The Role of the Mental Health Professional in Collaborative Divorce

The Role of the Mental Health Professional in Collaborative Divorce:

New and Innovative or Just New Packaging?

By: Dr. Tina Lepage

            Collaborative divorce (CD), which has been around for a little over 10 years, includes mental health professionals (MHPs) as part of the process under the labels of child specialist and divorce coach. Mental health professionals have also worked for many years under their typical label of therapist in the adversarial model of divorce and in mediation. Let’s look first more closely at the roles as they are defined in CD, and then compare them to the traditional roles of MHPs in divorce.

            In crafting what the roles of MHPs would look like in CD, it became important to the architects to be clear that MHPs in CD were not acting as therapists and the process was not therapy. Parties would not be expected to discuss their childhood, and the focus would be on the here-and-now. Divorce is not a disease, and the average client probably would not warm to being told he or she must have a therapist. Instead there would be a coach and child specialist, licensed MHPs specially trained in how these roles are utilized in the collaborative process. Their interventions would be designed to help the CD process stay on track to reach an agreement in a timely manner and in a manner intended to be emotionally healthy. A description of these roles will help you picture how they are utilized.

            The divorce coach is an amazingly helpful role, which is interesting since people sometimes have a hard time envisioning the role the coach plays. Coaches prepare clients for successful amicable negotiation of an agreement. They help clients identify underlying emotions and needs/interests/concerns so that clients can prioritize issues and be fully prepared for meetings. They also help clients develop a plan for effective communication of the importance of those issues. As part of that process coaches learn the client’s unique impediments to effective problem resolution (we all have some!) and prep the client to get past those so meetings can be effective. For example, they can teach patience, timing, or assertiveness in communication as needed, or teach temper control to achieve less confrontational meetings. A coach might also create a private signal for the client, such as a brief hand on the shoulder, to cue the client and remind him or her of skills they practiced.

            Coaches also help clients handle emotional issues that might interfere with the settlement process so each person can think clearly about the future, prioritize issues, communicate effectively, and move forward. Thus the coach can help clients deal with such feelings as sadness, anger, fear, frustration, etc., that are impeding the ability to settle. Overall, the coach will work closely with clients in many ways to aid their development and effective utilization of skills needed to deal with critical issues involving the divorce. In addition, when children are involved, coaches may also hear the feedback from a child specialist and assist clients in developing a parenting plan. They can then coach clients in cooperative, amicable co-parenting.

            While concerns about finances conjure up many emotions, there is perhaps nothing more emotional than the concern of parents regarding what will happen with their children. Parents worry about how their children will cope with the divorce, how much less time they will have with their children than when they lived in the same home, how the parent-child relationships will be affected, and how the children will feel about whatever custody schedule is decided upon. Yet in traditional divorce the children’s voices are typically not formally part of the process.

            The child specialist in CD is a neutral who meets with each child to check in on what the child is feeling and thinking about the divorce. The child feels respected as this meeting provides recognition that the child is experiencing a huge life change, too, and will have feelings and thoughts about that which should be heard. The child specialist shares that discussion with the parents and is able to bring the voice of the child to any impasses regarding child issues. This often helps parents get past the disagreement. Another important role the child specialist plays is to provide information on divorce and children, generally. The child specialist should be knowledgeable about the current research on children and divorce, along with parenting plans appropriate for different developmental stages, and how to help children get through the divorce with as little stress and pain as possible. As with the divorce coach, the child specialist can also help parents come to agreement on a parenting plan and develop skill in cooperative and amicable co-parenting.

            What does this all actually look like in practice? Parties meet in the MHP’s office — either individually with their own coaches or together with one coach — to attend to all of the above, and, similarly, children and parents meet in the MHP’s office with the child specialist. There are also sessions referred to as full team meetings when coaches and/or the child specialist will meet with the parties and their attorneys.

            Now let’s look at roles MHPs have traditionally performed for clients going through divorce, roles that have included custody evaluator, child specialist, and both parental and child therapist. First, the role of custody evaluator bears no similarity to any MHP role in CD. No one is evaluated in CD, nor does the psychologist make recommendations as to custody schedules. On the other hand, the role of child specialist in CD bears many similarities to how it has been for decades. For many years prior to CD, and still among parties using traditional divorce or mediation, it is common for parents to come to a child specialist to discuss divorce and their children. Sometimes they seek out advice on their own, and sometimes their attorneys or a mediator suggest they see a specialist. Parents worry about how their children will be affected by divorce and want to discuss specifics, such as how to tell the children about their decision to separate or broader concerns, such as how to protect the children during this life transition. They might also use the time with a neutral skilled in difficult communication (therapist) to agree upon a parenting plan and talk about co-parenting. What differs in CD with the child specialist role is the specific emphasis on the voice-of-the-child, and the inclusion of the child specialist in team meetings.

            The role of therapist has historically been a broad role in divorce. MHPs who are educated and trained in child therapy provide supportive therapy to children and teenagers. Adults seek out MHPs for supportive therapy as well, and to assist with any feelings of depression, anxiety, anger, etc. they may be experiencing. While divorce is not a disease, it is a highly stressful time, and it is fair to say many adults going through divorce meet criteria for an Adjustment Disorder. This is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) as the development of clinically significant emotional or behavioral symptoms in response to an identifiable stressor, and divorce is one of the most common examples of such a stressor.

            So what does it mean when we say, “to provide therapy?” The idea that therapy is primarily focused on the past and analyzing the effect of one’s childhood on the self is outdated and has been for some time. That certainly can be a focus of therapy if the client so wishes, and can be very beneficial, but clients often present with a here-and-now focus. Clients going through separation very often want to address their emotions as they affect the present so they can start feeling better day-by-day. Their hope is that this will help them cope better with the divorce process and contribute to emotional stability in the future. People going through divorce may want help clarifying their thoughts on their positions, which therapists do by helping them understand the underlying meaning of their wants and the emotions surrounding them. They often want to get their presentation of those thoughts straight so they can more effectively communicate what they wish to explain in meetings. Whether a client has a temper, or trouble speaking up, the therapist will help them identify behavioral triggers and develop coping skills for use in difficult conversations. Accordingly, the therapist will help them either calm down or be more assertive. As with the child specialist role, the role of the divorce coach bears many similarities to the role of a therapist. What differs most is the strong focus of the coach’s role on helping parties reach agreement, and the inclusion of the divorce coach in team meetings.

            The question one can ask is: are these differences of roles significant?

            The portions of the child specialist role that have to do with helping parents be best able to help their children through the process and with discussing parenting plans are not new. But they can seem new to MHPs who have not already worked for years in traditional divorce, and the trainings offered around these topics are often terrific, which is to say it is really good and useful new packaging.

            As a child psychologist I cannot give enough professional praise to the original architects of the voice-of-the-child concept. This is new and innovative as a piece to be built into the process, and it respects children of all ages. Divorce is a major life event that children have no control over when it happens to them; it becomes a chapter in their life they will tell over and over again as they form friendships and intimate partnerships (i.e., “the story of when my parents divorced”). The meeting with the child specialist allows children to be heard in a developmentally appropriate way, and so often I have seen results in a stronger parent-child bond through the process because parents understand their children better and the child feels heard. As adults we all know we like to feel heard, and children are no different. Also, children have some great ideas, and keeping their voices in their parents’ minds can help keep meetings grounded when hostilities flare. This is not new in that some parents chose to have this type of meeting with their children and a therapist before CD existed; CD did not invent this interaction, it built it into the CD process and highlighted its importance, which is significant.

            The vast majority of the divorce coach role includes things MHPs have been doing forever with clients going through divorce; that is, the coaching with the parties is not necessarily all that different than therapy with a client (which can also be done individually or as a couple). Clients have presented to therapists for years asking for the same things built into the coaching process in CD. Therein lies the new and innovative piece: it is not so much what the MHP can do with the person, but rather that the role is embedded in the process. Being embedded in the process has some important meaning. As such the MHP is supposed to keep the focus of coaching moving in a direction that clearly assists the person in getting to settlement. A therapist very well might try to re-focus a client who presented with a certain goal and was off track, but, generally, the client determines the focus of therapy. Similarly, the client still essentially determines the focus in CD by engaging the therapist as someone to help keep the process on track. Also, importantly, because they are embedded in the process the professionals working in CD have developed a shared language. More typically communication between legal professionals and MHPs has been and still is cross-cultural communication. As professionals we work together more effectively when we know what we are each talking about.

            Having MHPs in team meetings is also new. Traditionally MHPs work alone with the client and then, if the client wishes, communicate what happened in session to attorneys. What underscores these roles in CD and is also new and innovative is the idea that MHPs need to be a central part of the divorce process, and that is very significant. A primary developer of CD, Stu Webb, has related that soon into that journey of development he had an ‘ah-ha’ moment, realizing divorce is 80% emotional, and thus he believed the real work of divorce would be better handled by MHPs.

            So, is the role of the mental health professional in collaborative divorce new and innovative or just new packaging? The new and innovative aspects of these roles are that (1) they are embedded in the process, which gives them a new level of attention and importance, that (2), in turn, has resulted in the roles being used in a more organized way and interventions within the roles being more defined. The result is a more ‘manualized’ approach, which often leads to increased effectiveness of interventions. For example, therapists for decades talked to clients about how their thoughts and behaviors impacted their feelings, but once that procedure was well defined as ‘cognitive-behavioral therapy’ understanding of it and its use in interventions grew and it became highly effective. Interestingly, the roles can be incorporated into mediation or used by clients in the traditional divorce process, and are in no way exclusive to CD. There are large parts of the roles that are just new packaging; however, new packaging can be good! Sometimes a new look and new language to describe something gives it the appeal necessary to help people realize they needed it all along.

To view this and other articles in The Peacemaker online, visit: http://disputeresolution.ncbar.org/newsletters

(This article is published in the November 2012 edition.)