(p. 769) Collaborative Divorce
I have been licensed and maintained a solo private practice in Beaverton, Oregon (a suburb of Portland) for the past 25 years. I began my solo practice one day per week while I worked full time at a community mental health center. After having children, I made the transition from working in community mental health to operating a solo private practice part time while raising my children. As my children got older, my solo practice grew to full time and I started thinking more about the business of private practice, my ideal clients, and developing a niche.
The Niche Practice Activity
In the past 15 years collaborative divorce grew in the Portland area as a divorce settlement option that focused on peaceful, alternative dispute-resolution techniques and a team approach to helping families. In my networking with local attorneys, I met an attorney who specifically practiced collaborative divorce. This was my first exposure to this field. I was excited by the potential for this new settlement option to support families in obtaining a peaceful divorce, being child-focused, and supporting an effective co-parenting relationship. The model fit well with my values and my experience base. I took the collaborative divorce training so that I could be a neutral mental health coach and I began seeing cases. Currently about 25% to 33% of my practice is collaborative divorce and other divorce-related services. I receive ongoing continuing education in such areas as parenting plans, conflict coaching, mediation, and collaborative divorce.
Collaborative divorce is a specific settlement option whereby the divorcing parties agree not to go to court or litigate. It is a voluntary process that uses alternative dispute-resolution techniques to come to settlement agreements while each party is represented by an attorney. This team approach has the benefit of being interdisciplinary in that a mental health coach, a child specialist, or a financial specialist may be added to the team to assist the parties in managing emotions, receiving education, and reaching agreements. It provides a supportive, nonadversarial option for divorcing. (p. 770) The role of the mental health coach is unique; it is neither mediation nor psychotherapy or family therapy, but does involve skills similar to mediation, psychotherapy, and coaching. A single, neutral coach may be used as a process facilitator at meetings with clients and their attorneys or may be used to help both parties manage their emotions, manage conflict, and transition from being spouses to co-parents. When the process uses two mental health coaches, the parties have their own coach to support them and assist them with managing emotions, communication, and conflict/negotiation. A child specialist is another mental health professional available to the team. This role is to be the “voice of the child” as he or she assists parents in creating a child-centered parenting plan.
Clinical training in individual, couple, family, and child therapy and child development and specific knowledge of the divorce literature and effects of divorce on adults and children are necessary. Mediation and other alternative dispute-resolution training and conflict/negotiation training are useful. I received training in graduate school and completed an internship and residency in individual, couple, family, and child therapy, as well as training in addictions and abuse. I became familiar with the literature on divorce in graduate school and have continued educating myself.
Developing an Interest and Training in this Niche Activity
A convergence of events led me to expand the divorce services area of my practice. I was interested in the impact of divorce on families and wrote my graduate thesis and dissertation on the effects of divorce on young adults. In private practice, many of my clients struggled with relationship issues and relationship loss or divorce. Then, I experienced my own divorce, which gave me a whole different perspective and education about the divorce process. A few years later, as I was building my practice, a colleague suggested that I would be a good family mediator: I have good boundaries, can be direct if needed, and don’t shy away from conflict. I completed a 40-hour mediation training, shadowed and received mentorship from a colleague, and started doing parenting plans for divorcing parents. I also began providing consultation to divorced parents wanting to build or improve their co-parenting relationship and communication. In 2011 I wrote a short book on the essentials for effective co-parenting entitled The Quick Guide to Co-Parenting After Divorce: Three Steps to Your Children’s Healthy Adjustment. This book helped me develop credibility and recognition for expertise about divorce.
Joys and Challenges Related to this Niche Activity
I have found this niche practice to be fulfilling professionally and personally! As a divorced person, I understand personally as well as professionally what damage can be done to families through an adversarial divorce. I also know what healing and growth can come from peaceful alternatives and (p. 771) professional support for families. It is immensely gratifying to me to be a part of a peaceful alternative for families. It is professionally stimulating and satisfying to be part of a multidisciplinary team helping a family make a good transition, durable agreements, and a strong co-parenting foundation for their children’s ongoing adjustment. On a practical level, I enjoy getting out of my office as a solo practitioner and engaging with other professionals; it is much less isolating than traditional private psychotherapy practice. I also enjoy the variety this niche brings to my professional life. Some of my day is spent doing psychotherapy with individuals or couples and some of my day is spent doing coaching or consultation on divorce cases. Sometimes I might meet with the team, while at other times I might meet with one or both of the divorcing parties. Sometimes I am drafting minutes of meetings or a parenting plan. On other occasions I am meeting at an attorney’s office in the community.
For all of the jokes about attorneys and all the fear I hear many psychologists voice about having to interact with attorneys (often on the other end of a subpoena), I have to say that I really enjoy working with attorneys! Of course, in collaborative divorce, these are attorneys who also support the notion of a peaceful divorce and supporting families in nonadversarial ways. The attorneys working in collaborative divorce have been experienced, professional, highly interested and respectful of what mental health professionals can bring to the collaborative team, and caring about the families with whom they work. Also, they have been fun to get to know and bring to the table a different perspective and vibe than mental health professionals. I also like the opportunity to be part of an interdisciplinary team. In Portland, the collaborative divorce community has begun forming practice groups in the past five or so years. I recently joined a newly formed practice group. The goals of a practice group might include continuing education and case sharing, support, and finding ways to educate the community of lay people and professionals about collaborative divorce as an alternative settlement option to traditional two-attorney or mediation options. I enjoy the collegiality and camaraderie.
Business Aspects of this Niche Activity
No discussion of this niche practice would be complete without discussing financial compensation. This is another great benefit of this niche! Collaborative divorce coaching is an out-of-pocket service not reimbursed by insurance. No diagnosis is made. The service is not psychotherapy; it is a coaching or consultation service and is paid directly by the clients to the professional. All members of the collaborative team can have their own fee structure for the service they provide. The mental health coach, the financial professional, and the attorney can charge their own fee for their time. My fee for this service is at or above my fee for psychotherapy. Clients pay me at the time that I deliver the service. I also get paid for time outside of sessions devoted to the case (reading and writing emails, writing meeting notes, consulting with professionals on the team, and writing parenting plans). In this way, the billing model is similar to attorneys in that time spent on the case is billed, prorated at the hourly rate. I find clients open to using mental health professionals on the team not only because of the value they add, but also because mental health (p. 772) professionals often charge lower fees than attorneys, so there is potential cost savings to clients if mental health professionals are conducting some of the divorce discussions that do not require legal knowledge.
The most challenging aspect of this niche practice involves the need and ability to manage high conflict and emotionality. Professionals are meeting clients under highly emotionally charged circumstances. Clients are not at their best and sometimes present in highly angry, blaming, defended states or in highly regressed, avoidant, passive ways. This may be due to longstanding personality patterns but is more commonly a function of the high stress of the divorce. The professional interested in this niche must have the ability to tolerate high levels of conflict and high emotionality, a centered and soothing temperament, and strong professional and personal boundaries to be effective. If you don’t like dealing with conflict or strong personalities (including at times the attorneys’), this might not be a good fit for you.
I obtain most of my referrals from local attorneys and psychotherapists. A key method of marketing has been attending collaborative divorce events in the community. The events might be hosted by the state association or might be training events. Networking with attorneys as well as mental health professionals has been helpful. Many mental health professionals are not aware that collaborative divorce exists. They appreciate the information to give to their clients to support a nonadversarial option for divorcing. Child psychotherapists especially are interested in divorcing parents being able to have some assistance during their divorce process from a mental health professional who can help them make a transition to effective co-parenting. Mental health coaches and child specialists can help support parents in this process during and after the divorce. This allows the child psychotherapist to remain focused on the child and not drawn into the parents’ divorce.
Collaborative cases can begin with an attorney who begins to put together a team and may recommend me as a coach to join the team. Clients also will contact me directly to initiate services for help separating or talking to their children about the divorce. This initial contact can be the beginning of a case. I present collaborative divorce to them as a settlement option, and if they choose this option as the best fit for their family, I will offer attorney referrals and we will begin to put a team together. Having a good website that educates potential clients about collaborative divorce as a settlement option, as well as providing other helpful information about divorce, is an effective marketing tool (www.gabardi.com). Being known, through networking and community talks, as an expert in divorce issues can be a way for clients to find you.
Developing this Niche Activity into a Practice Strategy
If you are thinking about adding this niche to your practice, I would first suggest you educate yourself about collaborative divorce. I would also suggest you find mental health professionals and attorneys in your community who are practicing in this area and take them out for coffee or lunch and talk to them about how this niche is working in their practice and in your community. If you are serious about learning more, I recommend taking an introductory collaborative professionals (p. 773) training. Consider your own training background and what other training and reading you might need. Begin networking with professionals practicing in this area and attending local events for divorce professionals.
For More Information
For ongoing education and training, I recommend joining the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals (https://www.collaborativepractice.com/) and your state or local collaborative association or practice group(s). I also recommend joining the Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (http://www.afccnet.org/) as well as your state’s chapter of this national organization. Both of these groups publish excellent journals, The Collaborative Review and Family Court Review, offering research on collaborative divorce, alternative dispute resolution, and divorce and families. If your community is organizing a collaborative practice group, considering joining one.
I recommend reading the books by Mosten (2009), Tesler and Thompson (2007), and Webb and Ousky (2007). Other reading on conflict resolution and negotiation that is useful includes the books by Fisher, Ury, and Patton (2012) and Stone, Patton, and Heen (2010). Resources on effective co-parenting include my book (Gabardi, 2012), mentioned earlier; Thayer and Zimmerman (2001), a book co-authored by a co-editor of this Handbook; and Bonnell and Little (2014). An excellent overview of divorce and children is the book by Emery (2006).
References and Resources
Bonnell, K., & Little, K. (2014). The co-parent’s handbook: Raising well-adjusted, resilient and Resourceful Kids in a two-home family from little ones to young adults. Create Space.Find this resource:
Cameron, N. (2015). Collaborative practice: Deepening the dialogue. Amazon Digital Services.Find this resource:
Emery, R. (2006). The truth about children and divorce: Dealing with the emotions so you and your children can thrive. New York: Plume.Find this resource:
Fisher, R., Ury, W., & Patton, B. (2012). Getting to yes. New York: Penguin Books.Find this resource:
Gabardi, L. (2012). The quick guide to co-parenting after divorce: Three steps to your children’s healthy adjustment. Create Space.Find this resource:
Mosten, F. S. (2009). Collaborative divorce handbook: Helping families without going to court. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Find this resource:
Stone, D., Patton, B., & Heen, S. (2010). Difficult conversations: How to discuss what matters most. New York: Viking Press.Find this resource:
Tesler, P., & Thompson, P. (2007). Collaborative divorce: The revolutionary new way to restructure your family, resolve legal issues, and move on. New York: William Morrow.Find this resource:
Thayer, E., & Zimmerman, J. (2001). The co-parenting survival guide: Letting go of conflict after a difficult divorce. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.Find this resource:
Webb, S., & Ousky, R. (2007). The collaborative way to divorce: The revolutionary method that results in less stress, lower costs, and happier kids. New York: Plume.Find this resource: