Divorce is often experienced as a major crisis in a client’s life, especially if he or she doesn’t want to divorce. The process can only go as fast as the slower client can handle, so it’s important to identify the client who is not ready for the divorce and begin working immediately on getting him or her to accept that the divorce is going to happen. There are three major stages in most collaborative divorces: the initial crisis; strong emotions triggered during the collaborative process by money or children; and feelings elicited during negotiations, decision-making, and separating. The spouse who initiates the divorce may feel guilt, uncertainty, and concern about the children, while the spouse who has just learned about the divorce may experience denial, panic, and anger. Divorce is a major life change and difficult to manage emotions are likely to appear throughout the process. Depending on the personality of each client, we may see fight, flight, or freeze during these trying times. The job of the collaborative team is to help clients manage their difficult feelings effectively.
Initial Crisis Management
It’s best to postpone major decisions until the initial crisis has passed because people make poor decisions under stress and may only see one option because of tunnel vision caused by severe anxiety. Collaborative attorneys and mental health professionals can help their clients by providing a safe haven during individual meetings where the person can explore feelings and options without external pressure. The mental health professional should educate clients about how they are likely to feel and steps they can take to manage strong emotions elicited by a divorce. Clients should be advised to take care of themselves by eating, sleeping, and exercising appropriately during the divorce. In addition, clients should be encouraged to establish clear boundaries with their spouse, especially if they are living in the same house. Make certain they keep children out of the divorce process because that can be destructive of their emotional and personal development. Finally, explore the client’s support system and encourage him or her to stay connected with others during this difficult time.
Managing Emotions During the Collaborative Process
During the initial meeting, attorneys and mental health professionals need to let the client know what is expected of them concerning emotional management during the collaborative sessions. Let clients know that the structure of the collaborative process will help them through difficult feelings and they won’t be alone. Ask your client to begin thinking about what needs to be done immediately and what can be postponed till later to get him or her thinking about the future. Let your client know they are expected to be respectful, take turns talking, stay focused, and avoid labeling their spouse. Encourage clients to communicate with the team about how they are feeling and share any concerns they have about the process. Discuss with your client what helps them stay calm, teach him or her deep breathing, remind clients they can take a break anytime they are feeling overwhelmed, and explain the seating arrangement and management of the meeting so he or she won’t be surprised.
Making Decisions and Severing Attachments
The final emotional stage of a divorce involves making difficult decisions about finances and the children and letting go of prior attachments in preparation for a new life. Make certain you circulate the agenda before each meeting and discuss difficult issues with your client ahead of time so he or she won’t feel ambushed. During settlement negotiations, remind your client that an agreement requires meeting the needs of both parties and he or she can’t expect to get everything. Agreements require compromise. Sometimes reframing an issue can help a client consider options that have been rejected earlier. From the very beginning of the collaborative process, make certain you manage your client’s unrealistic expectations. Don’t encourage a client to think he or she will get everything because that never happens. Meet with your client individually and discuss their preferences and explain realistically what is possible in the present situation. Encourage clients to respect their feelings and help them have the patience to work through their fears and anger before making a final decision. Explain to your client that it will take months for them to feel completely normal again after the divorce and not to rush into a new relationship before they are fully prepared.