For the past 10 years, a small group of New Orleans professionals has been taking divorcing couples to the mat.
Mat training – which involves having two people communicate by assigning one to a “talking” mat and the other to a “listening” mat – is just one innovative tool in a new way to manage the dissolution of a marriage.
Collaborative divorce uses a team approach to walk through the complicated and often combative steps of separation. The couple never darkens a courtroom door, and there is no legal discovery, no litigation, no taking of depositions.
Instead, couples are guided through the divorce process with a team of mental health professionals, financial advisors and attorneys, who help them over legal, financial and emotional hurdles.
The concept, explains local attorney and collaborative divorce specialist Larry Hamric, began in the 1990s with Minnesota lawyer Stu Webb, who realized that divorce cases where lawyers worked together from the beginning to settle – rather than those that began with litigation and wound up settling – benefitted everyone. It was a novel idea – that the best divorce lawyers are the least contentious ones.
The first local training program in collaborative divorce came a decade later, with a seminar at Loyola University.
“We thought 30 or 40 people would be a good turnout, and instead we had 200,” says Hamric.
Now, about 15 local professionals belonging to the Collaborative Divorce Alliance of Greater New Orleans, all members of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals (IACP), work locally to help couples through the collaborative divorce process.
Here’s how it works. First, both spouses must voluntarily agree to engage in the process, by signing a binding contract agreeing to the collaborative format. That includes the stipulation that both will work on settling all issues and neither will take the other to court. Then, they are assigned a collaborative team, which consists of a lawyer and mental health professional (working as a coach) for each spouse, a neutral financial consultant, and, if there are children, a child specialist.
“Everybody has someone there to support them,” says family law attorney Susan Neathamer.
Husband and wife each meet with their personal mental health counselor and attorney, and both meet with the financial analyst. The child specialist acts as an advocate for the children, not only throughout the divorce, but well beyond.
“It’s all of the best and none of the bad of court, and it puts the children first,” says Hamlic. The collaborative process won’t work for every divorce, but for those who can manage it, it offers a better option than fighting everything out in a litigated court case.
All Collaborative Divorce Alliance members have had mediation training, and teams meet with the divorcing couple to discuss everything from custody to who gets the furniture. The emphasis, they say, is not on the “we,” but the “they,” with clients taking responsibility for their and their children’s needs.
“What we do is get out of the way,” says CPA and financial specialist Germaine Vorhoff. “There is so much that is not transparent in financials in the usual divorce. But with this, the spouses can both see what the financial picture is. St’s not me being the heavy.”
“A real lightbulb flash for me in this was the idea of triangulating,” adds Hamric. “In the usual divorce, each spouse often takes on the role as victim, with the other person being portrayed as attacker. Each then looks for a savior, who is the lawyer. It becomes, ‘Go talk to my lawyer,’ or, ‘I’m only doing what my lawyer told me.’ It’s a model of bad interaction and behavior, set up as an adversarial process.”
Lawyers by training often have trouble leaving that adversarial attitude behind. But the collaborative process depends on doing just that, and relying on communication, negotiation and mutual resolution of troublesome issues.
Thus, coaching devices like the special mats give couples communication tools, and also help to defuse the strong emotions of divorce. “It de-escalates the situation and helps them to deconstruct the issues,” says mental health professional Susan Noble. “We work with clients to enable them to deal with divorce by operating out of their best selves, rather than out of their anger or resentment.”
“Education is the cornerstone of what we do,” Neathamer says. And that, she explains, means not telling a client what to do, but asking what he or she wants to do.
“The language we use is, ‘How do you feel about that?’ As an attorney, I never did that before – sit down in a collaborative process in a four-way conversation with the other spouse and his or her attorney to work out solutions to tough issues.”
The financial specialist can help the divorcing couple resolve property and budget issues, while the child specialist interviews the children and sometimes even their teachers, acting as their spokesperson and helping parents ease the kids’ transition in the divorce. After all, the spouses may be breaking up, but the family is not: Maintaining relationships between parents and children for future events is an important cornerstone of the process.
“There’s a real paradigm shift in this process, with healthy parenting and co-parenting that may not have gone on before,” says licensed professional counselor Beth Gnuse.
The team meets monthly to talk over cases and problem-solve. “Debriefing a case is extremely helpful,” says New Orleans attorney Edith Morris. “It’s very helpful to be able to sit down with the other professionals and say, ‘I wish I had done so and so.’ That kind of post mortem never happens in the usual legal process.”
So what does a team of collaborative divorce professionals cost? It’s a lot less expensive than a traditional divorce, say its advocates. For one thing, mental health professionals serving as coaches generally charge less than lawyers, and, for another, there are costs associated with hearings, discovery of information, or court delays.
But collaborative divorce proponents say they are motivated more by the decrease in emotional costs to divorcing couples.
“I had one traditional divorce case in which the client had two nervous breakdowns,” says Vorhoff. “The collaborative process is a gift we can give to couples.”
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie.