Collaborative Divorce Article

I was in high school when I finally found my place in the perfect family. My position was on the sofa watching television every afternoon, and the ideal family was the Ingalls' of Little House on the Prairie.


The show depicted the Ingalls' life and adventures in the 19th century American West, and I loved it. I loved how the family ate together every night and how the father took time to be with his children. I couldn't help but notice the incredible respect Charles and Caroline, the parents, had for each other and the way they cared for their children.


I couldn't bear to miss a single episode. I believed "happily ever after" had to be possible, and I'd found it in this family.


My real home life was not quite the same. I knew my parents loved my brother and me, but their inability to work through their emotions and communicate with each other was painful for us to watch. Their anger was like cancer that spread through our entire family, and there was no way to stop this infectious disease from revealing its terminal devastation. I felt terrible for my parents. I knew their life was not easy. They were married young and had suffered two of their children's deaths, one of whom died saving my life. They were hurting and angry, and they were each other's scapegoats. They would take all their feelings of anger, hurt, and guilt and displace and project those feelings on one another. They were a conduit for each other's pain and spewed their feelings daily in angry words and voices. My younger brother and I were their unfortunate audience, but I believe deep in my heart if they knew what they were doing to us, they would have made different choices.


In 1979, three things happened: I graduated from high school, my parents divorced and decided I'd never watch Little House on The Prairie again. I felt robbed of a healthy, happy home, and I didn't want to expose myself emotionally to an hour television show that was never going to become my reality. I came to the resolution my family was never going to sit at a dinner table again. My parents couldn't even be in the same room with one another!


I am not sure if my parents ever went to counseling or in my little town in upstate New York that there was even counseling. As I grieved my parents' divorce, I just wished someone could have taught them how to communicate with each other. Maybe they would not have hurt each other with such hateful words, and indeed, my brother and I would have learned better coping skills. Instead, my brother and I are left with jaded, painful memories of the hurtful words my parents threw at each other in their pain.


At some point in my career as a therapist, I felt my purpose unfolding. One fall afternoon, a couple sat before me and told me they wanted to end their marriage. "We fight horribly, and our children see it because we are so angry and can't contain our emotions." My heart sank, not only for the couple but for their children. The entire drive home from work that night, I felt the need to do more. I wanted to be a superhero that could save children from the pain of watching and experiencing hurtful words between their parents, stories I'd painfully endured years before.

It was in this session that I began to understand my purpose. I wanted to teach people how to use their words to achieve healthier communication. At this point, I had a heart-to-heart discussion with my husband about shifting the majority of my practice to conflict resolution counseling. I knew I wanted to educate individuals on changing their words to change their outcomes in life and relationships, especially during times of divorce. I discovered I was not alone in my desire to find a healthier and more suitable method of navigating the turbulent waters of divorce. Countless families have begun to catch on to the idea divorce with dignity is possible. 

This can be seen every day in the results-driven growth of collaborative divorce.

Collaborative divorce is a solution-focused process that can replace much of the despair and distress caused by traditional divorce by focusing on cooperation. It is a process that helps couples maintain control over the outcome of their divorce as they avoid going to court and entering the complicated domain of litigation. The divorcing parties and their attorneys work together using cooperation strategies to reach a settlement that works best for the family's individual needs and priorities. This process can transform families for the better, and it also can save individuals from much of the emotional and financial distress that accompanies divorce. Traditional divorces taken to court can often cost individuals as much as they make in salary each year. That does not even take into account the toll it takes on the couple and their children emotionally. It is a significantly more cost and time-effective process that can lead to positive family structure changes.

The collaborative divorce process provides couples with specially trained collaborative lawyers and mental health and financial professionals to educate, support, and guide them in reaching balanced, respectful, and lasting agreements. Unlike in a litigated divorce, these agreements are not based on financial rewards but on establishing "win-win" solutions for both spouses to foster positive changes and positive future interactions, especially if children are involved. The collaborative divorce process empowers individuals to resolve their legal disputes without judges, magistrates, or court personnel getting involved and making decisions for them. It also offers a safe and dignified environment to reduce the conflict of ending a marriage and minimize its impact on the lives of divorcing spouses and their children.

Through extensive training and professional development, I have gained a unique perspective and expertise in the area of conflict resolution therapy and collaborative divorce. I believe wholeheartedly in the positive impact of this process. I have shifted most of my practice over to serve as a neutral mental health professional for families in the collaborative divorce process. I recognize no two divorces are alike, and I provide services tailored to each family's unique needs. My goal is always the same: to make the transition less painful by facilitating communication and cooperation when two people have decided they can't remain married.

There are many attorneys, advisors, and mental health professionals in the area here to help families through a divorce in amicable and positive ways. I belong to the Tampa Bay Collaborative Divorce Group. There are also other collaborative groups in the Tampa Bay area and the International Association of Collaborative Professionals, which serves the community of legal and mental health professionals working in concert to create client-centered processes for resolving conflict.

Along with all other collaborative professionals, I understand that divorce between partners sometimes can't be stopped, but we also realize that divorce doesn't have to destroy families or children. We continue to emphasize to all clients of collaborative divorce the immense importance of loving your children more than hating your ex-partner. If divorce is unavoidable, there is a process to do that with integrity. The family unit may change, but the children will benefit from two functioning parents who have their children's best interests at heart.

I was able to survive and overcome my own experience with my parents' divorce as a teenager, but it was not easy. I wish there had been a way back then to divorce without despair, to keep our family somehow intact and loving. That is why I am committed to saving families going through the same struggles as my family did. I realize now as an adult, and through my marriage, the perfection I saw on Little House on the Prairie may not be attainable, but families can still love and care for each other even though the most challenging time. We can always strive to collaborate, especially in the time of a divorce.