Divorce Over Easy

Collaborative divorce promises to be kinder, faster, cheaper. But does it really work?

"Nobody ever came to console me and check on me," she says. "My parents were motivated by anger and rage. It was adults having a war and dragging the children through it."

The process racked her well-off family financially as well. Cathy recalls being at her father's attorney's house and overhearing the lawyer joke that Cathy's father had just paid for the new tires on his Mercedes. Had collaborative divorce existed when she was a child, Cathy thinks, her parents' split might not have gotten so ugly.

Michael and Beth Johnson say it was nightmare scenarios like Cathy's that kept them working to reach an agreement. One of the first things they did after telling the children they were getting a divorce was to send them for counseling. The couple often worked on what they termed "homework," and stayed up nights in the family study, combing through financial paperwork and discussing how much support Beth and the kids would need from Michael after the divorce (Beth eventually decided to go to work full-time, but Michael continues to provide maintenance).

Attorney Jennifer Broussard handled the first 
collaborative law case in the Houston area.
Monica Fuentes
Attorney Jennifer Broussard handled the first collaborative law case in the Houston area.
Wendy Burgower says she would never handle a 
collaborative divorce case because it would take away 
her client's right to a trial.
Monica Fuentes
Wendy Burgower says she would never handle a collaborative divorce case because it would take away her client's right to a trial.

The couple decided both of them should move out of the house, and they spent time walking through the home dividing up belongings. They even managed to split up their photo albums; Michael got the odd years and Beth got the evens. And both agreed the children should live with Beth, while Michael got generous visitation.

Michael didn't want to steamroll Beth and the kids out of money, and Beth didn't want to pinch Michael for every penny.

"Even to this day, Michael is an honest person, and he tries to be up-front in everything he does," says Beth, who acknowledges the attorneys made it clear that they were taking a risk by trying the collaborative route. "But I had no reason to think we wouldn't make it work," she adds.

For family District Judge Bonnie Hellums, who sees around 6,000 family law cases a year, collaborative divorce keeps the decision-making where it belongs: out of the courtroom and with the divorcing couple.

"All we as judges can do is look at monetary value," says Hellums. "We don't realize that the stupid painting of a duck is something your grandfather did before he died and it's worth $1,000 to you even if it wouldn't sell for $5."

Hellums, who recently presided over a case where she had to divide up Tupperware and plastic glasses, says she has seen college education funds wasted on attorney's fees. She often has to send so-called high-conflict couples to court-appointed counseling.

One of the few things collaborative divorce has in common with its traditional counterpart is it too can call on the guidance of mental health professionals. Jennifer Broussard says it's not uncommon for a collaborative attorney to call a client's therapist (with permission) to discuss the best way to work out an issue.

Judith Miller and Sondra Kaplan, both social workers, have embraced this newest way of doing divorce. Harris County courts have sent families to the two therapists for years, and Miller and Kaplan think the collaborative process -- if done right -- can save families. If there are children, the therapists try to get the parents to imagine far into the future and remember that even after the divorce separates them legally, graduations and marriages and grandchildren will continue to bring them together for the rest of their lives.

"One of the saddest things I hear is when I get a couple in a premarital counseling session and it's not about how well they get along, it's that they're worried about the parents of the bride who haven't talked in 12 years coming to the wedding," says Miller.

Miller was once appointed by the court to work on a high-conflict, traditional divorce case where the father sought revenge on his former wife by not allowing their five-year-old child to call her mother during visitations with him. Because she missed her mom, the child called her in the middle of the night while the father was sleeping. The mother responded by coming over and sneaking the child out of the house. The father woke up the next morning to discover his daughter missing, without any clue as to what had happened to her.

What makes collaborative divorce so refreshing, say the therapists, is that the people who succeed at it look past the anger and truly put their kids' needs first.

But collaborative divorce begs the obvious question: If couples can split up so nicely, why bother divorcing? Indeed, while it happens rarely, attorneys say that several couples who have used collaborative divorce have remarried shortly after the divorce or have decided to reconcile instead of breaking up because the process was going a little too smoothly.

Broussard and other attorneys say that while collaboration makes clients and attorneys happier, lawyers aren't therapists. If a couple gets along beautifully during collaboration and still wants to divorce, that is ultimately their business -- not the attorneys'.

"We don't change them," says Broussard. "I take them as I find them. My job is to get them a divorce."

Barbara and Phil Penningroth, a former married couple from California who co-wrote A Healing Divorce after the end of their 25-year marriage, take a more emotional point of view. Longtime supporters of collaborative divorce and collectors of divorce rituals, they say society has embraced "the myth of the bad divorce." They say couples split for thousands of reasons -- and often only the couple understands why. But no matter the reason for the breakup, society expects you to despise your ex. Phil points out that "the culture promotes the idea that something is really wrong with you if you are friends with your former spouse. The culture publicly values acrimony and bitter divorce."

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