Most of the emotions that we see during the course of the breakdown of a marriage and the divorce process boil down to fear. I do not say that from my own expertise but from what I have heard over and over again from my colleagues in the mental health profession.
The first victim of any marriage that is failing is communications. As communications break down, people can no longer successfully agree how to solve problems together. As the problems grow larger and more urgent, what they do, out of frustration and fear of looming and real consequences, is to take matters into their own hands. They start acting independently, taking unilateral action. However, because they are in a relationship with each other, what one does affects the other. Believing the other’s actions were intended to affect them, a new fear sets in. What will they do next? A spiral begins. One spouse acts out of a need to get back in control, which the other sees as intended to affect them, and the other takes steps of their own out of fear, for their own protection or defense, and now neither really knows what’s going to happen next. It becomes tit-for-tat, call and response. The arguments escalate, they begin to include how their respective actions have betrayed and harmed each other, problems are still not being resolved, more potential or imminent consequences loom, and more unilateral actions are taken out of fear and defensiveness and efforts not to let things spiral out of control. Neither spouse understands what the other is doing and both are now caught in a spiral whose catalyst is fear.
This spiral of fear and tit-for-tat all happens before the spouses come to see a family law professional. Made aware of the escalating conflict, their family, friends and trusted advisors tell them, “You need to talk to an attorney. You need to protect yourself.” A lot of them use words like you need to “attorney up.” And it is in this fear driven context, they hire an attorney.
Here’s where the process that they choose can make all the difference.
What the Collaborative Divorce process offers is a safe space, a professional container where they can rely on supportive professionals that they can trust to focus on immediately containing the conflict. This de-escalation gives spouses a sense of gaining some control back in their lives and allaying their fears. The coaches begin immediately to assist the spouses to reestablish productive communications, that have long been lost, and to help them to start making their own agreements to handle and resolve family problems. Working directly with a child specialist they get guidance on how to create a co-parenting plan which provides for the children’s best interests and future welfare. Working directly with a financial specialist to regain control of their budgets and finances and assistance creating a sustainable financial plan that takes care of everyone in the family, now and for the foreseeable future. Surrounded by and working with the collaborative professionals, including their lawyers who answer their legal questions, create binding legal documents, educate and guide them through the process.
Immediately, with the structure and the safety of the process and the professional support from the collaborative team, the spouses start to get more assurance and less fear and start working more from the problem-solving part of their mind instead of the fear centered – fight, flight, or freeze – part of their mind.
Here is the bonus:
The kids see them doing this. The kids have seen their parents fall apart. Now they get to see their parents working together to create a safe space for themselves. Kids depend on their parents to do the ‘adulting’. When they see them failing, they become fearful and begin taking their own steps to be safe, ‘acting out’, withdrawing, taking unwise counsel from ‘new friends’ whose families have gone through their own crisis. When they see the parents communicating and ‘adulting’ again, they return to the familiar and safe family structure where the parents’ parent, keep them safe, and kids are kids again. This is the model of parenting and the co-parenting that kids thrive on.
There is a legacy in this. In Collaborative divorce, spouses enter into a process that teaches them the skills and tools for their family’s future. Skills and tools to be able to recognize a shared problem, to resolve their shared problems and to co-parent together. The spouses acquire a competency that allows them to have a more successful future, both independently and as a family. And the kids see their parents solving one of the biggest life crises that they will ever face, and they start to believe that there is no problem too big that it cannot be resolve. And that is a life skill called resiliency. Collaborative Divorce builds resiliency for both the parents and the kids to deal with future challenges. A future where conflict and fear are replaced by successful conversations and problems get solved.