Collaborative Practice Re-Defines Winning: A Mental Health Perspective

By Susan Napolitano, Ph.D.

For many children, parental divorce is more psychologically devastating than the death of a parent. Unlike with divorce, the death of a parent usually results in an outpouring of support and sympathy. Although a parent may be lost forever, the memories and images of that parent are cherished and forever treated with respect. Although it is a tremendous and life lasting loss, the child has a means by which to face the loss with the support of the surviving parent, extended family and friends.

Families Torn Asunder
For children of divorcing parents, the emotional field couldn’t be more different. These grieving children are forced to hear their parents’ berate each other and tell stories of the other parent’s shortcomings. Children of divorce are often put in the middle and pressured to pick one parent over the other. These children see relatives and friends support one parent while treating the other as an enemy. Children often cringe at the thought of both parents attending a sporting event for fear that they will make a scene. Divorce not only splits the immediate family, but the division of the extended family widens as the years go by.

Litigation Puts The Professionals At Cross Purposes
Therapists, lawyers and other professionals acting independently rarely solve the problems facing divorcing families because the system is designed to be adversarial. The problem is not with either the therapists or the lawyers as they are both trying to fulfill the role for which they have been chosen. The problem is that the different professionals are working at cross purposes, which often intensifies the conflicts.

The courts and laws alone are too remote or generalized to effectively address the individual needs of children and families in crisis. Too many parents think that once they get their day in court, everything will be resolved. This rarely occurs. After a brief court appearance, a judge who has never met with either the parties or the children will make a decision that will affect them for the rest of their lives. The result is rarely satisfying and often leaves a bitterness and resentment that drains the family for years to come. In a system where everyone fights to win, the result is usually that everyone loses.

Collaborative Practice Is The New Kid In Town
Collaborative Practice (CP) minimizes the many destructive forces that jeopardize the emotional health of children and their parents. In this solution focused approach, the constructive energy and creative thinking of a team of trained collaborative professionals overrides the destructive emotional and behavioral patterns that likely caused the end of the marriage and can feed a divorce battle that will drain bank accounts, harm children and demoralize parents.

With CP each client obtains a lawyer with expertise in divorce law and collaborative law. The lawyer will protect the party’s interests while guiding the client through the complex legal maze, without ever going to court. Collaborative lawyers protect their clients and work constructively with the other party, avoiding the antagonism that drives up legal costs and brings divorcing couples farther and farther from resolution. Lawyers and clients are typically assisted by coaches who are licensed mental health professionals trained to manage and re-direct the many emotional obstacles that interfere with reaching reasonable settlements. Coaches help settle down and clarify the emotions so lawyers can be free to assist the parties in resolving the legal issues.

With CP the divorcing couple can be carried out of past patterns and toward a sensible and mutually agreed-upon resolution of financial, legal and child-related matters. The Collaborative team can carefully craft an agreement that maintains respect between parties, creates a healthy co-parenting arrangement and focuses on the emotional and developmental needs of the children. CP ultimately puts the power where is belongs: with the parents.

As a psychologist working with divorcing families for almost twenty years, I couldn’t be happier to be a part of Collaborative Practice. Our community now has a wise, respectful and creative approach to divorce that resolves disputes and maintains family dignity. Divorce does not have to be death. It can be a new beginning.