Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series about divorce and its impact on families.
Part 1, Divorce, A Savage Emotional Journey
Part 3: Part 3: After the Divorce: Practical Advice for Successful Co-Parenting
By Karen West
|On the Web...|
10 Tips to Help Your Children Through a Divorce
Collaborative Law is New Trend in 'Good Divorce'
It was a somber yet joyous gathering. On the day her divorce became final, Susan Moore met with friends at Golden Gardens Park in Seattle. Some brought fresh flowers; others brought candles. They built a fire on the beach and burned sage.
As if cleansing her soul, a friend smudged Moore with a stick of burnt sage. Her eyes welled with tears as she reflected on the impact her divorce would have on her then 4-year-old son.
Through the tears, she picked up her wedding photo and burned it, watching her 10-year marriage literally go up in smoke. Then, with newfound energy, she sprang up and jumped into the icy waters of Puget Sound.
The plunge was part of Moore’s divorce closure ceremony – her way of symbolically marking the end of a marriage and the beginning of a new life. With each splash of the water, Moore says she absolved the anger and bitterness she had felt during her 11-month divorce process. "It was kind of like washing off the muck of the past year," she says.
Moore, 43, is one of a growing number of people across the country embracing alternative, healing ways – such as divorce rituals – to deal with divorce. She is among hundreds of people who are working hard to achieve a "good divorce" by shielding their children from conflict and turning emotional and financial loss into personal gain.
"There are a growing number of people who are unwilling to buy into the myth that divorce has to be ugly and terrible," says Moore’s family law attorney Stefani Quane, co-president of Northwest Collaborative Divorce, an association of independent lawyers, mediators, coaches, financial planners and child specialists. She says there are a lot of people who are committed to a different process.
For example, arbitration and mediation practices, in which a neutral third party assists in resolving disputes, are on the rise. The American Arbitration Association, the nation’s largest provider of Alternative Dispute Resolution services, says it administered more than 230,000 mediations and arbitrations in 2002, compared with 95,143 in 1998.
Also, there is a growing "transformational law" movement across the country in which family law attorneys are embracing more humanistic ways to lessen the devastating impact of divorce.
Membership in both the Georgia-based International Alliance of Holistic Lawyers and the Renaissance Lawyer Society, a North Carolina-based nonprofit educational organization, has risen in the last few years.
The Washington State Bar Association devoted much of its February issue to alternative legal methods and sponsored a seminar in March on collaborative law. "Rather than defining problems only as legal concerns, these more comprehensive approaches include humanistic values such as overall well-being, relationships, feelings, needs, resources, meaning, values and goals…" the Bar News article states.
The use of divorce coaches and child advocates also has risen as people strive to protect their children emotionally. People going through divorce are attending co-parenting classes and working harder to maintain good relationships long after the divorce is final.
Moore says she and her ex-husband vowed to shield their son, Liam, from the traumatic effects of their divorce. "We did a lot of talking and explaining. We said, ‘We love you very much and the reason we (mom and dad) are moving away is so we can all be happier,’" Moore says. They hired a mediator (in addition to an attorney) to help guide them through the process so they could minimize the impact on Liam, who is now 5.
As a result, they avoided the courtroom, developed a comprehensive parenting plan and eliminated nasty child custody fights, which could have cost them thousands of dollars. They live close to each other in Ballard and maintain a healthy relationship.
They also took their son to child psychologist to help him cope with the divorce.
"Before the divorce he was very outgoing, but then he sort of shut down," Moore says. "He was angry and there were more episodes of hitting and acting out in his preschool." But after a year of talking through his feelings and reassuring him that both parents still love him, Moore says her son is doing much better and is able to talk about the things that are bothering him. "Now, when he’s missing his Dad, he can tell me."
While Moore’s divorce closure ceremony was a personal experience that she didn’t feel would be appropriate to share with her son, she created other closure rituals that they could do together. "When we moved out of the house Liam and I wrote a letter to it to say goodbye," Moore says. "We brought the old house flowers from the new house (a few blocks away). It finalized it for him."
Cases like Moore’s, in which the parents work together to safeguard their children, are becoming more typical, says Lois Nightingale, a California clinical psychologist and author of the children’s book, My Parents Still Love Me Even Though They’re Getting Divorced.
She advises parents not to make children their emotional peers and not to badmouth your spouse in front of the children. "That’s the worse thing a parent can do in front of children," Nightingale says. "Children identify the other parent as 50 percent of themselves. The children interpret the negative comments as being about them."
Another key rule is to constantly tell their children the divorce is not their fault. "Kids believe that everything that happens in the world is because of them," she says.
Nightingale says children react differently to their parents splitting up depending upon their age. For example, a 2-year-old might suffer from not having a bonding experience, while 5- or 6-year-olds might feel they will not be safe or protected if one parent leaves. Eight- to 10-year-olds are more likely to worry about what their friends think, while teen-agers tend to pick one of the parents as a good guy and the other as bad.
‘Good Divorce’ – Myth or Reality?
Whether it’s through divorce rituals, mediation, child advocacy counselors or divorce coaches, experts say there is such a thing as a "good divorce."
"The ‘good divorce’ is not an oxymoron," writes Constance Ahrons, author of The Good Divorce. "The simple truth is that while there are bad divorces, there are also good ones," she writes. "Although good divorces are as varied as good marriages, they have important common denominators – namely, the absence of malice and a mutual concern for the well-being of children. The partners have similar goals: to maintain their family relationships while moving ahead with their separate lives."
Ahrons notes that 50 percent of the divorced couples she interviewed remained friends for whom "the disappointments of a failed marriage didn’t overshadow the positive elements of a long-standing relationship."
In his book Practical Divorce Solutions, California author and family law attorney Ed Sherman says successful or "good divorces" mean "completing the process of emotional separation, reaching a new center of balance as a single person, maintaining the welfare of your children and establishing healthy attitudes toward yourself, your ex-spouse, and your past marriage."
"Apart from peace of mind, growth and other human values, there are very practical advantages to struggling as hard as you can to make your divorce better," he writes.
Bellevue family law attorney MariJean Moschetto, chair-elect of the Washington State Bar Association’s Family Law section, says many attorneys don’t see the "good divorces." Those are usually handled independently by couples who often use other professionals, such as mediators, to agree on most of the legal aspects of divorce, including custody issues and property settlements. While many people in divorce situations see family law attorneys as gladiators, Moschetto says most attorneys feel a duty to help their clients get through the divorce process without causing undue emotional distress, especially for the children.
"For me, family law is not about breaking up families. It’s about re-forming families," says Moschetto, who has practiced family law for 25 years. She advises people contemplating divorce to do their homework before consulting an attorney. "Think about what you want and how you plan to get there. What are the costs, both financial and emotional?"
When choosing an attorney, she says: "You need to be comfortable with your attorney. Ask prospective attorneys enough questions to make sure they understand your goals. Listen to the attorney’s opinion of your case even if it disagrees with yours. Be sure you can understand the attorney’s explanations, as ultimately you will be the one deciding how your case goes through the process. It is your case and your life."
Jamie Thomas, founder of Tacoma-based Divorce Network, agrees, saying being proactive and gaining knowledge of the process helps couples get through a divorce without devastating each other and the kids. "As much as the couple might dislike each other, if they can keep the children as their number one focus and can continue thinking of themselves more as the mother and father of their children than as soon-to-be-ex-wife and ex-husband, then they hopefully will be able to make decisions as a divorcing unit," Thomas says.
She advises her clients to maintain control over the divorce process while being open to the wishes of the other side.
"I say, don’t expect to get everything you want but be flexible and realistic," Thomas says. "I tell them in order to work within the system, you must know the system." In addition to reading up on the divorce process, Thomas urges clients to gather information regarding assets and debts and prepare proposed property settlement agreements and parenting plans before hiring an attorney.
Thomas, who has been divorced twice, formed her divorce consultancy business – which serves King, Pierce, Kitsap and Thurston counties – eight years ago to help guide women through the process. She says she’s a generalist who acts as an educator, counselor, cheerleader and coach for people going through divorce. A lot has changed in the legal industry since Thomas went through her divorces and she encourages clients to avoid the courtroom if possible.
No Court Divorce
After 36 years of marriage, Linda and Joe (they requested their real names not be used) found their way to a "good divorce" through a legal approach called collaborative law.
"Neither one of us wanted to get divorced but the thought of living 20 or 30 more years married to someone you can’t stand was worse," Linda says. Anticipating emotional and financial disaster, a friend urged the couple to try the collaborative law approach. Currently practiced in at least 26 states, Canada, England, Ireland, and Australia, collaborative law is a process in which clients and their attorneys sign a nonlitigation contract promising not to go to court. (See related story.)
In Linda and Joe’s case, they avoided a costly, and public, courtroom brawl by spending eight "four-way" sessions with their collaborative law attorneys hashing out their family fortune and other divorce issues. The couple and their attorneys verbally exchanged information and settlement ideas without formal written requests or attorney-drafted letters, as is standard practice in divorce proceedings. Although the sessions were grueling, the couple and their attorneys avoided using adversarial tactics.
"It was the most horrible thing that happened to me (divorce) but if we didn’t do it in a collaborative manner it could have been so much worse," Linda says. "We knew we had to do it (divorce) so we wanted to do it as painlessly as possible."
Because of their sizeable assets, the couple’s divorce ended up costing them a combined $20,000, but Linda says without the collaborative law approach, "we would have eaten through tens of thousands more."
Unlike most divorce litigation, collaborative law is designed to keep the husband and wife communicating, even without their lawyers present. If the process fails and the parties choose to go to court, they must hire new attorneys.
Quane, who is known by her clients as the "Law Lady," says the requirement of attorney withdrawal gives both parties an incentive to work hard to reach a mutually satisfying resolution. "It has a secondary benefit of decreasing each participant’s stress level," she says. "They can relax knowing that the other side won’t be filing any surprise court actions."
Coaches and child advocates also are recommended in the collaborative process.
"The coaches help the parents reduce their stress and provide a calming influence so the process of settlement doesn’t blow up from hot emotions," Quane says. "If both parents are functioning at their best given the situation, recognizing their children’s perspective, and aiming for a win/win outcome, you’ve got a recipe for a better divorce."
Seattle family law attorney Joseph Shaub, who is also a licensed marriage and family therapist, says using collaborative law and mediation "sends a message to the client that I will do everything I can to understand what their needs are so that they can come out of the divorce process with a degree of dignity and peace."
Another out-of-court option is mediation, which usually costs between $2,000 and $6,000, depending on the complexity of the divorce. Unlike arbitration, where the arbitrator renders a decision that is final and binding, mediators do not have the authority to make binding decisions.
Family law attorneys say mediation works best for couples who are trying to work together but need help negotiating parenting plans or terms of financial settlements.
"I find it is so much more rewarding to help families work together in the best interests of their children rather than fight with each other about who gets the kids," says Laura Pierson, director of the Snohomish & Island Counties Dispute Resolution Center. "When two parents can sit down with the help of a mediator to work things out, it is much less likely that children will be overlooked in the complexities of a dissolution case."
The center, founded by Volunteers of America in 1982, mediates about 500 cases a year, mostly family cases, Pierson says.
Protecting children through divorce is the focus of The Divorce Source, a new cooperative of family service specialists in Tacoma.
"Conflicted parents involved in litigation over custody and visitation are using an ever-increasing amount of time in our Superior Court system. Our legal system is not designed to provide what is needed to remove children from this battlefield," says Suzanne Dircks, licensed mental health counselor and spokesperson for The Divorce Source.
The center provides mediation, counseling, fast-track custody evaluations, supervised visitation, parenting classes for divorcing parents, step-parenting classes and support groups for adults involved in divorce.
Dircks, who spent 21 years as a Guardian ad Litem and mediator in Pierce County, is now focusing on child custody evaluations. She says her goal is to keep children out of conflict and parents out of court.
"I’ve seen how damaging custody battles are to children and how people get so caught up in their anger," Dircks says. "It seemed to me there had to be a better way to deal with this."
Life After Divorce
In her book, Spiritual Divorce, author Debbie Ford advises readers to view divorce as a "spiritual wake-up call" that "propels us to a journey of self-discovery." To guide readers toward that journey, Ford describes her Seven Spiritual Laws: Acceptance, Surrender, Divine Guidance, Responsibility, Choice, Forgiveness and Creation.
Despite being on an emotional roller coaster, Moore says her divorce was a tremendous growth experience in which she discovered a healthy attitude about herself, her son, her ex-husband and her life. It also was a catalyst to her becoming a Buddhist, taking singing lessons, writing songs and poetry and enjoying life with an "open heart."
"This was the most difficult thing I’ve gone through but I wouldn’t trade it for the world," she says. "It was devastating, but I also felt I was free to live my life and I embarked on a personal discovery."
Seattle attorney Quane recommends performing a closure ritual to "facilitate the ending process" when a divorce becomes final.
"The divorce process should end a relationship on all levels. It should be a clean break, emotionally and legally," she says. "Catharsis is just what a divorcing person needs most, and the divorce process has the potential for being very cathartic."
Moore says her divorce rituals, including the ceremony on the beach and burning her wedding dress, helped her to find closure and the energy to move on with her life. She says she didn’t feel the whole impact of her Puget Sound divorce ceremony plunge until a few hours later.
"I was driving to a friend’s house for dinner that night and I felt this energetic wall moving away from my body," Moore says. "It was like the whole year just left my body. It was incredible."
"Conflicted parents involved in litigation over custody and visitation are using an ever-increasing amount of time in our Superior Court system. Our legal system is not designed to provide what is needed to remove children from this battlefield," sa
Organizations Northwest Collaborative Divorce, Seattle, 206-932-9699, www.nwcollaborativedivorce.com
Northwest Collaborative Divorce, Seattle, 206-932-9699, www.nwcollaborativedivorce.com
Alternative Dispute Resolution services of the American Arbitration Association, Washington state office, 206-622-6435, www.adr.org
Washington State Bar Association, 1-800-945-9722, www.wsba.org
The Divorce Source, Tacoma, 253-756-5421
Dispute Resolution Center of Snohomish & Island Counties, 425-609-2208 or 1-800-280-4770, Ext. 2325, www.voaww.org/drc
Divorce Network/A Women’s Resource, Tacoma, 253-752-9101, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Good Divorce, by Constance Ahrons, HarperCollins, 1998
Spiritual Divorce, by Debbie Ford, Harper San Francisco, 2001
Divorce Solutions: How to Make Any Divorce Better, by Ed Sherman, Nolo Press Occidental, 2003
Between Love and Hate: A Guide to Civilized Divorce, by Lois Gold, De Capo Press, 1992
A Healing Divorce: Transforming the End of Your Relationship With Ritual and Ceremony, by Phil and Barbara Penningroth, 1st Books Library, 2001
Children’s book: My Parents Still Love Me Even Though They’re Getting Divorced, by Lois Nightingale, Nightingale Rose Publications, 1997
Coming in May: "Co-Parenting after Divorce."