Why We Have Coaches in Collaborative Divorce

The coach (or coaches) in a collaborative divorce are the glue that holds everything together and make the trains run on time. In many ways, they have the toughest job. At the beginning of a case, we ask people why they’re divorcing collaboratively. What’s in it for them? The answers are as unique as the people who divorce but they tend to cluster around issues like a desire to coparent well following the divorce, to place the needs of the children first, to be able to comfortably attend life events like weddings, graduations, births of grandchildren, etc., to not lose connection with their ex’s friends and family, and many times to remain friends with the ex himself/herself. Some speak of their values, of not wanting to harm their children and/or not wanting to harm each other. Of a desire to divorce in a way that’s consistent with who they are, that honors the love they’ve shared, sometimes even in the face of something really painful like a spouse’s extramarital affair. All of which are great as visions, but making it happen is a whole other story and typically not easy.

If you imagine starting in the clouds with these grand visions and then slowly working our way down into the weeds, into the specifics of a parenting plan, the property division and support, you get a sense of the challenges. Fear comes up. “Will I have enough money?” “Will the children be alright?” “Will I stay connected with the children?” It’s so easy to lose the forest for the trees. The coaches help keep people focused on the forest. They help them reassure each other, to keep the wolves of fear at bay as we negotiate the specifics. They help each spouse contemplate what’s truly important, and what will still feel important years in the future, and discern that from what might feel important in the heat of the moment. Not in a directive way but, rather, by supporting each person to find those truths within himself/herself. And then they help each spouse, as they find those deeper truths, communicate them to the other in a way that the other will be able to hear and recognize and appreciate. In other words, not as variations on blame and shame but rather as simple feelings, needs, hopes and visions around which they can, ideally, provide validation and maybe even empathy for one another.

Collaborative divorce is not easier than litigation. It’s more a very different animal. There are ways in which it’s easier but also ways in which it’s harder. Ways in which far more is asked of the divorcing spouses. They don’t get to sit back and watch the process unfold. They don’t get to play victim to each other. Much is asked of them and the coaches are the ones who, more than anyone else, support them through the challenges, though clearly everyone on the team has an important role.

With the exception of the occasional case where the spouses have already pretty much negotiated the settlement and just need some hand holding in writing it up, I will not take on a collaborative case without a coach. And even in those exceptional situations, my representation will come with the understanding that the moment things get wobbly, they have to agree to stop, drop and roll. In other words, the moment things get wonky, we bring in a coach. No sending offers and counteroffers back and forth while trust erodes. In 98 out of 100 cases, a coach must be there from the very beginning. Because asking someone to come in and clean up the mess later is far harder and less likely to be effective (and many coaches will tell attorneys who ask to go pound sand — as, in my view, they should.)

Getting a coach-eye view of divorce is the kind of thing that can blow a litigator’s worldview wide open. The biggest pieces of the paradigm shift that goes into practicing collaboratively, in my view, are, one, the exclusion clause that neuters both attorneys. There can be no litigation. We win together or lose together. Two, the requirement of full disclosure of everything that’s relevant. No waiting to be asked for documentation of income, assets, debts or anything relevant to the children’s well-being – it’s all provided freely and willingly (as a requirement and a value). And, three, the recognition that this is not an attorney-driven process and we are not necessarily the most important members of the team. It’s truly a team effort and, while attorneys certainly have an essential role, we must defer to those who know more about how to accomplish certain things if we hope to be successful. As attorneys, we’re here to support our clients in many ways, large and small, and ultimately make sure that all the “i”s are dotted and “t”s are crossed. That’s what we do best. But when it comes to holding hearts and helping people align around intentions and goals, we are not the ones with the most knowledge or training. We can get very good at it, and most of us eventually do after years of practicing this way, but ultimately our role is secondary.

Think Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire”: “I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” and substitute the word “coaches”. They truly are these amazing team members. My wife is a doctorate level psychologist who used to do an amazing job serving on collaborative teams as the child specialist, another variation on the coaching theme. She did beautiful work, often helping parents to open in the most beautiful ways around their hopes, dreams and fears as parents, when she was willing to serve in that role. She gave it up because it was too demanding once we had a child of our own. She’s clear that, challenging though it might be at times to serve as a therapist, to serve on a collaborative team is far harder.