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Robert W. Nohr, Ph.D

Clinician's Corner

Collaborative Divorce Teams Offer Support for Families in Transition
Robert W. Nohr, Ph.D

In my work as a psychologist, I have come to see how powerfully we are all impacted by our significant relationships. Much of the work we do in therapy in one way or another touches on the issue of relationships—whether it is marriage counseling, parents and teenagers negotiating their changing relationship, or adults looking back on their own family of origin and how those relationships have affected them.

Certainly one of the most significant family relationship issues we find our clients struggling with is divorce. When, for whatever reason, a marriage is ending, all family members are deeply affected. It can be a vulnerable time for both adults and children. Over the past 20 years, there has been a fair amount of research into the short-and long-term effects of divorce. By and large, this research supports the conclusion that divorce is typically a significant stressor and a deep grieving process, but need not be a life-long trauma. However, if significant issues are not handled in a thoughtful way, there can be much longer lasting negative effects.

We probably all have experienced or know of adults who seem to have gotten “stuck” in the story of their divorce. Somehow, their former spouse remains the most emotionally powerful person in their life, albeit in a negative way. Often, such stuckness relates to how the marriage ended, and the unresolved mutual blaming that occurred. We know that, for children, the negative longer lasting effects of divorce are most typically seen when they are exposed to ongoing conflict between parents, or when they essentially “lose” a parent in their life through divorce.

The traditional court process has often exacerbated the vulnerabilities of people going through this painful life transition. When fears are heightened by an adversarial process, direct communication between parents ceases, only the attorneys speak, positions become more extreme and families are torn further asunder. Many people going through a divorce find that they are immediately the recipient of a lot of advice from friends and family. Unfortunately, much of that advice can simply reflect a “re-do” of the advice-givers’ own experience of divorce rather than being a careful reflection on what will help this family adjust in a healthy manner.

The collaborative divorce movement arose out of the experience of attorneys and mental health professionals who had been frustrated by the limits of the traditional adversarial process to help families make this transition in a respectful, common sense manner. Collaborative divorce was pioneered in states such as California and Minnesota, and has been available in Wisconsin since 2002.

There are two hallmarks of collaborative divorce. The first is the non-litigation stipulation. Collaborative law attorneys have received special training and agree not to “fight it out” in court; they will only serve as settlement advisors, helping the couple to reach reasonable solutions that meet their most important needs. The second hallmark is the interdisciplinary team. In addition to their own collaborative attorneys, each member of the couple has a divorce coach, who is a mental health professional with expertise in communication skills, family systems, and divorce adjustment. The coaches do not provide therapy; they have a time-limited role of helping facilitate the divorce process. There is also a child specialist to help children have a voice in what is happening. Finally, there is a neutral financial specialist to provide information and help generate creative financial options.

I have been involved as a divorce coach since the collaborative law process arrived in Wisconsin. As might be expected, we sometimes have our difficult moments in this process too, because of the magnitude of the transition people are going through. But I can honestly say I have seen some incredible moments through this process. I have seen spouses apologize for the hurtful way a marriage ended with an affair; I have seen parents stop their fighting in its tracks as they hear a child specialist talk about their children’s needs, and I have seen couples really talk about their family financial plan post-divorce in a more honest way that puts their real needs on the table. One of the dividends we are seeing from this process is that very few families end up back in a cycle of never-ending litigation. When couples have been the ones at the table reaching agreements, they are much more invested in the outcome than when it is imposed upon them by a court, or by a “last-minute settlement” under the pressure of a court deadline, as often happens in the traditional process.

There is always some sense of loss when a divorce occurs. However, although marriages end, families are forever, and it is in everyone’s best interest to support families that are going through such a transition to achieve a lasting peace. To learn more about the collaborative law process in Wisconsin, visit www.collabdivorce.com.

 

Robert Nohr, Ph.D., provides coaching and psychotherapy services at the Park Place location of Cornerstone Counseling Services, Inc. 
 

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