from Song by Todd Rundgren, 1978

If you’ve had enough birthdays, you may remember this 70’s song by Todd Rundgren. He poses a question that comes up at the end of relationships. Maybe, if we can still be friends, it will soften the blow, lessen the pain. A more complex question is – when a marriage ends, is it possible to avoid becoming enemies?

People who consider divorce often put off a discussion with their spouse for many reasons. Fear of making enemies with someone who shares their friends, extended families, finances, and children can be paralyzing. Enemies don’t share all of these things. The anxiety is understandable.

Divorce has often been characterized as a war, with ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. Social media theatrics, celebrity custody battles, and movies dramatizing outrageous behavior are mainstream. In reality, divorcing adults can hurt each other, and all too often create a fault line between two homes, with no safe overpass for their children.

What makes black/white, win/lose, all/nothing thinking so enticing, especially during divorce? For one, divorce opens a door to the unknown. The ground is fertile for anxiety, mistrust, disillusionment. Feelings of hurt, shame, and anger rise up when one person in the marriage is surprised by their spouse’s wish to divorce. The saying “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me…” is an example of how self protective instincts are activated when we perceive danger. Divorce is a perceived threat in that it’s a loss, a major change, and often unwelcome.

In this environment, it’s tempting to throw all the eggs into a basket that promises a ‘winner’.
Under a perceived threat, we humans are wired to give way to primitive, black and white
thinking. The amygdala hijacks the decision-making process that typically takes place in the
prefrontal cortex of our brains.

Litigation as a process for divorce supports this paradigm.

You may think the ‘No fault’ divorce movement changed the family court system to be kinder, more sensitive to the needs of families in crisis. While there is no need to build a case of wrongdoing, fear often drives people to “lawyer up” for a zero sum game. The traditional legal process occurs in an environment oriented toward criminal matters. Fear abounds, as players (parties) take sides … and friends, families, and legal teams line up. “Opposing counsel” and “opposing side” is commonplace language in family law courtrooms.

You may wonder, is it possible to divorce in a way where both people are supported, encouraged, and expected to act as their highest selves? Where decisions are made based on the needs and interests of each person? Where creative solutions can be crafted?

Imagine a divorce where there are no good guys or bad guys. There are just two people who, for their own reasons, can no longer remain married. Where blame is reserved by the professionals involved, with the understanding that relationships are dynamic human endeavors. A process where attorneys seek to find solutions that meet the needs and interests of both people. A divorce process where children are truly kept in the forefront of decisions.

Collaborative Divorce is an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) model for divorce. It is a model where two divorcing people decide to actively author their own settlement agreement with the support of a professional team specially trained in ADR. The team consists of two attorneys, one for each person, usually a neutral financial professional, and often mental health professionals who offer guidance around the children, communication tools, and emotional support.

This team works collaboratively with the divorcing couple to resolve all the issues that, once agreed upon, make up a marital settlement agreement. This process is bound by the same laws as traditional litigation divorce, but occurs outside of the courthouse, in scheduled meetings. Each meeting has a clear agenda, there are no surprises. Decisions are made by the couple, not the court.

You may wonder whether Collaborative Divorce is appropriate only for those couples who can remain friends. As in all relationships, friendship is a two-way street. Often, the person who is leaning out of the marriage, initiating the divorce process, is interested in a friendship. This may be a tall order for the other person, who is in the process of coming to terms with the finality of the marriage.

What is important and predictive of success is mutual respect.

It’s rare when two divorcing people are in agreement about how to separate their lives. Emotions become intense during divorce. The Collaborative process and the interdisciplinary team provide a safe ‘container’ for facilitated dialogue, which leads to decisions. The best decisions are those made by people who will be living them.

Collaborative Divorce is a process where communication is important. Clarity of mind, knowing what is most important to you, and an ability to make use of professional guidance goes a long way. This is a process which provides support for every aspect of divorce – legal, financial, and emotional. Depending on the complexity of each family in all three of these areas, the professional team is designed to offer consultative guidance where it is most needed.

Families with children will benefit from a licensed mental health professional specially trained in child development, who will offer suggestions for a parenting plan that is child focused. For families with financial complexity, a CDFA, Certified Divorce Financial Analyst, will be essential in creating various scenarios for asset and debt management, as well as projections for future net worth.

Friendship with your spouse may not be in the cards as you move through a divorce. However,it is possible to preserve and build good will toward a cooperative, respectful post-divorce relationship. Stay focused on what you both need, and what is behind those needs. Avoid taking hard and fast positions. Listen as much as you speak. Engage the professionals who will serve and support you where you need it most.

Research shows that the first two years after divorce are the most critical in terms of conflict. Choose a divorce process which will help minimize that for you and your family.

Ann Cerney, MS, LPCP is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor practicing in Marin and Sonoma Counties.  More information in her bio on the “Find A Professional” page.