When it comes to divorce, movies tend to get a lot of things wrong. That’s what was so refreshing about Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach’s film about a couple coming apart at the seams. Everything isn’t exactly as it would happen in real life, but it rings true in a lot of ways.
There’s one situation that the movie captured perfectly. Once the couple at the center of the story “lawyer up” to protect their own interests, the chance of settling things amicably pretty much goes out the window. It turns them into adversaries who end up portraying each other in the worst possible light. They fight over things that neither of them cares all that much about. They focus on winning a battle where there are never any winners.
It’s not hard to empathize with Nicole and Charlie, the unhappily married couple fighting for custody of their young son. At first, they seem to truly believe that they can work things out without going to court. But when Nicole hires a high-powered attorney, Charlie feels that he has no choice than to do the same. It sets off a chain of events that they can no longer control.
In real life, I’ve seen this happen again and again. Our traditional model for divorce unnecessarily pits one side against the other. Even couples who want to be civil with each other end up battling over how the assets should be divided, the amount and duration of spousal support, and the specifics of child custody and visitation. There’s no way to accomplish all this without hurting each other, leaving wounds that sometimes last a lifetime.
Divorce doesn’t have to be combative. It can be a process where two people who’ve spent years of their lives together discuss things calmly and quietly. They talk directly to each other about what they envision for the future, rather than having their attorneys make demands. In short, they decide what’s best for them.
I’m not talking about mediation, where both parties meet with an expert in conflict resolution. (You might remember that Nicole and Charlie try mediation at the beginning of the film, but the process breaks down almost immediately.) Since they can’t provide legal advice or counsel you on financial issues, mediators are most effective in cases where there’s not a lot of property to split up or assets to distribute.
About 15 years ago, I started specialized training in a practice called Collaborative Divorce. Since then, I’ve seen firsthand the difference it makes. I’m convinced that this process, where couples decide what’s right for them and their families, is the best way forward for people whose goal is to get through this difficult time feeling hopeful about the future, not resentful about the past.
Collaborative Divorce means you never have to set foot in a courtroom. Instead of leaving important decisions to a judge, as you do in a traditional divorce, you and your spouse agree on everything together. Your lawyers file all the paperwork for you, and in most cases your divorce decree arrives in the mail.
Although both you and your spouse have specially trained lawyers on hand to protect your legal rights, Collaborative Divorce is not a lawyer-dominated process. You set the agenda and decide how to proceed. There’s a team of people around you, from mental health professionals to financial experts, who help guide you through the necessary steps. They are there to help you feel safe and secure throughout.
Collaborative Divorce requires working together with your spouse to figure out what your lives will look like in the long term. I know that it might not seem possible right now — you probably are feeling a lot of anger and frustration toward them right now. But if you want to have a reasonably normal relationship going forward, or if you want to be the most effective co-parents for your children, it’s worth the effort.
In a Collaborative Divorce, your team creates a safe space for you and your spouse to express your feelings. When you think about it, what have you got to lose by telling your partner exactly how you feel about the situation? It’s a non-judgmental environment where both of you can talk openly and honestly about what brought you to this moment and how you want to resolve it.
We’re not promising that the process will be easy. The end of a marriage never is. But Collaborative Divorce gives you the chance to get through one of the most difficult times of your life by making decisions together. It sets the tone for your lives going forward.