A new colleague reached out to me the other day with a question: The concept of Collaborative Divorce has been around for 30 years. Why haven’t more people heard of it?
It’s a fair question. Collaborative Divorce isn’t yet a household word, and I think it’s partly because the term itself causes a bit of cognitive dissonance. Those two seemingly opposite ideas sitting so close to each other sends a signal to our brains: “This does not compute.”
But our culture is at a turning point in so many ways, including our approach to creating and dissolving relationships. The old binary paradigms are yielding to more expansive and inclusive ones. We are starting to use “both/and” thinking instead of “either/or” thinking.
In their fascinating book, Navigating Polarities, Brian Emerson and Kelly Lewis describe a “polarity” as “seemingly opposite states that must coexist over time for success to occur. Their interdependence requires both/and thinking. If we ignore one in light of the other over the long-term, we end up in a bad situation.” Learning to accept a polarity isn’t easy, they point out, because “seeing things in opposition is hardwired into our brains.”
Emerson and Lewis are writing about corporate and nonprofit leadership, but their lesson applies to all of us. They identify a “transformational third-way” to transform the extremes into a more productive and satisfying process of relating to a paradox.
For the past 30 years, my colleagues in the Collaborative Divorce movement have been working diligently to create a “third way.” By talking about divorce as an opportunity for transformational personal growth rather than a recipe for disaster, we help people engage in more meaningful conversations. Instead of an adversarial process, we can come together with our spouses to separate.
I see this in my own practice. When I talk with a client about how their lives could be improved by their divorce process, it is often a revelatory and appreciated conversation. It is innate to our human condition to connect, love, and feel understood.
In her revelatory book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, Ester Perel asks us to challenge ourselves when we are confronted with an extramarital affair. She wants us to take a culturally sensitive and historical view of the institution of marriage, its purposes, and its evolution, especially as it relates to sex outside of the marriage. As she reminds us: “Today in the West, most of us are going to have two or three significant long-term relationships or marriages.”
Perel argues that the modern expectations for marriages — in particular the modern wedding vows — are “a grand set up for failure.” Our expectations for our beloved are too much for a mere mortal. It seems like when it is time to end an important relationship, we need better communication skills. We need to listen to each other more deeply, and we need to practice saying what we mean and meaning what we say. It is time to bring the love we had at the beginning of the marriage into the conversation for how to end it. We do this by demonstrating both empathy and compassion for ourselves and our spouse, even when they hurt us, betray us, or want to leave us. These are the conversations that I want to help nurture, and this is why I am always talking about how to divorce better.
Collaborative Divorce is a non-adversarial pathway to divorce. Both spouses agree in advance to not go to court and to bring their best selves to the conversation, even if they are feeling their worst. The goal is to make sure that the process aligns with your highest core values, including integrity, mutual respect, and transparency.
In a Collaborative Divorce, lawyers are not the enemy. They are part of an interdisciplinary team that consists of highly skillful and trained collaborative professionals from the three disciplines that are applicable to all divorces: law, mental health, and finance.
Collaborative Divorce has been an option for more than 30 years. It is practiced in every state and in many other countries. For many of the hundreds of thousands of people each year who are contemplating divorce, it can be just what you need to make the decision to divorce the best and the hardest one you have ever made. You can make the decision with the hope and expectation for a better future, especially when you share children or other important family and friendship bonds.
I remember the frustration I felt years ago when I was in the trenches of family court litigation, bearing witness to such intense suffering during the adversarial divorce process. Imagine my relief when I learned that there was a less stressful, less costly alternative being developed in Minnesota, called Collaborative Divorce. From the moment I first learned about it, it seemed like a “no-brainer” to me. It didn’t strike me as a contradiction, a paradox or an oxymoron. I can now see how others might view it that way.
As humanity continues to evolve, I want to give all of us enough credit to be able to hold two seemingly contradictory thoughts at the same time. Let’s use our imagination to reframe the experience of divorce so we can emerge from it healthy and whole-hearted, not bitter and resentful.