One of the saddest, but most common losses in divorce occurs when one or both spouses lose their communities as a result of the divorce (perhaps even sadder is when divorce causes children to lose their communities, but that is another story for another day).
These communities are diverse and take many forms. They are neighborhoods, social friendships, church families, extended families, work families, and in-laws among others. These communities can even be clients, referral sources, and other networks that are foundational to your livelihood.
We are all familiar with this, having either been the divorcing spouse feeling shunned or anxious about how those communities will receive us. Or, as the community member unsure of what to say, whether to reach out or how to navigate the waters of someone else’s divorce.
The question is how to prevent it. The answer lies largely in how the spouses handle their divorce.
In general, the less conflict involved in a divorce, the fewer community relationships suffer. Just as children are highly sensitive to the conflict in their family, communities are highly sensitive to conflict among its members.
Every divorce has conflict. For that matter, every happy marriage has conflict. The difference is that in cases where communities are lost, the conflict has spilled over to community members. A spouse is sharing negative information about the other with the community. Conflict erupts into arguments in front of friends or family. In seeking support from their communities, spouses sometimes “poison the well” for the other spouse, intentionally or not.
When conflict spills over to the community, the community rarely knows how to react appropriately. Most communities are not trained to manage that conflict. They don’t know how to support both spouses without shunning either of them.
The best way that I know to get through a divorce without losing your communities is to adopt a divorce process that can contain the conflict so that it does not spill over into other areas of your life.
While all divorce processes have pros and cons, some are designed to contain conflict, while others are designed (intentionally or not) to intensify conflict. For example, court processes are designed to contain conflict in the sense that it substitutes for vigilante justice. But an adversarial court process is not designed to avoid collateral damage to your communities. In fact, your communities are often dragged into court as witnesses. Mediation is designed to contain conflict before it spills over to trial. But mediation is most often highly leveraged based on strong-arm tactics, increasing the odds that the conflict spills over into communities, even if it avoids more courtroom time.
The best process for containing conflict, and preventing it from costing you your communities in divorce is the Collaborative Process. There are many reasons, but they all come back to the fact that experienced collaborative attorneys are extensively trained and committed to handle conflict, even highly emotional conflict, productively, by de-escalating it and channeling that energy it into problem-solving without becoming adversarial with each other or the clients.
If you are facing a divorce, then give some thought to preserving your communities, and how to do that. Give some thought to the collaborative process.
Years ago, we had a friend and neighbor that had the best co-parenting relationship with an ex-spouse that I’d ever seen. Her husband frequently spent the night at her house to watch their daughter when she had to be out of town. I never heard a cross word between them, and they had nothing but good things to say about each other in the presence of others.
After observing how well they co-parented for a year or so, I finally asked her how they did it. How did they create such an incredible relationship to co-parent their daughter after a (not rainbows and unicorns) divorce?
Here is what she said:
There were actually a few rules we put into place early on that we both agreed to:
1) [Our daughter] comes first. We came to realize eventually that it wasn’t about us anymore, it was about her. Our feelings about each other were irrelevant; her feelings about us and herself were the most important thing.
2) Don’t talk about the other to [our daughter] and don’t allow family members to do so either. We didn’t want her to have to figure out whether it was OK for her to love one of us if we hated each other.
3) We talked to each other almost every day after the separation and subsequent divorce because one of us would call [our daughter] to say goodnight. I actually believe we worked through a great deal of the anger and the emotions by talking every day. Even if it mainly consisted of conversations like ‘[our daughter] was sick today and stayed home from school. When you pick her up later, she may need Motrin.’ We actually inadvertently worked through our own issues by focusing on [our daughter’s] well being.
I hated talking to him every day, oh by the way, that was one of the hardest things I did that first year, but [our daughter] was [young] and she needed us both, just like she does now.
I could talk about how impressive and healthy this is forever. But, to me, the most important thing was that she hated talking to her ex, but did it every day for the benefit of her daughter. She and her ex made it about their child, not because they didn’t have hard feelings, but despite those hard feelings.
Surely, their journey was more complex and more challenging that can be reflected in her few paragraphs of wisdom. But, hopefully, their blueprint helps you in your efforts to co-parent your children through a separation and divorce.
What does this mean? It means that more and more lawyers are competing for the same clients. This encourages lawyers in consults to bad mouth other lawyers and convince clients that they are superior and should be hired. It also encourages the starving lawyer to “churn” the case or to lead their clients down the more expensive and painful path of litigation rather than the often times superior (but less lucrative) choice to attempt to resolve a case. Finally, it encourages the lawyer to “show off” for their client in Court and in nasty emails and letters. (Whether it helps the case or not.)Contrary to popular opinion, the majority of family law and divorce attorney are dignified, mature professionals who would not sacrifice their integrity to gain or keep a client, to make more money or to “win” a case. But, all of those lawyers (and the judges) know colleagues that employ the tactics described above and ruin the reputation of the entire profession. The problem is that you can’t know whether any particular attorney is going to lead you down this path without doing your homework. So, be mindful of the dynamic described above and hire an attorney that you are confident is not going to drag you into it with them. If you are considering an attorney and hear them badmouth other lawyers or your spouse, or they aren’t willing to truly help you avoid litigation when appropriate, then give some thought to whether that attorney is right for you. The reality is that many, if not most, expensive divorces feed off of anger and clients that cannot reign in their emotional behavior. Certainly, complex legal questions and difficult situations play a part as well. But, as a consumer of legal services, you need to be very intentional about whether you are hiring an attorney that will fan the flames of conflict and thereby increase the time and cost of your divorce or reduce the time and cost by dampening strong client emotions and focusing on problem-solving.