Divorce doesn’t end when the papers are signed, so why does the job of the Collaborative divorce professional? While we provide an invaluable service to our clients, some of the most challenging aspects of divorce appear after the process is completed. Anyone going through a divorce will almost certainly need some help getting back on his or her feet. Preparation and support for the post-divorce stage can help to minimize the damage and aftershocks of divorce and facilitate the transition from married to divorced.
As Collaborative practitioners, we must continue our responsibility to our clients and help them find the post-divorce solutions that work for them. Continuity of services for our clients will make the difference between successful divorce recovery and recovery that falters or, worse, fails. As Collaborative practitioners we cannot limit ourselves to the divorce process alone. We must help prepare the newly divorced for their lives as single people.
Extending the Collaborative Process to Encompass Post-Divorce Support
Collaborative law is a system that recognizes and addresses not only a couple’s legal needs but also the special needs and interests of children as well as promotes healthy relationships between the divorcing parties. The interdisciplinary work of the collaborative team is invaluable to the couple in transition. Unfortunately, once the divorce process ends, the Collaborative team must disband. Although the team may be re-activated at any time to address future concerns in the post-divorce family, the divorced individuals are left to heal and move past the trauma of divorce without the support of Collaborative professionals.
Some clients are so devastated by the end of their marriage or so entrenched in conflict that they have difficulty dealing with the ordinary demands of life. In that confused state, they must make decisions that will affect them and their children for years to come. In an earlier newsletter, I wrote of the inevitability of post-divorce conflict between former spouses, particularly in cases involving co-parenting. While we can assist our clients to resolve their legal, emotional and financial conflicts during the divorce process, it is optimistic, at best, for Collaborative professionals to assume that preparation will ensure a conflict-free, smooth functioning adjustment to post-divorce life.
For the sake of their children as well as to facilitate their transition to being single, divorced adults must be willing to examine and reflect on their lives, choices and post-divorce relationships with their former spouses. They must continually self-evaluate their desires and direction. However, change is often accompanied by fear, resistance and inappropriate behaviors. Often, what appear to be self-defeating tactics between the former couple, for example, are truly cries for help in the attempt to cope with the trauma of transitioning from married to single, from the old life to a new one. As Collaborative professionals who share a vision of the family system, we must help our clients navigate this extraordinary life transition from beginning to end with that same vision.
We all agree that divorce is a major life transition including much more than simply a court order terminating the marriage. It is a life transition complicated by unfulfilled dreams and profound grief. Divorced families must restructure financially, emotionally and logistically. Divorce brings a nearly impenetrable web of conflicts and resolutions.
While our clients remain unanchored and confused, struggling to replace the old with the new, should we as Collaborative professionals push them from the nest and not assume further responsibility for their post-divorce well-being?
I believe it is incumbent upon us to consider pre and post-divorce involvement with our clients to be inseparable.
This means providing them with support and services not only during the divorce process but during their recovery as well. Referring clients to other Collaborative professionals who will assist them with their transition from married to non-married affords them continuity of services with people who share the same philosophy and goals as their original Collaborative divorce teams. Continuity in approach will provide a smoother and healthier post-divorce adjustment.
Clients Post-Divorce Needs
A Collaborative divorce team can start someone out on the path to a new life, but a few months of work should not be mistaken for long term post-divorce success. The psychological fallout from divorce is well-documented by the social science literature that has examined the transitions that families face as they restructure. This literature illuminates children’s developmental needs, children’s attachments to both parents, what factors help both adults and children adjust to post-divorce life and what factors may lead to poor outcomes.
In their book entitled For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered (New York: Norton & Co., 2002), Hetherington and Kelly identify a number of protective factors that can help adults successfully navigate the divorce transition.
These protective factors include:
- Social maturity, which includes the ability to plan, to self-regulate emotions, anxiety,
and stress, to be adaptable and flexible, and includes a sense of social responsibility
(which builds self-esteem and establishes a nourishing network of others).
- Autonomy, comfort with being alone and with making decisions on one’s own.
- Internal locus of control which enables problem-solvers to take personal responsibility.
- Work as a positive “safe haven” for both men and women.
- Social support composed of a few key individuals who help the spouse make the transition from married to divorce.
- A new intimate relationship.
Wallerstein’s and Kelly’s study of families after divorce, Surviving the Breakup: How Children and Parents Cope with Divorce (New York: Basic Books, 1980) itemized the following factors that help children cope with divorce:
- Psychological health of the custodial parent and a good quality parent-child relationship.
- Insulation of children from conflict.
- Good, authoritative parenting.
- Consistent, quality contact with both parents; cooperative co-parenting, when possible.
- Personal attributes that help children cope – social skills, temperament, competency, and self – esteem.
What are the components of post-divorce continuing support that the Collaborative community should provide its clients? What essential links will enable our clients to achieve successful new lives after divorce?
The Collaborative divorce will prepare clients to:
- Navigate the inevitable post-divorce grief period. Too often, people try to circumvent their painful loss, which can take anywhere from three to five years to complete.
- Develop a new identity as a single, non-partnered individual.
- Understand and manage co-parenting and single parenting issues.
- Learn to manage money and finances as individuals rather than as part of a couple.
- Cope with post-divorce social issues.
- Continue to practice Collaborative skills learned during the divorce process.
- Develop better facility with interpersonal conflicts with family members and others.
- Continue to develop the motivation to change non-productive behaviors and grow as individuals.
It is not enough that we recognize the post-divorce needs of our clients while leaving them unfulfilled. We need to ask ourselves, “How can we help our clients obtain the greatest happiness and peace of mind through identifying his or her post-divorce needs and then designing services to meet them?”
Despite the prevalence of divorce in our society, there is no divorce model that considers clients’ long-term self-interests, whether financial, emotional or parenting-related. Once the papers are signed, the client is on his/her own to begin their post-divorce recovery and seek out any needed support, which may or may not be sensitive to the family transition as a whole, as the Collaborative team is. As practitioners whose approach to divorce places considerable emphasis on the emotional and psychological health of the family system and the individuals involved, does it make sense to labor long and hard to create a divorce, only to stand by while our clients struggle to pick up the pieces without our support? I think not. Regardless of how successfully one seems to have gone through the collaborative divorce process, there will be a need for effective after-divorce support.
Collaborative professionals provide a unique and innovative approach to divorce. Our value as a team will be enhanced immeasurably by assisting our clients as they traverse new territory from married to divorced, and helping them face the tasks of re-shaping the nature of their relationship with each other and restructuring their roles as parents both during as well as after the divorce. Our clients deserve nothing less than our full support – before, during and after the divorce.
Extending our services to guide clients in the post-divorce adjustment period is an excellent opportunity for the Collaborative community to further differentiate itself from the conventional divorce approach. Continuity and coordination of care post-divorce, encompassing the same goals and philosophy seen in the Collaborative divorce process, will be much more likely to lead to clients’ overall health.