So when a couple decides to divorce they are almost by definition, extremely vulnerable and emotionally raw.  As such, potential clients walk into divorce attorneys’ offices carrying grief, anger, shame, embarrassment, sadness, loneliness, and a host of other complicated and difficult emotions.  The dilemma for the divorce practitioner is how to most skillfully (and with the most integrity) meet these people where they are and do what they can to help the situation – similar to how a grief counselor might work with someone whose spouse has recently died.

One of the reasons some family law attorneys choose to represent clients (sometimes exclusively) using the collaborative divorce process rather than traditional litigation, is because the lawyers feel like the collaborative divorce process allows them to practice law in a way that is more in line with their personal religious or spiritual values.  Rather than the attorney adding to the immense stress presented by the parties’ decision to divorce, the lawyer has an opportunity to step in and try and make a bad situation better.  For many families, collaborative divorce provides a framework to accomplish that goal.

All of the world’s major religious traditions underscore healing and peacemaking as important traits to develop – in our personal as well as our professional lives.  To that end, professionals working in collaborative divorce cases sometimes find themselves playing a similar role to other types of crisis managers, such as physicians, therapists, or even hospice workers.  By reframing divorcing couples away from “militants” into people in crisis who need care and guidance, collaborative divorce professionals help clients begin the slow road to recovery from the divorce and into as healthy a post-divorce life as is possible.

More concretely, the collaborative divorce coach works proactively with the parties throughout the divorce on tending to the “emotional divorce” that happens in every divorce case, helping the parties understand and experience their own feelings and seeing the way in which their emotional life relates directly to the divorce negotiations, which can profoundly affect their futures, long after the dust has settled around the divorce itself.  By being proactive about tending to the parties’ emotional health (rather than letting emotions run wild, or, worse, exploiting the parties’ emotional vulnerability) clients can end up gaining important insights into themselves and the ways in which they have participated in the now-ending marriage that can potentially help them act more healthfully in future relationships.  This approach also facilitates parties’ ability to co-parent their children effectively after the divorce.

Similarly, when the attorneys and financial neutrals help the parties craft legal agreements from a less competitive, fear-based place and instead encourage them to be creative and longer-sited in the negotiations, clients have the chance to feel more ownership of the settlement discussions, which can greatly reduce their anxiety.

In the end, it is my bias that clients are best served when we stop to assess what clients really need from the professionals they hire to guide them through one of the most stressful events of their lives.  Sometimes clients really do need positional advocacy.  But, in my experience, many times what clients need is calm and level-headedness that morph into healing and peacemaking.

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