Are we listening? What clients say they want. (Part 6 of 8) -- Don’t Forget, Divorce is Difficult

By Nancy Williger Member IACP Research Committee

What did the IACP research study show us about how clients feel about each other after the Collaborative Process is over?

As Collaborative practitioners, we make every effort to help couples navigate their divorce in a way that is intended to preserve a co-parenting relationship between them.  We have thought, perhaps naively, that people would emerge from the Collaborative process with a sense of satisfaction about how we do this. In fact, most spouses are not satisfied with the post-divorce relationship and they do not recognize our efforts at making this relationship better.  There are two things to remember, that may shed some light on these results. First, it is unlikely that our clients have experienced another divorce process so they do not know how much worse it can be. As a result, they are unlikely to give this process much credit as it is still a difficult process. Second, and perhaps most important, they are getting a divorce.  Divorce is one of the most difficult crises a person faces in their lifetime and often people feel like it is being done to them and they have no choice. The spouse who initiates the divorce starts the process significantly dissatisfied with their marital relationship or else they would not be pursuing this course of action. There is no reason for that dissatisfaction to change until some distance from the relationship can be experienced.

As a coach, I have had to rethink my expectations for my Collaborative work.  Maybe it is asking too much for people to heal from the emotional chaos they are in during the time we are working with them.  It is more likely that the emotional resolution process does not begin until the decisions are made in the divorce and the uncertainty about the future begins to dissipate.  All of us who do this work have had meetings that are difficult, where what someone is willing (or not willing) to give is perceived by their spouse as a measure of their value in the marriage, and where someone’s willingness to be generous goes unappreciated, reopening the marital wounds.  There are certainly some couples who are able to use the Collaborative process to heal, but there are others whose emotions seemed to be aggravated by sitting in the same room.

Perhaps it is enough for us to listen to the emotions our clients are experiencing, communicate acceptance about where they are in their healing process, and point them to the path out of their pain. Perhaps it is enough to talk with them about the perks and pitfalls of the future co-parenting relationship and let it evolve from there.  After all, they came to us to get a divorce and helping them complete that task is no small measure of success for what we do.

Nancy Williger, MSW, Ph.D obtained her Social Work degree at the University of Southern California and her Ph.D in Psychology at St. Louis University. She has been in private practice for many years doing couples therapy, family therapy, and family mediation. She joined the St. Louis Collaborative Family Law Association when it became interdisciplinary in 2005 and has served several years on the board and one year as President of the organization. She founded and chaired the CFLA Research Committee for several years and set up a system to track cases and outcomes in her practice group. She has served on the IACP Research Committee for eight years.