Avoiding the Family Feud
Henry Ford once said, “Don’t find fault, find a remedy.” This simple advice could apply to international disputes, broken toasters – or even a divorce. Too often, however, the divorce process breaks down into angry accusations and reactions that don’t remedy anything. Such a toxic combination frequently leads to high-conflict legal proceedings.
Disputes over child-related issues can traumatize children and damage lines of communication between parents who must continue to work together long after their divorce. Studies have shown high-conflict divorces not only leave their mark on the couple’s children, the negative impact usually ripples through subsequent generations and eventually society, as well.
Since attorneys are integral in the divorce process, they play critical roles in how families survive this ordeal. Attorneys who accept this responsibility must try to neutralize conflicts by solving problems instead of creating them.
The traditional, adversarial approach to family law disputes often encourages each party to seek out and proclaim the worst characteristics of the other. Fortunately, participants in those disputes are beginning to realize the widespread damage caused by such warfare. Many lawyers, with the help of mental health professionals, are adopting innovative methods to help couples survive their divorce without destroying each other along the way. Two prominent alternatives being promoted around the country, including Allen County, are Cooperative Divorce and Collaborative Divorce. At least 35 states and Canada now have Collaborative or Cooperative Law associations that focus on these alternatives.
These methods have many similarities including a detailed contract signed by the parties and their attorneys that declares everyone’s commitment to work together to solve problems. Both methods also encourage the use of specially-trained mental health and/or financial professionals as needed. While the goal is always to complete the divorce by written agreement rather than litigation, in either model a party may terminate the agreement and litigate a particular issue.
The main difference between the two approaches is the attorneys’ role if the parties cannot resolve an issue. In the Collaborative model, both attorneys must withdraw when an insurmountable dispute occurs. For example, if a divorcing couple agree on all issues except parenting time, and that issue must be decided by a judge, both attorneys must resign. The parties must then hire new attorneys and proceed to trial. Under the Cooperative model, the attorneys may remain in the case in the event of an impasse and continue to litigate unresolved issues.
The Cooperative and Collaborative divorce processes require everyone to think differently about how to analyze, negotiate, and resolve typical issues in family disputes. And, they compel everyone to focus on solving problems, rather than finding fault. The improved approach also allows for other professionals to help find solutions if needed. For example, if one spouse struggles with emotional issues, a divorce coach with a mental health background can join the team to help that spouse become a productive participant. If the parties disagree over parenting time, both parties can select a trained child specialist to develop a parenting plan that’s best for the children. Similarly, if a divorce involves complex economic issues, the team can mutually select a financial expert to advise them on those issues. This person serves as a neutral expert, not as one party’s hired gun.
Last March, the Family Law Section of the Allen County Bar Association sponsored a one-day training program on Cooperative Divorce for area family law attorneys and family therapists. The event was underwritten by the Allen County Circuit and Superior Courts and Office Concepts, with additional assistance from SCAN (Stop Child Abuse and Neglect).
As a follow-up, a group of Allen County attorneys and mental health professionals will soon release a brochure that promotes these alternative methods as a means to avoid the family feud and all its negative by-products. SCAN is providing a telephone line (260-421-5060) that provides callers with a list of local attorneys trained in Cooperative and Collaborative Divorce. The Allen County Courts are developing policies and procedures that encourage parties and their attorneys to consider adopting one of these alternative methods. Additional seminars are being planned to educate attorneys, therapists and financial experts on how to incorporate such methods into their professional practices.
If you are contemplating or participating in a “high-conflict” family dispute, consider one of these options. It will benefit you, your spouse and your children, and it should cost less than the traditional adversarial approach to divorce.
The Cooperative and Collaborative Divorce models cannot be used in every case. Strong human emotions can create a climate that discourages a win-win situation. However, since the alternative models encourage a multi-disciplinary approach, they can be successful in even the most difficult cases. The high percentage of U.S. marriages ending in divorce has not changed in many years. However, a Cooperative or Collaborative approach to solving this family problem can bring divorce with dignity and avoid family fallout. If parents don’t try one of these options for their own benefit, they should do it for the sake of their children.