Divorce is one of the most challenging and difficult times of one’s life – and in the midst of this emotional turmoil, people are required to make decisions that will permanently affect their future (and their children’s future). Trying to sort through all of the logistical, legal, financial, and parenting decisions that have to be made is overwhelming. Clear-headed guidance and perspective is tough to find. The person who used to be a partner is now an opponent, family and friends blindly pick sides, lawyers advocate only for their client, and therapists provide good support but don’t have complete information and generally know little about the divorce process.
Using a collaborative approach goes a long way towards addressing these problems – but it is the Collaborative Divorce Coach whose job it is to keep focus on the big picture and the long-term goals (i.e., after everything is over), to make sure that the best interests of the whole family are kept constantly in mind, and that the collaborative team works together to accomplish this objective.
Collaborative divorce coaches are experienced, licensed mental health professionals. The term “Coach” is used to make it clear that coaches in the collaborative process are not acting as therapists. They don’t explore feelings or to try to change who people are. An analogy is that a therapist is someone you bring your luggage to and s/he helps you open it up and examine the contents; a collaborative divorce coach is someone you bring your luggage to and, without opening it, s/he helps you carry it across the street.
Because collaborative divorce coaches are familiar with the divorce process, they can provide a road map of what’s ahead, and help to anticipate and avoid pitfalls. In addition to providing support and guidance, Coaches help families get through through divorce in a reasoned and respectful way, minimizing damage to everyone in the family.
Coaches help to manage feelings, to minimize conflict, and to avoid non-productive issues. Since emotions filter what we see and hear, coaches diffuse ‘hot buttons’ and provide a reality check on negative stories / attributions that spouses have about each other.
Because they work with both spouses, coaches are able to facilitate and establish constructive communication. They model healthier ways of talking and listening, which helps to keep lines of communication open and facilitates civil discussions and negotiations. Coaches also help to offset any power imbalances that might exist between spouses as a result of differences in temperament, financial security, emotional stability, social support, knowledge, etc.
A major task of the Collaborative Divorce Coach is to help parents shift from a partner relationship to a co-parenting relationship. Establishing a healthy co-parenting relationship means helping parents develop new family rules, expectations, communications, beliefs, and ways of parenting. It means helping parents focus on averting future problems rather than assigning blame for past problems.
Collaborative Divorce Coaches understand the developmental needs of children, what parents can do to help them, and how to minimize the adverse impact of the divorce. In addition to helping parents maintain emotional stability and communicate effectively, the coach can provide insight into parenting issues not yet experienced by the parents since they haven’t yet had children any older than the ones they have now. Coaches work with the parents to create a Parenting Plan that best meets the needs of the family now and in the future, while fulfilling the document requirements of the court.
As well as assisting parents with emotional issues, the Coach manages the emotional content of the entire collaborative process. This means facilitating communications during meetings and between meetings, for the other professionals in the process as well as parents. During meetings, Coaches often manage the agenda, and, in addition to keeping everyone’s feelings in check, ask questions that a client might feel unable to ask. After every collaborative team meeting with clients, the coaches facilitate a short debrief with the professionals to review how effectively the team functioned in the meeting and to process any difficult situations or personal triggers. This procedure helps to prevent inadvertent alignments or imbalances among team members, contributes to team stability, and assures a reality-based assessment of how the divorce is going and the best plan forward.
The coach also contacts any ‘outside’ therapists involved with a family to inform them about the collaborative process and to clarify the difference in roles between the therapist and the collaborative coach. And if particularly difficult situation arises, the coach can alert the therapist about it so that the therapist can provide additional support.
Collaborative Divorce Coaches, in many ways, are the glue that hold the entire collaborative process together. They help to provide and maintain the communication skills, emotional management, long-range perspective of each spouse, both spouses together, the family as whole, and the professional team. Coaches are an essential part of the collaborative team and are necessary to achieve a “good” divorce. You can contact a Collaborative Divorce Coach to find out more about this divorce option.
John is an mental health professional and former member of CFLA.