Published in 2004 in N. J. Cameron Collaborative Practice: Deepening the Dialogue by Continuing Legal Education, British Columbia
WHAT IS COLLABORATIVE SEPARATION AND DIVORCE?
Collaborative Separation and Divorce is a revolutionary new process that brings the best of legal, personal and financial wisdom to the process of separation and divorce in a humane and cost-effective fashion. This inter-disciplinary model offers a process of separation and divorce that protects the dignity, integrity, and long-term best interests of all family members. This innovative approach can be beneficial when counseling individuals, couples, or families involved in a divorce process.
Most divorcing spouses are also parents. In Canada and the US, at least 30% of children have experienced the end of their parents’ marital relationship. Research has shown that it is not the divorce itself that is the most destructive element but rather the distress, conflict, and loss that can occur as a function of the divorce process (Hetherington, & Kelly, 2002). Collaborative Separation and Divorce safeguards children’s needs for stability and effective planning throughout the divorce process and good working relationships between their parents post-divorce.
Collaborative Separation and Divorce grew simultaneously from the work of two discrete groups. In Minnesota, Stuart Webb, a discouraged family lawyer, made a personal decision to no longer participate in the adversarial process of family law as he knew it opting instead to work collaboratively with his clients. In family law disputes, his goal became to create and practice collaborative, non-adversarial strategies to help clients achieve agreements in a dignified and respectful manner. His approach was well received. Currently there are practice groups in most major cities across Canada and the US working to bring this process to their community. Some family lawyers no longer take litigation clients. This approach to family law has been referred to as “Collaborative Family Law”.
Simultaneously, an interdisciplinary team of professionals in California (psychologists, social worker, financial counselor) was developing strategies to work together to provide separating and divorcing families with constructive methods of working their way through the sometimes difficult family transitions that divorce can bring (Fagerstrom, 1997). Although many professionals are involved, this team has found that work is generally brief and therefore for more economical than adversarial methods. For example, the cost of the average collaborative process is a fraction of the cost of one day in court in California. This approach to working with divorcing families has been referred to as “Collaborative Divorce SM”.
In the mid-1990s, these two initiatives met, recognized that they were complimentary, and integrated. Lawyers who practice Collaborative Law make ideal team members for Collaborative Divorce SM teams. Likewise, the interdisciplinary approach strengthens the work of Collaborative Family Lawyers.
Regarding Collaborative Divorce SM, teams of professionals made up of mental health professionals (divorce coaches) collaborative family lawyers, a financial specialist, and a child specialist can work together with family members for a dignified, healthy, and cost-effective resolution to the process. The degree to which each type of professional is involved will depend on the unique needs and circumstances of the family.
How does the process work?
There are many ways that a collaborative separation and divorce process can work. Creating a working team is the first step. Spouses can begin this process through a visit with either a participating mental health professional or a collaborative lawyer. All participating professionals will have names of others who are available to work in this process. Once all relevant professionals are on board, an agreement is then reached between the professionals and parents that allows the team to work together collaboratively.
Again, the degree to which each types of professional is involved will depend on the unique needs and circumstances of the family.
As in any inter-disciplinary team, spouses are requested to waive confidentiality so that team members can communicate with each other. (All professionals involved are still held to the standards of confidentiality of their respective professions.) The roles of all parties are clearly laid out in a Participation Agreement and discussed until both spouses fully understand the process. The signing of this agreement means that the professionals can communicate with each other and that if the collaborative process is not successful, the spouses have agreed that all records are protected from future use in court proceedings. Relevant agreements also are made between each spouse and the professionals they work with directly, The team then meets, either in person or by teleconference to consolidate.
In the second phase, the unique dynamics of the particular family are understood and the problems worked through. This stage represents the bulk of the work. Information is gathered in one-on-one meetings between clients and professionals to assist family members to identify and begin working on pertinent issues. Various 4-way meetings are held. These can include both spouses and collaborative lawyers, or both spouses and divorce coaches. The financial specialist or child specialist can also be included as neutral third parties as necessary. Given their neutral status, these specialists are especially valuable if particularly difficult circumstances arise.
The third phase involves coming to agreements and signing documents. Parents meet with lawyers and/or coaches to reach the final settlement.
It is interesting to note that there have been cases in which the couple has reconciled in the process of working through a collaborative process. Although not a frequent occurrence, it is a credit to the process that the emphasis on communication skills and problem solving in this model can encourage this possibility. In the event that reconciliation occurs, the improved interpersonal skills of the couple will continue to benefit them in their post-separation co-parenting relationship.
The Benefits of the Collaborative Process
The collaborative approach to separation and divorce responds to many of the issues that we face as this relatively new social phenomenon called “divorce’ becomes a mainstream event in our society. This process helps us to understand divorce as an important social phenomenon that deserves to be dealt with in a way that assists separating spouses to create honorable and life-enhancing results for themselves and for their families.
Historically, for a divorce to be granted, one spouse had to be found “at fault”. The judge then proclaimed a punishment for the guilty party. The advent of the “no fault” divorce challenges us to find ways to assist families to move through this transition without fueling the fires of blame and shame.
Another important cultural change is that of increased life span. Our life expectancy has doubled since 1850, making ‘til death do us part’ a very different proposition. In the 1700s, the average length of a marriage was only 7 years because of the death of a spouse. Today, we have the opportunity to be married to the same person longer than ever before in history. During the 1940s and 1950s, divorce overtook death as the leading cause of the termination of a marriage leading sociologists to consider divorce as a functional substitute for death. As such, continued co-operative relationship between former spouses is a new social phenomenon. It is no wonder that as a society, and as individuals. We struggle to understand and support positive relations between former spouses.
What about the children?
Although we know that the event of a divorce is only very loosely associated with children’s well-being, we do know that there are many risk factors and vulnerabilities for families as they go through this transition. As mentioned previously, it is not the divorce itself that is the most destructive element, but rather the level of distress, conflict, and loss that can occur as a function of the divorce process. Nevertheless, next to death or disability, divorce results in the most radical and permanent reorganization that a family is likely to face. If divorce is necessary, we owe it to our children to do it a sensitively and as sanely as we can.
The collaborative approach to separation and divorce protects children in several ways. First, it is cost- effective thereby protecting the financial resources of the family. Second, the non-adversarial approach safeguards the common ground of the separating spouses building on the available goodwill, and recognizing that their co-parenting relationship will go on forever. Every effort is made to protect family members from the fear and anger that can be a part of the divorce process, and to encourage and foster the best possible relationships post-divorce. Third, divorce coaches work to create the best possible family environment post-divorce. Parents are fully informed of the risk factors of divorce and how to protect their children through this process. Parenting plans that actually work are developed. Should there be any future problems, or if developmental changes require adjustments, family can return to their divorce coaches for additional assistance. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Collaborative Separation and Divorce can include a Child specialist whose job is to understand the children’ perspective and to advocate for their best interests throughout the process.
Collaborative Separation and Divorce allows for a process to be created that meets the needs of the family. Although it is possible to conduct a divorce with only collaborative lawyers (generally called Collaborative Law), it is highly recommended that the inter-disciplinary team be used when there are children involved for all the reason described earlier. Divorce represents a radical and permanent restructuring of family life and deserves to be done properly. When separating parents are highly co-operative, divorce coaches can ‘bookend’ the process with a meeting early in the process once again at termination. The early meeting provides an opportunity for the parents to connect with the divorce coach and to receive general information about the process. This then creates a safety net that may or may not be used throughout the divorce process. When the divorce is settled, a final meeting debriefs the process and provides information about what the parents can expect in the future. For example, roughly 80% of divorce parents will remarry. The quality of both the former spouse relationship and parent-child relationships will exert a powerful influence on the well-being of the stepfamily. Families, divorced or not, go on forever. The collaborative approach to separation and divorce can help to create the most life-enhancing future for the family.
CROSSING OVER INTO THERAPEUTIC TERRITORY
Collaborative Family Law represents a massive paradigm shift for family law lawyers. It is a shift from adversarial to collaborative processes in the resolution of family law disputes. It is a grassroots movement of family law lawyers that is growing very rapidly, as one lawyer at a time experiences the shift in consciousness that makes working collaboratively more attractive than working in an adversarial fashion1. This shift brings lawyers into ‘therapeutic territory’. While the lawyers are not becoming therapists, they are now working in a way that is consistent with therapeutic processes in many ways. (See chapter on collaborative lawyers and therapists working together in this volume.)
1 Many collaborative lawyers were interested in and pursued mediation when mediation first became popular. Collaborative law allows lawyers to work both as lawyers and as mediators at the same time. Some feel that the rapid growth of collaborative family law is due, at least in part, to the mediation movement that preceded it. Mediation training changed attitudes and developed skills that are directly transferable to the practice of collaborative law.
Collaborative law holds a positive view of human nature assuming that clients are essentially good and that given the appropriate tools and opportunities, they will move in a positive direction. The practice of Collaborative Law seeks to ‘do no harm’. The well-being of all family members is essential. Further, the collaborative process seeks to be a ‘self-determination model’ in which the clients are in control of the outcomes. While the team is responsible for the process, the clients are responsible for the outcomes. Collaborative family law assumes that clients are active participants in the process, similar to a vehicle in which everyone has a steering wheel. Finally, the collaborative family law process is transparent. The work of the team is observable by the clients and open to their questions.
Therefore, the shift from adversarial to collaborative processes in family law has brought collaborative lawyers into therapeutic territory and creates a forum in which lawyers and therapists can work together to assist their clients through the sometimes difficult transition of separation and divorce. Like the therapeutic process, Collaborative Law creates a safe forum in which clients can combine the tools and opportunities of the collaborative process with their own personal resources to work through the problems of the separation. In the collaborative process, clients are part of the team working toward unique solutions for their family.
WHAT IS DIVORCE COACHING?
Defining divorce coaching raises many theoretical and practice issues. Is divorce coaching therapy? Is divorce coaching the process of treating disorders, or is it more of an educational process to teach new skills for effective living for children and adults in post-separation families? Is divorce coaching primarily for the individual or for the relationships?
As such there are differences in opinion between practitioners in Canada and the US and also within regions. Despite geographical differences there is a consensus that divorce coaching is a process in which licensed clinicians work with clients to facilitate solutions to the problems of the former spouse relationship so that life in the post-separation family can proceed in a life-enhancing fashion for the children and adults involved. This includes: communication between the couple, the ‘good enough’ resolution of outstanding issues of the couple that interfere with or obstruct the formation of an effective co-parenting relationship, crafting the parenting plan, support for the general parenting of children when necessary.
It is also agreed that divorce coaches use clinical techniques as they feel is appropriate to facilitate this process. The coaching process has been described as ‘brief, goal-oriented, systemic therapy’ (Roussos, 2002). Divorce coaching is brief in that most cases include only a limited number of sessions rather than long-term. It is goal oriented in that the work relates to the separation rather then allowing an open-ended exploration of any topics the client may want to explore. Divorce coaching is systemic in that the therapist sees the client as one member of an inter-connected family system. As such, the three modalities of brief therapy, solution-oriented therapy and family systems therapy provide a useful umbrella to define the subset of all psychotherapy approaches that will be most closely associated with divorce coaching.
Divorce coaches also draw from other content domains of clinical knowledge and skills. For example: resiliency, addictions, grief and loss, abuse, domestic violence, intercultural processes, psychopathology, relaxation techniques, trauma (EMDR, EFT), etc.
Mediation training and conflict resolutions skills are also required to augment traditional clinical skills. Although mediation and clinical skills do overlap, at times the conflict may be too high to use clinical techniques beyond accurate and advanced empathy. Not all theories and techniques for couple therapy extend to the domain of high-conflict between spouses who are in the process of becoming former spouses. For example, techniques that enhance affect can be counterproductive in a high conflict environment. Knowledge and skills specific to high conflict such as mediation can assist the clinician to contain and work with very high conflict until it subsides to a point at which clinical skills are again useful.
The domain of parent education is also very useful in divorce coaching. To the extent that the family is learning to live in a different family structure, i.e., two households rather than one, divorce coaching includes providing information and opportunities to process this information. Information from mainstream publishers, family services agencies, or academic research summarized and translated for the client can help to normalize some of the issues, open up the discussion to the ‘anonymous other’ (the author of the materials), and supply neutral concrete suggestions to help facilitate the transition. Divorce coaches can help clients answer the question ‘So what does this information mean for us?” Sometimes one person is very interested in outside information and the other is not. This can create an imbalance that can fuel existing conflict. Divorce coaches are in an excellent position to help the clients integrate the information so that it can be a benefit the family.
THE ROLE OF THE DIVORCE COACH
The divorce coach is a licensed mental health practitioner and therapist well versed in separation, divorce and remarriage issues. Their training could be in clinical psychology, counseling psychology, marriage and family therapy, social work, nursing, or any other counselor training program that provides in-depth training in therapeutic techniques.
Unlike a typical therapeutic process, the work of the divorce coach is not open-ended. The Divorce coach works to the task of a successful separation. Once this task is complete, the client-coach relationship is ended. However, the client(s) has the option to return to the coaches for additional assistance with separation-related concerns later on.
The task of the divorce coach is to assist the client(s) in five general areas:
- To assist the client to clearly identify their experience and to be able to clearly articulate it to their
spouse. This aspect of divorce coaching is most similar to individual therapy. Divorce coaches use their highly developed listening skills to work with the client to articulate difficult or vague experiences that underlie their separation experience. Intense emotional experiences can be addressed in order to understand them, to help reduce their intensity, and to be able to communicate them to the other spouse.
- To assist the client to understand their impact on their spouse. This aspect of divorce coaching is most similar to family therapy. Here, the family is viewed as a system in which all members influence each other. In family therapy, therapists work to give clients an understanding of their impact on how the family and the couple functions.
- Divorce coaches work with their clients to increase their awareness of their impact on their spouse and to appreciate the reciprocal nature of intimate relationships. Because both coaches are working with their respective clients in this way, the couple begins to understand the dynamic operating between them. As their understanding and awareness increases, they can become less reactive to the other spouse.
- Coaches can also work in 4-way meetings (4-ways) with both clients and both coaches to assist the clients to recognize the destructive communication patterns. (4-ways are discussed in detail later in the chapter.) With practice clients can make significant changes in how they relate to each other in a surprisingly short period of time.
- These therapeutic approaches allow the clients to ‘re-tool’ their relationship from spouses to former spouses. As they work through the tasks of separation, they simultaneously create a new way of relating to each other that facilitates on-going communication to serve the needs of the family in the future.
- To expose the client to appropriate information regarding marital transitions. Divorce coaches also offer their clients information on marital transitions that can help reduce the anxiety and uncertainty of the process. This information could include family history, research findings, typical experiences, long-term vs short term perspectives, etc. The goal of this information is to educate the clients on issues of importance and also to help normalize the experience of separation and divorce.
- To assist the client to understand the needs of their children and to assist in the creation of an appropriate parenting plan. (A list of possible areas for parenting plans is listed later in this chapter. Resources for creating parenting plans are in the reference list.)
- Divorce coaches offer general information on children’s needs through separation and divorce. In addition, divorce coaches help the couple work through differences and concerns regarding their future parenting plan. In this way, when the parenting plan is finalized, both parents have had the opportunity to articulate their concerns, to receive relevant information from informed professionals, and to come to agreements that work for each of them.
- To act as a team member in the collaborative team. (See chapter in this volume.) This may include the other coach, both collaborative lawyers, child specialist and financial specialist. Working with the other coach is similar to co-therapy or co-counseling in which each coach works individually with their client and also together with the other coach in 4-way meetings.
- Working with the team is similar to other interdisciplinary teams such as school based resource teams or residential treatment teams. Information is shared with the rest of the team in order to facilitate the forward movement of the family. Team members work together in various arrangements depending on the needs of the family, to help the family move towards the resolution of relevant concerns.
- Specifically, divorce coaches can help the collaborative lawyers to understand the individual experiences of each client and to understand the couple and family dynamics. This allows the lawyers to work more effectively with their clients in the legal process. Similarly, other team members can assist the coaches by keeping them up-dated on the legal or financial aspects of the process that will impact the work of the coaches.
IS DIVORCE COACHING THERAPY?
The Dictionary of Psychology (Reber, 1985) defines therapy as “An inclusive label for all manners and forms of treatment of disease and disorder. Because the term is so broad, both connotatively and denotatively, it is typically used with qualifiers to designate the form of therapy referenced” (p. 769)
If therapy is the treatment of a disorder, what then is a disorder? This same author defines disorder as “Generally, and literally, lack of order, disruption of order once present”. (p. 206)
From this perspective then, divorce coaching would seem to be defined as therapy to the degree that it addresses disorder. If the clients are distressed at the beginning and less so or settled by the end of the process, it could be argued that this has been therapy. Given that the relationship included a marriage or common-law commitment (presumably a state of being ‘in order’), then re-tooling the couple relationship to create an effective co-parenting relationship could indeed qualify as re-establishing order and therefore qualify as therapy according to this definition.
To further reflect on this question I find two issues of interest. First, is divorce coaching for the individual(s) or for the relationship between them? Second, is the purpose of divorce coaching to repair that which has been ‘damaged’ (i.e., in disorder) or is it to assist clients in developing new, extraordinary skills for dealing with a new sociological phenomenon, the former spouse relationship?
1. Is coaching for the individuals or for the relationship?
Clients in the Collaborative process often ask their lawyers (who may be desperately trying to get them to see a divorce coach) “Do you think I need therapy?” or “Are you sending me for counselling?” (Often followed by – “No, you don’t understand, it’s my husband/wife who is crazy, not me!)”
One response to these questions is “No, I don’t think you are crazy but your relationship needs some help”. In many cases this is true. Many people going through separation are very functional in their individual lives. They may see divorce coaching as a type of personal growth work and chose it themselves. Even though they are not distressed in other areas of their lives, they recognize the potential for growth. While I certainly believe that everyone can benefit from understanding their choice of partner and what happened in the relationship over time such that the couple is now separating, I would not suggest that every Collaborative Law client needs individual therapy. For these clients, the work may focus more on communication skill development and problem solving around parenting.
On the other hand, some clients are clearly not functioning well in other areas of their life, either as a result of the loss of their marriage or because of other issues that predate the separation. These clients are likely also in relationships that need help, however, their individual concerns may dominate the process. For these clients, the divorce coaching process is much more therapy-like. There will likely be more individual sessions. The relationship between the client and coach will be like that of client and therapist. In these cases the coaching takes place on the foundation of the therapy work. Over time both individual and relational processes move forward in an integrated fashion to the creation of a mutually agreeable separation agreement. These clients may need a therapist external to the Collaborative team while the Collaborative process is on-going or may need a referral to a therapist once the separation process is complete. (Divorce coaches do not continue on as therapists to their Collaborative clients. That said, the coaching team can be re-activated at any time in the future to address new concerns in the post-separation family.)
Regardless of the emotional state of the individuals involved, separation means, by definition, that the relationship between the two parties is not ‘in order’. While it may be that it is now calm, having re- established equilibrium after its demise, the relationship is not what it once was between the parties.
Again, some couples have sufficient self-awareness and self-esteem to make the transition relatively gracefully. On the other hand, others are not. While the former group may chose coaching to enhance their post-separation relationship, the latter group will likely struggle to create a co-parenting relationship that will create a life-enhancing family environment (including both households) for their children and could greatly benefit from coaching.
In general, the divorce coach responds to what is needed or chosen by the client. We use all the clinical techniques in our personal ‘bag of tricks’ to help clients move through their unique experience of separation with grace and dignity, working to achieve the most life-enhancing outcome possible. For some, the focus will be on both individual and relational concerns, while for others the relational issues will be the prime concern. For some, the process will be stressful but not life-changing, for others it will be profoundly transformative.
2. Is Divorce coaching repairing damage or meeting higher standards?
Research has clearly shown us that knowing that a child has parents who have divorced tells us very little about the well-being of the child. In sharp contrast, knowing that the child has been exposed to prolonged conflict and/or parental depression tells us a lot about a child’s well-being. Equally, adult health and well-being is negatively affected by long-term marital conflict. Moreover, children’s well-being is influenced by the quality of their relationships with their parents.
Divorce can be done well. At the same time, it is a tall order. Clients must overcome the demise of the marital bond and be able to appreciate and care for each other as former spouses, often in spite of a negative social context or interfering extended family and friends. They also must learn to parent co- operatively across two households which is generally harder than within one household with someone you love. Many people can do this well on their own or with very little support. For these clients, divorce coaching (if chosen) is about meeting a higher standard of parenting practices and communication skills.
On the other hand, some clients are so devastated by the end of their marriage or so entrenched in conflict, that they and particularly their children are extremely vulnerable to the damaging effects of high conflict. (The research literature suggests that children are especially vulnerable to parental conflict at the time of separation and that conflict hurts children through it’s negative effects on parenting.) For these clients divorce coaching is about damage control to begin with, moving through personal crises and intense couple dynamics to finally reach the ‘work’ of sorting out the pragmatics of the separation. In these cases, mediation skills augment the therapist’s repertoire by allowing us to include interest-based negotiation skills when the conflict is to high for therapy techniques. Once the level of conflict has come down even a little, therapy skills can seamlessly merge with interest-based negotiation to help clients with communication skill development or any other process that may seem appropriate. For these clients, divorce coaching is first damage control, then hopefully moving on to helping them meet the higher standards required for successful two-household parenting.
In summary, divorce coaching responds to the needs of the clients. For those clients who are generally self-aware and open to learning about their impact on their spouse, divorce coaching is less like therapy and more like parent education or general support through a stressful and very important time. For those clients who are deeply distressed, not self-aware or sensitive to their impact on their spouse, the process may look very much like therapy (in conjunction with some mediation) applied to the context of high conflict separation. Regardless of where they begin, the desired outcome is for the separating couple to meet the higher standards of two-household parenting in order for the children to experience a family environment that can respond to their needs. For couples without children, this process can assist them to learn about themselves and their relationship in order to come to closure and to move on into their future in the most life enhancing way possible.
STAGES OF THE COLLABORATIVE SEPARATION AND DIVORCE PROCESS
The Collaborative Separation and Divorce process has three stages, the introduction, the body of the work, and the conclusion.
The first stage is the introduction. Clients enter into the process through one of any number of doors; collaborative lawyers, divorce coaches, child specialists, or financial specialists. The first professional refers them to others as is appropriate. As they meet collaborative professionals clients learn about the collaborative process and come to a decision about whether this process is what they want. Simultaneously the team members involved will begin an informal assessment of the situation. Does this family seem suitable for the collaborative process? This aspect of the process generally ends with the signing of the participation agreements with the lawyers, the divorce coaches, or both.
The second stage is the body of the work. This is where the clients address the problems of the separation. It may be quick and straight forward, or there may be complications or conflict that require some time to sort out.
This stage is comprised of individual sessions, 4-way meetings, 6-way meetings, team meetings and any other type of meeting that might be useful. Therapists use any and all therapeutic interventions that they feel appropriate to help the clients move forward. Although the types of approaches and interventions are generally within the scope of brief, goal-oriented and systemic therapies, therapists are free to respond to clients in the way that they see fit.
The third stage is the conclusion. During this stage, final agreements are made and documents signed. This includes the parenting plan, division of assets, or any other aspect of the separation. Sometimes clients will request a final session with their divorce coach to debrief the process. Debriefing sessions are generally very useful for everyone.
THE COACHING PROCESS
The process between the coaches and clients includes individual meetings (one-on-one) as well as 4-way meetings (both clients and both coaches) and possibly 6-way (both clients, both coaches and both lawyers) meetings. Coaches also work in conjunction with other members of the collaborative separation and divorce team.
The process begins with the first contact. The client may come through the lawyer’s door or the coach’s door. Some clients prefer to contact lawyers immediately while others prefer to work with coaches on relationship or children’s issues before contacting lawyers.
Intake and Initial Informal Assessment
Some clients will contact a therapist with a general inquiry around a separation. Some therapists provide not only divorce coaching, but also family therapy, mediation and services to children. As there is substantial overlap between these four types of therapeutic services, it may not be immediately obvious which service is most appropriate. Equally, a client looking for help with a separation may not know which service will suit them best. They will likely not be familiar with collaborative family law unless they mention it themselves.
At this point the therapist may need to conduct an informal assessment to determine which type of service to offer. Each therapist will develop their own criteria for deciding which service is in the client’s best interest. Useful questions might include:
- Where is the family in the separation process?
- What is the general level of conflict?
- What does conflict look like for this couple?
- How comfortable is the caller with the idea of sitting in a room with their spouse discussing the problems of the separation?
- How are the children doing?
- Does the caller feel that they have the same perspective of their children as their spouse?
- Have lawyers been retained?
Answers to these questions will assist the therapist in making an informal, initial assessment of the situation that will then inform the decision of who should attend the first session. They could connect with the family as a collaborative divorce coach, a family therapist, a mediator or a child specialist, depending on their professional expertise and what they understand to be the needs of the family at this point. (See chapter on Child Specialist in this volume.) If the therapist intends to work as a family therapist, child specialist or mediator, the introductory session could, but does not have to, include both clients. If the therapist intends to work as a divorce coach, then only the caller would attend the first session.
Collaborative Law seems ideally suited, but not limited to, couples that are experiencing moderate to high conflict, in which one or both parties are experiencing discomfort speaking directly with their spouse about separation issues and have not yet retained lawyers. Callers interested in Collaborative Law can be referred to a website or sent an information package in order to learn more about the process and to determine if this is the option they want to pursue.
Clients will also have their own opinions about which option suits them best. While the therapist can educate the caller, and will have their own opinion, ultimately it will be up to the client to decide which process seems to best respond to their needs. Therapists have the right to decline to work with clients who they feel are not suited for the dispute resolution process they have chosen.
Starting With Divorce Coaches
When the Collaborative Family Law client enters through the divorce coach’s door, it is clear that the client wants the involvement of a mental health professional. This client is generally from the segment of the population that is more comfortable talking with a therapist than a lawyer. Often these clients will be anxious about the involvement of a lawyer and will need education about the collaborative process and reassurance that collaborative lawyers will not damage their family relationships or create conflicted legal processes that drain the family finances. Think of these clients as ‘voluntary clients’. (See Difficult Clients in Special Topics section of this chapter.)
The first session allows the therapist to further screen for issues that may preclude working with the client in a collaborative process. Issues that could screen a family out of this process include:
- Family Violence (See section at end of this chapter.)
- Mental illness (See section at end of this chapter.)
- Extreme power imbalance in the couple relationship
- Unwillingness to disclose information relevant to the separation process.
Issues of screening can also include the therapist and the team. New coaches and teams are encouraged to begin with relatively simple family situations. For example, clients who present with a relatively low level of conflict or families in which the separation is relatively straight forward are an ideal place to begin. More seasoned collaborative professionals can work with higher levels of conflict and more complicated situations.
Admittedly, it is impossible to completely accurately predict the trajectory of a collaborative file. Working in the collaborative separation and divorce process is similar to the game of Snakes & Ladders (or Chutes & Ladders in the US). Any number of unforeseen ‘snakes’ can suddenly appear, seemingly out of nowhere. Happily, any number of ‘ladders’ can also appear, again, seemingly out of nowhere. We can never really know how the process will go until it is done. Nevertheless, therapists can consider their own professional competence and professional comfort when determining the appropriateness of their work with the client.
Starting with Collaborative Lawyers
When the client enters the process through the lawyer’s door, it is generally through one of two processes. One possibility is that the client has contacted a lawyer because that is what they believe they need to do to get a divorce. Upon meeting the collaborative lawyer they have heard about divorce coaches and said ‘Yes, we need this.” These clients recognize that there is some important relational work to do and are clear that their children’s best interest is served by their ongoing parenting relationship functioning at the highest level possible. Alternatively the client may be in such shock as to be barely functioning. These clients are also ‘voluntary clients’.
The second possibility is that when the collaborative lawyers presented the idea of working with divorce coaches, the clients felt that this was not necessary. If they are right, we never meet them. They carry on with the lawyers and work efficiently to resolve the problems at hand. These clients make up the ‘lawyer only’ files completed by the Vancouver Collaborative Separation and Divorce Group.
If they are wrong, their negotiations will not proceed in a constructive fashion, generally because of intense emotional experiences of one or both clients. The collaborative lawyers will again raise the possibility of working with divorce coaches, this time with more urgency. At this time, the clients will be referred to coaches. Think of these clients as ‘not-entirely-voluntary-clients.’ (See Difficult Clients later in this chapter.)
These clients present with an understanding of the collaborative process already in place therefore the issues of determining which is the most appropriate service do not usually apply. Equally, the family is already known to the team so that initial screening is generally not necessary. Instead, the client and coach can get to work on the issues at hand.
Talking with the lawyers in advance can be very useful. Some divorce coaches prefer to meet clients with no preconceived notions and to form their own impressions first before consulting with the team. Others prefer to have a ‘heads up’ from the lawyer before meeting their client. In general, the more acute or highly charged the emotional climate the more useful it can be to receive some information on the family and the reason for the referral before the first meeting with the client.
THE FIRST INDIVIDUAL MEETING (Coach and Client)
The first meeting begins with the informed consent procedure of any therapy relationship including confidentiality and the limits to confidentiality, etc. Once the client has chosen the collaborative process, informed consent specific to the collaborative separation and divorce process as described in the Participation Agreement will be necessary.
The initial interview will vary widely depending on the state of well-being of the client. The coach may act as an educator and facilitator to a client who is relatively calm and relaxed or equally may find themselves faced with a client in deep distress, or any point in between. For clients who are in shock or are traumatized by the separation, the therapist works therapeutically to join with them, to help them articulate their experience, to contain intense emotion and to provide ‘triage’ care.2 For these clients, any therapeutic techniques that help to calm them and reduce the intensity of their emotional experience are very useful, such as breath work, other relaxation techniques or releasing techniques such as the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). Each therapist will have their own approach from their personalized therapeutic ‘bag of tricks’.
The divorce coach works to balance two agendas simultaneously. On one hand, they are working toward resolving the problems of the separation and divorce. On the other hand, they are responding therapeutically to clients in any way possible to create life-enhancing outcomes from the separation process. Along the way, the therapist is constantly making decisions about what should happen next. Is this a point in which a piece of therapeutic work would be useful? Or, is this a time for addressing tasks. The therapist works in a right foot, left foot type of process, going back and forth between the two sometimes competing but ultimately complementary processes. This creates a BOTH – AND type of process in which the process addresses therapeutic issues while at the same time resolving the problems of the separation and divorce.
Depending on the theoretical orientation of the coach, different information may be elicited during the first session.
That said, there are some topics that are essential to the collaborative process.
What is the client’s general experience of the separation?
• The first meeting can only begin once. At this point, the therapist has the opportunity to receive
the client in a way that not only sets the tone for all the future work together, but also gives the client the opportunity to vent or release the pent up experiences and emotions of their situation. While it will be important to have all the details at some point in time, the first meeting is unique in its power to allow the client to tell their story, their way, and to feel truly heard by the therapist. Most of the information you need will come out of the client’s story. You can always ask for additional information later.
• Asking the client to imagine a metaphor that captures their experience of the separation can be very useful. Having a good working metaphor can help keep a healthy perspective on the details that will follow. After all, some details are much more important than others.
• Who is in the family?
• Get good working knowledge of who is in the family, including nannies and pets. A genogram
can be very useful. Basic information about each family member could include likes, dislikes, hobbies, education, occupations, stay-at-home parents, etc. Including a brief survey of Mom and Dad’s family of origin is also very useful.
What is the general emotional tone of the family?
• A quick survey of the emotional tone of the family and each parent’s family of origin is very
useful. There may be some important information in the family story that will quickly surface if given the opportunity. This could include: mental illness, alcoholism, cut-offs, suicides, family alliances, stories of heroism, family strengths, etc.
• How are the kids doing?
• What are the children like? What are their interests? How are they individually and as a sibling
group? How are they experiencing the separation? What are the concerns about the children?
How is parenting going?
Divorce coaching can seem like working at a triage center in the emergency department of a hospital. Some clients have emotional issues equivalent to a small sprain. It hurts. They can’t walk. They need some help but their life will go on in much the same way it was before. Other clients are more similar to victims of a hit-and-run car accident. They are seriously hurt. They cannot walk. They need life support and their lives will never be the same. Divorce coaches use what is in their professional repertoire to help clients in whatever way they present.
Who does what?
Do they have similar or different parenting styles? Are there alliances between parents & kids or between siblings? Is there general agreement about how the parenting plan will work or will this be an area of conflict?
Styles of conflict.
• What does conflict look like in this family? Is it loud or quiet? Who does what when there is
conflict? What does resolution of conflict look like? Who does what to resolve conflict? Is there,
or has there ever been violence? What did it look like?
• What does the client see as their strengths and resources? For their spouse? For their children?
For the family?
• What does the client see as the challenges of the separation? For their spouse? For their children?
For their family?
• What would a successful outcome look like for the client? For their spouse? For their children?
For their family?
Where is the family in the separation process?
• Has the separation been announced? Have they separated their households? Have they decided
on the appropriate process for the separation?
As soon as is reasonable, the coach provides information on the collaborative separation and divorce to introduce the client to the process or to supplement or confirm what they may already know. For clients who are still in the process of choosing a process for their separation, it is useful to review the dispute resolution continuum.
The Dispute Resolution Continuum
The Kitchen Table Divorce – This describes spouses who are essentially doing their divorce themselves, often around the kitchen table. Spouses are in direct communication with each other and there are few if any professionals involved.
Mediation – In mediation, spouses work with a neutral third party to resolve the problems of the divorce. Spouses meet with the mediator together and individually. The clients are in direct communication with each other in the presence of the mediator. Good communication and conflict reduction are stressed. The mediator does not advocate for either party. Each party must receive independent legal advice regarding the final settlement.
Collaborative Separation and Divorce – Each spouse has a collaborative lawyer (who is also a mediator) and a divorce coach (who is also a mediator) who support them to resolve the problems of the separation and divorce through a series of individual meetings and 4-way meetings. All parties agree not to go to court and that all parties will resign from the case should the collaborative process derail.
The respective collaborative lawyer and coach are advocates for their client, however they are also responsible for the family system. Collaborative rather than adversarial practices are used. Good communication and conflict reduction are stressed. As much as possible, spouses are assisted in retooling their spousal relationship to a functioning co-parenting relationship. Spouses are in direct communication with each other with the support of their respective lawyer and coach. Confidentiality is waived to allow team members to share information.
A Child specialist can be used to reduce conflict regarding children’s issues. Similarly, a Financial Specialist can be used to help reduce conflict regarding financial issues. Both are neutral third parties who can provide important information to the parents and to the team.
Litigation – Each spouse works with a traditional lawyer who acts for him/her. Spouses may meet in settlement meetings or have their lawyers communicate for them thereby avoiding direct contact with each other. Lawyers do not necessarily share information. As the conflict increases, litigation practices may become progressively more adversarial, ultimately ending up in court.
Once clients are familiar with their options, they can make a decision regarding the best process for their family. If the client has chosen a collaborative separation and divorce process, names of other potential team members can be offered. Clients can be given the names of collaborative lawyers for both spouses if lawyers have not already been retained. Names of other divorce coaches can also be offered for the other spouse or they can be referred to the website of the local practice group to select the professionals they wish to work with.
The Participation Agreement (PA)
For clients who choose the Collaborative Separation and Divorce process, further education in this model is necessary, specifically the Participation Agreement (See Appendix). The Participation Agreement is the cornerstone of the collaborative process. There is one for the lawyers and one for the coaches. If the lawyers have not signed a Participation Agreement then it is not a collaborative file. It might be a ‘friendly file’, or a ‘not-intending-to-go-to-court file’, but it is not a Collaborative Separation and Divorce file. For the divorce coaches, signing the PA is also essential.
The coach’s Participation Agreement outlines the goals of Collaborative Separation and Divorce, the roles of divorce coaches, collaborative lawyers, child specialist, and financial specialist. It also addresses responsibilities of the client, rules of confidentiality, conditions of withdrawal or termination, and limitations of the process. Clients will be asked to sign this agreement at the first coaches 4-way. Clients can be given a copy to read at home. This is followed by a careful review of the document and confirmation that the client truly understands the basic assumptions of the process.
• Confidentiality. It is very important that the client understand that confidentiality is waived by all parties such that the collaborative team members can communicate with each other. While each professional is held to the standards of confidentiality of their profession, team members must be able to talk together in order to address the problems experienced by the family members.
• Full disclosure. It is also important for the client to understand the meaning of ‘full disclosure’. This is a shift in the status quo from regular therapy in that the therapist is obligated to disclose all relevant information to the team. Failure of the client to allow the disclosure of relevant information will result in the coach withdrawing from the collaborative process.
The individual meetings allow client and coach to create a strong working alliance, for the coach to understand their client’s experience and to clarify the problems that stand in the way of a successful co- parenting relationship. These meetings also educate the client in the process of collaborative separation and divorce, taking particular care to fully explore the Participation Agreement.
For most clients, one or two meetings are sufficient to connect and prepare for the first 4-way meeting with the other spouse and coach. For other clients, it may take much longer due to the high level of distress of one of the parties.
Consent to Release Information
The final piece of the first meeting is to request that the client give the therapist their consent to release information to the referring lawyer (if referred) and other coach (if known). Confidentiality will be waived within the team with the signing of the Participation agreement, however, in the meantime, the divorce coach may need to speak with the other coach or the referring lawyer.
Sometimes clients are not ready to do this. They may need to go home and let everything settle. Equally, clients may elect to keep the therapist as their therapist but not as their coach. These clients usually have discussed information they are not willing to disclose to other team members. Typically this involves a new partner their spouse does not know about. While these possibilities are rare they do happen. As divorce coaches it is important to check our assumptions and to give clients the opportunity to make fully informed choices at all points along the way.
This preliminary release of information allows the divorce coach to communicate to the referring lawyer that the client has ‘landed’, to give a general description of the initial session(s) and to hear more about the legal process thus far. This also allows the two coaches to connect and begin putting the pieces together that will facilitate understanding the family system.
COACHES MEETING (Coaches Only)
Once clients have chosen the collaborative separation and divorce process, have contacted and met with their respective divorce coaches, and signed release of information consent forms regarding their spouse’s coach, the two coaches connect. This can be done in person or more frequently over the phone. It usually lasts 45 minutes to an hour.
The goal of this meeting is to:
- Give the divorce coaches a chance to introduce each other if they have not met previously.
Frequently the two coaches know each other from being in the same practice group. Learning about each other’s professional orientation, professional experience and previous divorce coaching work can be very useful.
- Learn about the other spouse’s experiences and the family system. This includes the history of the family, the dynamics of the couple relationship, perceptions and concerns about the children and any other information relevant to this family. Sometimes the stories can be so different as to suggest there has been a mistake and the parties are not talking about the same family. This would suggest a high level of conflict and estrangement. More typically the experiences are fairly recognizable and the coaches, well versed in family therapy, can begin to understand the family system and how it works.
This meeting may also be the pre-meeting for the first coaching 4-way. Alternatively, one or both clients may need to continue to meet individually with their coach in order to feel ready for the 4-way.
COACHING 4-WAY MEETINGS
Coaching 4-way meetings create a forum in which clients can work together and with their coaches to address the problems of the separation and the creation of a parenting plan. Together with the individual sessions between the client and coach, the coaching 4-ways make up the body of the collaborative separation and divorce process. Clients receive the benefit of assisted conversations regarding difficult and/or sensitive topics that help to resolve the concerns of the separation and allow the family to move forward in a constructive fashion.
Coaching 4-way meetings are invaluable because:
- 4-ways allow the clients to continue to have exposure to each other. While the involvement of professionals is of course important, it is even more important that the clients continue to have exposure to each other. It is much easier to vilify someone you don’t have to see or listen to, than someone you must continue to engage with.
- For children, settlement is not enough. Research on children’s outcomes through divorce and remarriage clearly show us that it is the on-going presence of conflict in the children’s family environment that is corrosive to children’s well-being. Effective and responsive co-parenting cannot take place in a continually conflicted environment. It is in children’s best interest that the conflict of the marriage be resolved as much as possible.
- 4-ways are where the clients learn to communicate clearly with each other and to carve out their new, former spouse relationship. It is, after all, the clients who will continue to be connected throughout the future of the post-divorce family.
- 4-ways allow coaches to assist the clients in transforming their spousal relationship into a former spouse relationship. All the work of the 1-on-1 meetings bares fruit in the 4-way. The relationship established between the client and their respective divorce coach ‘contains’ the process between the spouses. If the emotional tone of the conversation becomes one in which productive communication is not possible, the coaches act to either redirect the process or pause it temporarily in order to spend some time alone with their respective client.
- 4-ways provide an ideal forum for assisting parents who are struggling, to create a parenting plan. Divorce coaches can provide clients with information regarding the parenting plan. Moreover, as the clients discuss parenting issues, the issues of the couple will frequently surface. The 4-way provides the environment in which the spousal relationship can be worked with at the same time as the children’s issues resolved and a parenting plan articulated. Frequently, once the children’s issues are dealt with, the couple dynamic has also improved significantly. Furthermore, the proximity of the children’s issues also helps to remind separating parents why they are working with the coaches in the first place – to create the most life-enhancing family environment post separation for themselves and for their children.
Pre-meeting for Coaching 4-way (Coaches only)
• 4-ways are invaluable for the divorce coaches in that it allows them to witness the relationship dynamic between the couple first hand. While the coaches each have a working relationship with their respective client, it is the process between the two clients that created the marriage and eventually the choice to end the marriage. The more clients can become aware of their mutual affect on each other, the more they can take responsibility for their part in creating conflict and chose to do otherwise.
Client Preparation for the Coaching 4-way (Coach and Client)
• In preparation for the coaching 4-way, the divorce coach and client need to review a number of concerns. This may take place within the first individual session or any subsequent individual session that immediately precedes the 4-way. This includes:
• Helping your client to anticipate their experience of being in the room with their spouse. How do they think they will feel, think, act?
• How do they anticipate their spouse will experience being in the room with them?
• What concerns or issues would they like to address in the coaching 4-ways in general? In the
upcoming 4-way specifically?
• What will a successful meeting look like to them? How confident are they that the meeting will be
• What personal strengths do they have that will help facilitate a constructive 4-way?
• What do they know about their spouse that will help to facilitate a constructive 4-way? What
strengths does their spouse have or do they have as a couple, that will help make the 4-way
• What if anything are they afraid of? What could happen that might provoke your client or their
spouse? What strengths do they or their spouse have that could help them deal with any difficult
aspects of the meeting.
• How can you help? What kind of support does your client need from you? Are they comfortable
calling a break or would they like you to do that? How will you know if they need a break?
• Review the Participation Agreement. Any questions should be answered now so that the signing
of the PA can proceed smoothly and with confidence at the 4-way.
• Review the procedure of the first 4-way. Generally it involves explaining ground rules, reviewing
and signing the PA, surveying concerns, prioritizing concerns, and possibly beginning to work on
a small or relatively easy concern if there is time remaining.
• Review your relationship to the other client. Let your client know that you are there as primary
support to her or him, and secondary support to their spouse. You will be warm and generally supportive to the other client sometimes helping them to clarify their thoughts or to express something clearly. At the same time your main advocacy role is to your client. This includes giving them sensitive information that may be difficult to hear.
• Ask your client to bring their daybook or planner to the meeting in order to schedule future meetings together.
Once the clients feel ready to meet together, and the coaches have conducted the pre-meeting interview with their respective client, the coaches connect to prepare for the upcoming 4-way.
• Bringing each other up to date on what has taken place in the family since the initial contact between coaches (if necessary).
• Bringing each other up to date on what has been worked on in any additional individual sessions including any shifts or changes in the client’s experience, affect or behavior relevant to the issues at hand (if necessary).
• Anticipating the experience of each client in the 4-way. Some clients are extremely apprehensive about being in the room with their spouse to discuss issues related to the separation. Some clients are very angry. The coaches need to understand the concerns of each spouse in order to maintain
the safety of the coaching forum.
• Reviewing client and family strengths. Knowing what the clients do well, individually and as a
couple and family is very useful.
• Reviewing each client’s concerns in general, and, more specifically what they would like to
address in the 4-way.
• Sharing information about what each client needs from their coach in the 4-way, such as what
would signal the need for a break.
The First Coaching 4-way Meeting (Coaches and Clients)
The first 4-way sets the stage for those that follow. It is important that the clients come away from the first 4-way meeting with a sense of accomplishment. In situations of moderate to high conflict, the goal of the first 4-way can sometimes be just to get through it! For these clients the metaphor of ‘relationship rehabilitation’ can be useful. Rehabilitation is not easy or fun. Yet we do it anyway because the result is a higher quality of life in the long term even if it is painful in the short term. This is certainly important for separating parents in conflicted relations with each other. However, it is even more important for their children.
In any case, to be successful it must be structured and well managed. A 2-hour time period is recommended. It can be preceded by, or begin with a quick (5 – 10 minute) check-in with your client. Generally, the first 4-way proceeds as follows.
• Introductions (i.e., each spouse with the other’s coach). It is important for each coach to establish a positive connection with the other spouse. Although we are not there as the primary support for the other client, we are there as general support for the other client. Our role with the other client is to be supportive and to facilitate good communication.
• Honoring clients and acknowledging the courage and conviction it takes to come into the room. They deserve our respect doing this sometimes difficult work of addressing the problems of the separation themselves. Remind them that their children will directly benefit from this work. (You can even ask them to bring a picture of their children. Keep this in plain view at future 4-ways.)
• A review of rules of conduct for the 4-ways, i.e., respectful communication, I statements, no attacking or blaming, calling time outs, etc.
• A review of the Participation Agreement and signing both copies. Having two originals allows each client/coach to have an original.
• A survey of the issues that are facing the couple as they move through the divorce process. (Flip charts are very useful here as everyone can see the points listed and then the list itself becomes part of the file and available at future meetings.)
• A general assessment of how easy or difficult each item is anticipated to be.
• Prioritizing the items.
• If there is still time remaining, begin with the easiest item or a small pressing issue that needs to
be dealt with immediately.
• Book the next 2 or 3 4-ways. It is much easier to book 4-ways in the future and then to cancel
them if they are not necessary than to try to align 4 people’s schedules at the last minute. Watch for lawyer 4-ways already scheduled. Generally, try to avoid them having more than one 4-way of any type in any given week. Ask clients to bring their daybooks or planners to all 4-ways so that you can do your scheduling all together. This saves a tremendous amount of future telephone time.
Debriefing your client after the 4-way
Each 4-way has the potential to stir up strong emotions for your client. Time spent either immediately following the 4-way or as soon as possible, either in person or on the phone to debrief, is very beneficial.
• How does your client rate the meeting? Was it generally useful?
• What was it like to be there? Difficult? Not so bad? Challenging but good?
• What did they notice, learn, appreciate that they did not know before about her/himself? The other spouse? How they relate to each other?
• What can you share with your client from your observations? As the coach, is there anything that you noticed, learned, appreciate about your client that you did not know before? What did you notice, learn, appreciate about how the relationship dynamic between the two clients that you did not know before? (Focus on strengths and abilities that can address vulnerabilities.) What did you notice about aspects of your client that they may not be entirely conscious of (the proverbial ‘dark’ side?)
• Is there homework from the meeting? Are there any obvious tasks that the client must complete for the process to continue? Will the client need to be reminded? Focused? Time-limited?
• Are there issues that require your advocacy? At times, you may feel that your client’s interests are at risk or perhaps are not being served. If so, as coach and advocate, you will need to address this. This may be resolved in the debrief with your co-coach. Alternatively, you may need the help of the team to bring in other opinions or a legal perspective.
Debriefing with the other coach
Debriefing with the other coach occurs after each 4-way, particularly the first one. You will each have met your client’s spouse (often quite a surprise) and you will have seen your client in the presence of their spouse (sometimes quite a different view). Also, you will have had your first experience of the relational dynamic between them. It will be useful for you to connect with the other coach and to put your experiences together.
• How do you feel the meeting went in general? What were the highs and/or lows for each of you? Were there any surprises?
• How do you think your client did, given their concerns or challenges going into the meeting?
• This is a good opportunity to review what each client was working on in the session. At times, it
may not be obvious just how hard a client is working to respond differently to their spouse in a 4-
• What was your experience of the other spouse? Were you surprised given your client’s
description of this person?
• The similarities and differences between your client’s description of their spouse and your
experience of this person is important to note. If it is very different, it is a good indication that either the person in question has great cover, or your client is reacting to something else that is being triggered by their spouse, or both. You will get a better sense of where the distortion is as you move through the process.
• What is your sense of the dynamic between them? Does it fit with your hunches from the coach’s pre-4-way conversation? What did you learn about how the relational dynamic influences the ability of the couple to resolve the problems of the separation? How will this influence your work with your client in future individual sessions and 4-ways?
• The relational dynamic is the key to the family’s progress through the separation. If the clients are fairly resolved, they will likely more through smoothly and quickly. The higher the conflict, the longer it takes and the more difficult the work.
• First 4-ways with high conflict couples can feel like working in a wind tunnel. Or the air feels electric. As these couples go through the process of individual and 4-way meetings, the level of conflict begins to subside in most cases, even the very difficult ones. Sometimes it is not entirely clear why. There may be little insight into the problems or the dynamics or no ‘aha’ moments to celebrate. And yet, things ease. This is the magic of 4-way meetings.
• How did it feel to be working with the other coach? Did you feel like your instincts and decisions were ‘in sync’ or coming from very different approaches? What theoretical or practical issues do you need to discuss in order to feel more effective as a co-coaching team in future 4-ways?
• Working with the other coach in 4-way meetings will tell you a lot about both your theoretical perspectives. In general, if both coaches have good training in family therapy, your differences will be complimentary and the assumptions and process of family therapy will be your common ground. Take the time to understand each other’s experience in the room, especially the first time you work with someone. This will help you develop your working relationship. Once you have worked together with a few families, you will fall more naturally into a rhythm and less debriefing will be required.
• Think ahead to the next 4-way. What would you like to do more of? What would you like to do differently?
Preparing for subsequent 4-ways
After the first 4-way you and your client will have a better sense of what to expect. Additional 4-ways will become the ‘work-place’ of the issues identified in the first meeting. (Keep the list from your flip chart handy for future reference.) Before each subsequent meeting:
• Anticipate the issues that will be addressed. Try to anticipate the emotional charge that may accompany each issue.
• Work with your client, using any skills in your therapeutic repertoire to assist your client to be in touch with their experience of these issues, to be able to communicate this clearly to their spouse, and to be able to hear their spouse’s experience of these issues. For very intense emotions, relaxation techniques, EMDR, EFT or other trauma recovery techniques can be very useful.
• Work with your client to anticipate how they will feel, think, act in the next meeting.
• Practice new skills that may be necessary to successfully participate in the meeting.
• Helping your client to understand their contribution to the very problems they feel plagued with is
a challenging aspect of divorce coaching. Yet this is really the heart of the matter. Once clients can understand their part in creating the relational dynamic (not to mention choosing this person as their partner), they are in control of themselves again. Even though it may be emotionally difficult to come to this awareness, it is also accompanied by relief. To believe the other spouse is solely responsible is also to give the other spouse their power. To take appropriate responsibility to take one’s power back.
As coaches, we will be (at least) slightly biased to our client’s frame of reference. In 4-ways, it can be tempting to address, challenge or confront the other client, who may, at times, appear to be unreasonable. To cross the relationship lines can seriously damage this client’s trust in the process. Since you do not have a primary working relationship with this client, any challenges coming from you may be experienced as somewhat threatening or as a hostile attack.
However, if you have concerns about the other client you have (at least) two other options.
1. Stop the session and take a moment with the other coach. The other coach may not have noticed, and work may need to be done before the 4-way can continue.
2. Wait until after the session to debrief with the other coach. It may be that the other coach was also surprised at a sudden shift in expressed attitudes but chose not to address it at the time. Similarly, the other coach may not agree because of other information you were not aware of.
Integrating Individual Sessions and 4-ways
As the clients move forward through their process, a rhythm of individual sessions and 4-ways
often develops. Clients and coaches together decide on the frequency of contact. At the beginning, it may mean that intense individual sessions take place between each 4-way. However, as time goes on, some issues are resolved and anxiety decreases, fewer individual sessions are necessary.
Simultaneously, clients may be meeting with their collaborative lawyers. Given that collaborative lawyers are also working to assist the clients towards resolution, the legal sessions provide support to the coaching sessions, and vice versa.
A team meeting includes all relevant professionals. This generally means two coaches and two lawyers plus the child specialist or financial specialist as is appropriate. (See chapter on Inter-Disciplinary Teams in this volume.) Logistically, we have found the use of teleconferencing very useful here. Team meetings generally last 30 minutes to one hour.
Team meetings are not used frequently; generally not more than one or two times per family. The team meeting can be used when there is a family crisis that has implications for more than one discipline. Alternatively, a team meeting can be called when it seems that the clients are working with the team in their respective meetings but progress is not being made. Any team member can call a team meeting
When capable and compassionate professionals put their heads together, it is wonderful what can happen. Issues are hashed out until it is clear who should be doing what with who, when. The legal, financial and therapeutic issues can be put together to look for new ways to work with the family. The team meeting allows the professionals to focus their attention, candidly discuss and debate the issues, and brainstorm possibilities. (For therapists, this is similar to supervision with difficult cases.)
Cost is frequently a concern for clients when considering a team meeting. Certainly having all the professionals involved at the same time can appear costly. However, team meetings can resolve complicated issues infinitely faster, more economically and more constructively than the traditional litigation process. Team meetings also allow the professionals to co-ordinate their efforts for the direct benefit of their clients. While collaborative teams must be mindful of the cost to their clients, our experience is that when needed, the team meeting is the most effective and efficient way to address multiple concerns or family crisis within the collaborative process.
A 6-way meeting involves both clients, both coaches and both lawyers. They are very rare and are often at the client’s request. 6-way meetings are ‘The buck stops here’ meetings. The 6-way can be very useful when it seems that the issues are bouncing back and forth between the coaching 4-ways and the lawyer 4-ways. They can also be very useful when a family crisis outside the separation process occurs that influences the work of both the coaches and the lawyers. These meetings can be invaluable for bringing all aspects of a problem to the table at the same time and often provide the necessary focus, support and energy to really grapple with very difficult issues or entrenched positions.
The collaborative clients and/or team can suggest any type of meeting that seems to be useful. This could include 3-way meetings with the client, their coach and their lawyer. These meetings can be useful when the client is struggling with a particular issue, when the coach and lawyer need more clarity on a given issue or when extremely difficult information is coming to the client.
Another possibility is both coaches meeting together with each client. This format was requested by a client who felt that he was not able to adequately express his views in the presence of his wife. He requested a meeting with both coaches in order to make himself understood. This process was repeated with his wife to keep the process balanced.
Given the unique nature of each family and each separation process, the team is free to respond to situations using their best skills, wisdom, humanity and creativity. Equally, clients may want other extended family members or friends to participate. Any combination to which all parties agree could be useful. For example, one client brought her mother to an individual coaching meeting. This turned out to be very useful.
STAYING IN TOUCH WITH YOUR TEAM Staying In Touch.
The collaborative spirit seems to allow the coaching and legal process to evolve in a way that keeps the client in control of the content, the pace, and the degree to which each type of professional is utilized. Coaches and lawyers stay in touch with quick phone calls or messages as the work unfolds. Professionals within the same practice group see each other frequently at monthly meetings as well as other meetings. Quickly touching base gives the professionals heads up to what is happening so that they can work more effectively in their sessions.
Some inter-disciplinary groups use case managers to keep everyone on track. In Vancouver, this has not been necessary to date. Given that most of us participate in the larger Vancouver Collaborative Separation and Divorce Group we see each other regularly and know each other quite well. However, if this is not the case for you, the case manager may be useful.
The case manager is one member of the team who agrees to keep things organized. Often this is a coach given that the hourly rate is generally lower. This person keeps people informed, makes sure meetings are taking place and that the process is moving forward.
BRINGING THE PROCESS TO A CLOSE
Working with a family moving through a collaborative process can feel like playing a game of Snakes and Ladders. The work may be progressing so smoothly it seems effortless; a progression of ladders moving us to resolution. Then, suddenly, we hit a snake and it feels like we have lost much of the ground we thought we had gained and are back at the beginning again, our clients discouraged. Then, after some hard work, a ladder appears out of nowhere and we are back on track again. And on it goes until we arrive at the conclusion with all snakes dealt with and all the ladders securely in place.
Clients and coaches can work together to determine when the coaching process is complete. The completion of the parenting plan can sometimes signal the end of the coaching process. For others, it will be the reduction of conflict. As the process moves forward, the clients generally begin to be able to have more constructive discussions regarding the family on their own time, outside the forum of the coaching 4- ways. Sometimes e-mail communication acts as a step between the 4-ways and face-to-face discussions. For some clients, face-to-face discussions may not ever seem likely however they have created alternative methods and have agreed to them, such as phone contact or e-mail.
Often the final documents are signed with the lawyers and the coaches may not be a part of the final meeting. At the same time, should the clients request this, it is always a possibility.
Clients will sometimes meet individually with their coach to debrief the process once the final documents are signed. This is very useful for both the client and coach. Reviewing the process can consolidate changes the client has worked hard for and can give the coach the opportunity to learn what the client believes was useful in the process. Finding out what the client did not find useful is also a good idea.
The divorce coaches are available to the client in the future. As the children move through developmental transitions, the family changes and ‘life happens’, the clients may chose to return to the coaching forum to discuss new issues and to resolve new disputes. As coaches do not act as therapists to their clients subsequent to the signing of the separation agreements, they can be available to them at any time in the future within the more limited confidentiality agreement of the coaching process. Future work would still focus on the now former spouses, children and the two-household family. The basic assumptions of the Participation Agreement, minus the lawyers’ involvement, would still hold.
Each family is unique and their collaborative process will unfold according their characteristics and needs. It is our experience that the resources and flexibility of the process described above seem to allow the gradual reduction in conflict and clarification of the issues that must be resolved for the family to be able to move through the separation process in a life-enhancing way for the long-term best interest of the family. The process is extremely flexible and fluid, allowing team members to respond to the needs of the family. This also allows for the input of the family members as the process unfolds.
THE PARENTING PLAN SPECIAL TOPICS
The Parenting Plan is an important product of the collaborative process. The creation of the parenting plan can often be the process through which the clients retool their marital relationship into a co- parenting relationship. There are many excellent resources to help the professional who would like to learn more about this process. (See reference list at the end of this chapter.)
Here is a list of topic areas that could be included in a parenting plan.
1. Living Arrangements
2. Child Care
3. Day-to-day Decisions
4. Personal Care
11. Extended Family
12. New Partners
14. Parent Moving
15. Communication Between Parents
16. Review and Evaluation
Each family is a unique culture and as such will have its own unique set of topics for the parenting plan. Offering clients a detailed list of possible topics allows them to recognize their concerns and to add their own. Further, lists save them the trouble of having to start thinking about this ‘from scratch’, especially when they may be emotionally distressed or preoccupied by any number of very distressing elements of the family transition.
REFERING TO AN OUTSIDE THERAPIST
The question of whether divorce coaching is therapy notwithstanding, divorce coaching is a brief, goal- oriented process. At times clients present with issues that appear to suggest an approach to treatment that is long-term, rather than brief, or is not sufficiently related to the separation and divorce issues to fit well into the coaching work.
Making a referral to an outside therapist is a judgment call for the coach. Here are 5 criteria that can help assess the situation.
- Proximity to issues of separation and divorce. If an issue is very close to those of the separation and divorce, it can sometimes be useful in the process. An example of this might be a client gaining awareness that her communication style at work is submissive, as she has been with her husband. As she gets stronger in the separation process, she may take on some issues at work that when successfully dealt with, can positively contribute to the collaborative process. On the other hand, looking for a new job or career change is generally beyond the scope of the coaching process.
- The intensity of the problem. If the problem is generally low-level and does not take over the work on separation then it can be addressed without threatening the coaching agenda. On the other hand, if the intensity is such that it takes over and the issues related to the separation cannot be addressed, then a referral should be made. Equally, if it is intense and the separation work can still be done, then the client has a choice to pursue the non-separation issue with another therapist. A recommendation and referral can be made to the client for their consideration. An example of this might be previous trauma triggered by the separation.
- The time frame for treatment. If an outside issue appears to be quickly dealt with, then the divorce coach could address the concern and still remain within the coaching agenda. If, on the other hand, the presenting concern appears to warrant long-term treatment, then a referral is likely the best choice. An example of this might be something from the client’s family of origin story that is similar to and being affected by the current situation, perhaps a high conflict situation with an abusive parent who is perceived to be similar to their spouse.
- The type of problem. If the client presents a serious clinical issue that requires a specialist’s attention, generally I will refer. An example of this might be an eating disorder. This also relates to the issue of dual relationships in smaller or remote communities.
- Dual relationships. As therapists we are well acquainted with the issues of dual relationships and should have a healthy caution of them. Living in a large metropolitan area, I have no end of referral possibilities. At the same time, I am aware that in smaller communities or in remote areas, there may be greater incentive to consider a broader band of work within the coaching agenda with a particular client. Ultimately each coach will have to come to their own conclusions for each client, within their own community.
When in doubt – discuss! Your colleagues can serve as a listening board if the situation you are grappling with seems close to the line on any of these criteria.
THE NUANCES OF LANGUAGE
As therapists, we are well aware of the impact that the nuances of language can have in delicate conversations. Language communicates at least two ways. On the surface, the content of our conversation includes topics, ideas, descriptions etc. At the same time, the way in which we use language itself communicates much more. Issues of identity, power and culture are also transmitted through language. As our legal colleagues move from the adversarial to the collaborative arena, they too are learning more about the subtle impact of language. As Collaborative Professionals, our use of language will communicate volumes to our clients.
Language has been considered like a bridge … connecting the two parties … a space between them. However, a more direct metaphor for language is that of the trapeze artists’ grip. This is a direct connection. The grip itself either creates an opportunity for the two parties to connect or not. The weight of the performers is held by this grip.
What kind of hand are we extending to our clients? How can we pay attention to our language to help them move forward?
1. Neutral to positive language
As coaches, it is important that we depathologize our language for separation and divorce. The rhetoric of ‘failed marriages’ and ‘broken homes’ will indirectly communicate to our clients that they are broken, damaged, wrong and bad.
Consider the difference between:
a. A real/normal family…. And…. A first marriage family
b. A divorce/failed marriage…. And… .Ending a marriage by choice c. The ‘EX’…. And…. My former spouse
d. Custody & Access…. And… Parenting time
e. The family is breaking up….
The family is moving from a one household family to a two household family
2. Therapeutic interventions
Imagine a client who is very angry and is railing against a former spouse. As therapists we have many choices. One might be to simply reflect back the affect.
You are very angry with him/her.
a. Looking for the universals – things the client has not said but we can safely bet are part of their concern.
You are deeply concerned about your children.
b. Looking for the moral high ground
You really want to create the best possible environment for your children.
c. Identifying opportunities for moving forward.
You are really not comfortable with this yet.
DIFFICULT CLIENTS AND THE NOT-ENTIRELY-VOLUNTARY CLIENT
Difficult clients can be divided into general categories depending on the most salient feature of the problems to be resolved. The problems could include: trauma, entrenched conflict, fixed roles, power imbalances of varying degrees, or extremely difficult circumstances that color the process even though not derived directly from the separation and divorce.
Clients in any of these situations, and others not mentioned here, can become angry or resentful about being in the Collaborative process. These clients can begin to hold the team responsible for their pain or conflict, the cost of the process, and many other types of frustrations they may be feeling. I call these our ‘not- entirely-voluntary’ clients.
These clients are those for whom the separation is experienced as a trauma. This is generally the ‘leavee’, the recipient of the decision to end the marriage. An example is the stay-at-home Mom in a 20-year marriage who did not see the separation coming or the loving husband whose wife is leaving him for another man or woman. The trauma of the separation may trigger previous trauma in the client’s life.
In these situations, neither client is in shock. Rather both are ‘locked in’ to the relationship dynamic that results in intense conflict. The dynamic of the relationship may vary widely, and while there may be some power difference, they are not the main issue.
Extreme power imbalances are symptomatic of abusive or violent relationships. These cases must be screened carefully for their appropriateness for Collaborative practice. (See section on Family Violence in Collaborative Family Law later in this chapter.)
However, relatively minor or moderate power imbalances would seem to be fair game for inter-disciplinary collaborative practice.
For these clients, family life has been clearly organized into very specific and often
traditional roles for the husband and wife. Mom is likely to be a full time stay-at-home wife and Dad is the provider. These clients may struggle to pick up the skills the other person has been providing, i.e., Mom managing the household finances or Dad developing a primary parenting relationship with his children. The stress of moving into the domain of ‘the other’ can prove to be the most difficult aspect of the transition to 2-household family living.
These are situations in which the couple function quite well and under normal
circumstances could probably sort out the problems of the separation and divorce with minimal to moderate assistance. Difficult circumstances could include, extreme problem in extended family such as terminal illness or death, severe problems with the children such as psychopathology, illness, sudden loss of financial security, house fire, accidents etc.
The Not-entirely voluntary Client
The ‘Not-entirely-voluntary Client’ is similar to the Non-voluntary clients described in
the therapeutic literature. Non-voluntary clients are involved with a therapist because of circumstances, such as a serious illness, a pregnant teen or a problem with a family member, or because of a condition, such as inmates, teens on probation, insurance requirements etc.
In Collaborative practice, Not-entirely-voluntary Clients may be the spouse who is the ‘leavee’, the one who is receiving the decision to separate. This could also be the spouse who has limited finances, is watching their standard of living drop the regular 30% and is terrified that their spouse is considering litigation. Or the spouse who is convinced that it is the other party who is crazy so why should they come in, spending all this time and money? These are difficult scenarios.
As the work progresses, clients in these situations may begin to hold the couches or their team responsible for their conflict or their pain. Part of our task is to help them shift from this perspective, which puts blame and power in the hands of others, to a perspective in which they understand their contribution to the problem and their own power to change the situation.
Here are some strategies I have found useful.
Look for leverage. The client’s love for their children is usually a good place to start.
Ask the client to bring photos of the children and to keep them in sight for the session. Tell them about the research literature on children’s outcomes through separation and divorce and to stress that for children, divorce is a risk factor but not a death sentence. Let them know that it is the conflict between them that has the greatest power to hurt their children, not having Mom and Dad in 2 separate households. Remind them that it is not just their divorce but also their children’s divorce – that they are now creating the story of their children’s parent’s divorce that their children will carry for the rest of their lives. What will the legacy of their divorce be for their family?
Look for aspects of my client that will help this transition such as confidence, compassion, faith in the future, self awareness, hope etc. Everyone has many aspects to them that operate simultaneously. We can be both overwhelmed and know that it will not last forever.
In a similar way, relationships include many contradictory elements. We can be angry with someone and still love her or him. We can have fallen ‘out of love’ with someone and still care about them. By intentionally looking for these aspects of the client and of the relationship we can help our clients move forward. By intentionally looking for the aspects that will facilitate the transition, coaches can help to remind their clients of these aspects.
Review the dispute resolution continuum again. There is the ‘kitchen table’ divorce, mediation, litigation or collaborative law. Like the woman who is 10 months pregnant, NOT having the baby is not an option. For the Collaborative client, NOT proceeding is not an option. Here the coach can review the reasons for choosing Collaborative Law in the first place. (Actually, it is a good idea to get this information from clients in the beginning to so as to be able to remind them if they forget.) Even though it is difficult, it is still likely the best option for them.
Find a way to remind clients that this relationship that is currently so difficult is actually a ‘co-creation’ between their spouse and themselves. Somehow they chose each other and connected, however briefly. No one forced them to do it. This can be very effective when the client is discouraged and is blaming the team for their conflict with their spouse or for the pace of the process. It is also very useful when they are vilifying the other party.
Hold out to them that complete resolution of the relationship will happen when they can understand how it was that they chose this person in the first place. Until then, they are ‘at risk’ of choosing a similar type of person again. (See Debbie Ford’s Spiritual Divorce for an excellent resource for this.) This shifts the goal from wining or losing with their spouse to considering what type of relationship they would like to create next – generally a much more comfortable experience – from which they can look back and see what they need to do differently next time.
These last two are the ‘tough love’ of divorce coaching – really talking straight with the client when they seem to putting the problem ‘out there’ rather than understanding and accepting their part in creating it.
A BREIF INTRODUCTION TO FAMILY SYSTEMS THINKING
Although the legal system has often made use of mental health professionals as expert witnesses, assessors, or counselors to individual clients, family therapists are not often utilized in family law. Nevertheless, the understandings and insights of family therapy and family systems theory have much to offer family law, collaborative family law in particular. It may be useful for divorce coaches to take the time to introduce their legal counterparts to systemic thinking in order to work more effectively together. (See Becvar & Becvar, 1988, for an easy access introduction to family systems thinking.)
What is family systems thinking?
Family systems theory directs our attention away from the individual and towards relationships. This approach assumes that families, or couples for that matter, are complex systems of interconnected relationships that influence each other.
Family systems thinking asks “What is going on” in an effort to describe the patterns within the system. In this theory, linear causality does not exist. In its place we find a focus on reciprocity, recursive patterns, and shared responsibility. Husband and wife are equally cause and effect of each other’s behavior. Over time, they establish patterns of behavior that define the dynamic of their unique relationship.
Family systems attempts to transcend either/or dichotomies. For example, the two sides of a coin are complimentary to each other. We do not reject one side for the other. Similarly we do not reject one side of the relationship for the other.
For example, a common relationship dynamic is the pursuer-distancer dynamic. Generally in a couple, one person is more interested in closeness (the pursuer) and the other more interested in independence (the distancer). Neither is right or wrong, better or worse than the other. Like the two sides of a coin, both are necessary.
Systems are known to have two seemingly opposing qualities; the ability to adapt to change and, at the same time, resistance to change or the preservation of homeostasis. As complex systems, families are continually responding to their environment by taking in new information and making necessary changes and at the same time maintaining homeostasis.
The classic example for illustrating this is the thermostat. As the temperature in the room goes down, the thermostat takes in the new information and sends the signal for the furnace to produce more heat. As the room temperature rises, the thermometer takes in the new information and sends the signal to the furnace to stop. Thus, the thermometer creates a feedback loop to keep the room temperature constant even thought the outside temperature may vary. Similarly family or couple systems use feedback to make adjustments to the system.
Using the pursuer – distancer dynamic, we can see how this plays out. As the couple lives day to day, information is taken in regarding the closeness of the couple. If they become to far apart, the pursuer will pursue to maintain homeostasis. Equally, if they get too close, the distancer will distance to maintain homeostasis.
Even as the couple separates, the reciprocal nature of their relationship is very clear. Thus, part of their task is to understand the nature of their complementarity and to be able to work out another way of being with each other for the purposes of co-parenting following the separation. Also, these dynamics are relative. Someone may be a pursuer in one relationship and a distancer in another. However, the task of the client is to understand their contribution to the relationship dynamic and what they can do differently in order to help create a successful co-parenting relationship. For example, for pursuers it may mean pursuing less and for the distancer, not distancing so much that the pursuer must pursue. As they each become aware of their contribution to the relationship dynamic, they have opportunities to do things differently for the well being of the two-household family.
This is just one example of the types of constructs used in systemic thinking that can assist couples working collaboratively through separation. By understanding the dynamic of their relationship, they are more conscious of their behavior and better able to make the adjustments necessary to transform the couple relationship of the past into a successful co-parenting relationship for the future.
WORKING WITH FAMILY VIOLENCE IN COLLABORATIVE SEPARATION AND DIVORCE
Working with family violence in Collaborative Separation and Divorce files is delicate business. On first glance, one might be tempted to exclude couple relationships in which there has been violence from this process. For therapists, the presence of family violence generally precludes couple therapy. At the same time, empirically supported therapeutic approaches for this population have been established (Stith, in press), in which careful screening, clear conditions and two therapists in a co-therapy approach are used. This co-therapy model fits well with the divorce coaching team structure.
Equally, we must ask ourselves, “If we don’t work with them, where will they go?” If we find that they are not suitable they will have only the traditional litigation process left to choose from given that the local inter-disciplinary practice group will likely include most of the best mental health support for separation and divorce, and the lawyers most sensitive to family dynamics. That said, not all families in which there has been, or is family violence are appropriate for Collaborative Separation and Divorce. Careful screening is essential.
The Vancouver Collaborative Separation and Divorce Society undertook a process in which to explore the issues related to family violence within Collaborative Separation and Divorce files. The Vancouver group has about 60 members; approximately 40 lawyers, 15 mental health and 5 financial professionals. The group has been inter-disciplinary since its inception in 1999.
The process began in the fall of 2002, with the creation of a committee to begin exploring the issues related to family violence in collaborative files. The topic was then brought to a meeting of the practice group in May 2003 to further articulate the issues. It was then decided to engage the services of a local therapist, Dale Trimble, who has extensive experience in working, writing, and training professionals in this area3, to bring us current information on family violence as it related to our work with separating spouses in the collaborative process. We also benefited from the work of one of our lawyers, Deborah Lynn Zutter, who has published in the area of family violence in mediation files. (See reference list.)
The process culminated in a one-day ‘working workshop’ in September 2003. The group was comprised of approximately 15 lawyers, 10 therapists, 2 financial specialists and a student from a course on Inter-disciplinary Collaborative Family Law at the University of British Columbia. The morning consisted of a presentation by Dale Trimble to focus us, refresh our pre-existing knowledge in this area, and bring us up-to-date on current information in this area as it relates to collaborative practice. The afternoon consisted of a semi-structured discussion of topics previously identified as problematic for collaborative practice.
This process was tremendously beneficial for our group. Having both experienced lawyers and therapists working together allowed us to increase our understanding of the ethical responsibilities of each discipline and to quickly identify problem areas. Although a first run at this complex topic, we were able to come to some preliminary agreements that will allow us to work smarter and safer with our clients. We will also be able to more effectively screen our clients to determine which files are not suitable for collaborative process.
This format also proved very useful in terms of group development. Given that we are at the 4- year mark for hashing out the territory between therapy and law in collaborative practice, we were able to have candid discussions regarding our concerns. Further, the process of addressing these difficult issues further developed our working relationships. Complex files are more likely to be resolved successfully when team members are comfortable with each other and can communicate quickly and honestly about difficult subjects.
At the time of this writing, a complete reporting of the day is not available. What follows is the list of concerns we began our day with. I would strongly encourage any collaborative practice group to organize such a day and to begin discussing these issues as a precursor to working with collaborative files in which there has been family violence. It is important that each group come to their own agreements, based on their group membership, their professional relationships and their own practice experiences, in order to work effectively and safely with family violence in collaborative files.
3 Dale Trimble and Associates, #301, 1055 W. Broadway, Vancouver, B.C., CANADA, V6H 1E2. Tel.: 604 253-8641.
1. Rules of engagement – Ground rules for all professionals
2. Assessment –
a. Definitions – violence, abuse, power imbalance
b. Types of violence
c. Historical vs current violence
d. Criteria for establishing the workability of the case
e. How to flag it for other team members – legal and therapeutic responsibilities
3. Client’s experience and their power to make a choice
a. Soft-peddling the violence in order to stay in the process
b. Fear of litigation
c. Where else can they go?
d. Balancing self-determination vs risk
e. Re-affirming the choice of collaborative law
a. Lawyers use of restraining orders – mutual consent
b. Conditions for eligibility in the collaborative process
ii. Treatment for violence – individual, groups, community resources
iii. No violence contract, No contact contract
i. Safety plans – can they be covert? d. Techniques to reduce intensity
iii. Speaker phone
iv. Exit strategies
5. Children and Parenting Plans.
a. Relationship between spousal violence and child abuse
b. Screening questions re: children and parenting
c. Involvement of extended family and/or community
d. Involvement of a child specialist
e. Implications for parenting plan
6. Specialists in family violence
a. Assessment information
b. Gradual /Indirect– educational within our professional group
c. Consultation within group- supervision
d. Outside assessment
8. Self care of collaborative team members
WORKING WITH MENTAL ILLNESS IN COLLABORATIVE PRACTICE
Mental illness poses a challenge to collaborative professionals. At the time of this writing, the Vancouver Group has not yet focused on this issue in a systematic fashion, apart from an excellent presentation by a psychologist and group member at a dinner meeting. However, it appears that there may be similarities between processes for collaborative teams working with family violence and mental illness in collaborative practice. This may allow the transfer of some ideas from one domain to the other in terms of collaborative practice. Like family violence, mental illness comes in varying types and varying degrees of intensity. Like family violence, there are few better options for helping the family to resolve the problems associated with mental illness and marital separation. Like family violence, each practice group will benefit from a process that allows group members to inform themselves about relevant information regarding mental illness and to then apply these understandings to collaborative practice. And like family violence, there will be situations that are beyond the reach of collaborative practice.
What follows is a preliminary list of concerns related to working with mental illness in collaborative files. However, it will be up to each practice group to determine the best responses for this issue in their community. (See Nurse, 1999, for a discussion on family assessment that may be useful in this area.)
1. Identification and assessment.
i. Previously diagnosed
ii. Not previously diagnosed
b. Historical or current
i. Y es, contained
ii. No, client still symptomatic
iii. Medication not relevant
i. For client
ii. For others
e. Criteria for establishing workability of the case
2. Client’s experience and their power to make a choice
a. Fear of litigation
b. Minimizing problems to stay in process
c. Balancing self-determination vs risk
d. What are their options?
3. Conditions for eligibility in the collaborative process
a. Divorce Coaches
b. Psychiatric Intervention
c. Community Resources
a. Other spouse/lawyer
5. Children and Parenting Plans
a. Relationship between mental illness and parenting
b. Screening questions re: children and parenting
c. Involvement of Child Specialist
d. Involvement of Extended family/School/Community
7. Self-care of collaborative team members
Becvar, D. & Becvar, R. Family Therapy; A Systemic Integration. Allyn & Bacon: Boston.
Cameron, N. (in progress). A book on Collaborative Family Law to be published by The Continuing Legal Education Society of BC.
Fagerstrom, D. (1997). Divorce: A problem to be solved not a battle to be fought. Brockwood, Orinda, CA.
Ford, D. (2001) Spiritual Divorce: Divorce as a Catalyst For an Extraordinary Life. Harper: SanFrancisco.
Gamache, S. (2003). Is it therapy? The Collaborative Review; Journal of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals 5(1).
Gamache, S. (2002). What a divorce coach can do for you; Welcome to the Olympics. The Collaaborative Review; Journal of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals 4(1).
Gamache, S. (2002). Vancouver Collaborative Separation and Divorce Group; The unofficial story. The Collaaborative Review; Journal of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals 4(1).
Hetherington, E.M. & Kelly, J. (2002). For better or worse; Divorce reconsidered. Norton: New York.
Nurse, R. (1999). Family Assessment. Wiley: Toronto.
Reber, A. (1986). Dictionary of Psychology. Penguin: Ontario.
Roussos, P. (2003). It is Therapy The Collaborative Review; Journal of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals 5(1).
Stith, S., McCollum, E., Rosen, K. & Locke, L. (in press). Domestic Violence Focused Couples Treatment. Dr Stith can be found at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Department of Human Development, Northern Virginia Center, 7054 Haycock Road, Falls Church, VA, 22043
Tessler, P.H. (1999). Collaborative law: What it is and why family law attorneys need to know about it. American Journal of Family Law, 13, 215-225.
Thompson, P. & Nurse, A. R. (1999). Collaborative divorce: A new interdisciplinary approach. American Journal of Family Law, 13, 226-234.
Zutter, D.L. (2002). Mediation in the shadow of abuse – An update. Family Law Quarterly, 20(1). pp 65 – 95.