The Crucial Roles of Mental-Health Professionals in the Divorce Process

There are several roles that the mental-health professional can provide to divorcing clients. One is the familiar role of the mental-health professional in providing psychotherapy to the divorcing client. The other, encouraged by the collaborative practice, is a newer kind of intervention called the divorce coach.

By Dr. Deborah Hecker
Updated: November 12, 2015
Divorce Therapy

Introduction

Many, if not most, of the clients that a family law attorney sees manifest a high degree of anxiety. This anxiety (which can present itself in a variety of ways) can interfere with the attorney's ability to concentrate on the legal aspects of the case. When the mental-health aspects are severe, the attorney will refer the client to a mental-health therapist. Sometimes, however, all the client needs is a guide to assist him or her through the emotional aspects of the marital dissolution. Enter Collaborative Divorce and its innovative use of mental-health coaches.

The purpose of this article is to give further support to the collaborative movement's recognition that the needs of divorcing families are better served by interdisciplinary collaboration between therapists and lawyers. In addition, I will examine the various roles that mental-health experts can contribute to the divorce process.

Brief Overview of Interdisciplinary Cooperation between Mental-Health Professionals and Lawyers

Our traditional legal system, based on the adversarial model, does not work well when handling family disputes such as divorce. Involvement in the legal system, with its emphasis on guilt and innocence, tends to foster competition and confusion between divorcing parties. Within the traditional model, there is a continuum of opinions about the value of psychological counseling as part of the legal divorce. The views can range from the attorney measuring the legal feasibility of doing what the client wants without regard for the psychological and interpersonal issues in divorce, to an assumption that the legal aspects of a divorce situation can be adequately dealt with only if the lawyer engages the emotional aspects and the need to understand the client. Somewhere in the middle lies the idea of using mental-health professionals to deescalate conflict, supporting the belief that other professionals should play only those roles explicitly delegated by the lawyer.

With the changing culture of divorce, contributed to in large part by the collaborative movement and its view that the adversarial process is grossly inappropriate for the resolution of most marital disputes, the importance of the emotional divorce has taken on new meaning. When the goal of ending a marriage is minimal emotional damage to the family, we consider Collaborative Divorce. The collaborative model's philosophy is that divorce is less likely to seriously traumatize the dissolving family when both the legal and emotional issues of divorce are addressed. Attorney/mental-health coach teams are an effective vehicle to help minimize the stress of the divorce experience.

How Can Mental-Health Practitioners Facilitate The Work of Attorneys?

There are several roles that the mental-health professional can provide to divorcing clients. One is the familiar role of the mental-health professional in providing psychotherapy to the divorcing client. The other, encouraged by the collaborative practice, is a newer kind of intervention called the divorce coach.

 Let's take a look at the two resources and how they may be useful in the divorce process.

Divorce Psychotherapy/Counseling
The trauma of divorce can exacerbate preexisting emotional disorders or, in some cases, create them, necessitating the need for psychotherapeutic intervention. Broadly speaking, psychotherapy examines the past and its impact on present functioning. In the spirit of behavioral change, it aims to make unconscious motives conscious. The goal of psychotherapy is symptom relief (depression, anxiety, psychosomatic symptoms, etc.) Progress is measured by internal change and personal growth.

Divorce counseling seeks to help the client develop an understanding of the causes of the marital breakdown. Without such insight, psychotherapists believe that individuals are likely to repeat their self-defeating behaviors during their next intimate relationship. Equally important is the notion that an awareness of one's own contribution to the failed relationship will reduce hostility during the divorce process and increase the client's ability to resolve the legal issues.

Consider the following scenario: A woman in her 40s walks into a four-person collaborative meeting, which includes her husband and the couples' respective attorneys. "Why me?" she sobs uncontrollably. The fear and anger in her voice are palpable. "We loved each other for 22 years. I supported him through his graduate training. Our children are grown and living away from home. I have never lived alone, and I am terrified. I cannot imagine making it on my own. I could just kill him for doing this to me."

The above example highlights some of the basic emotions that may overwhelm almost anyone who has made the decision to separate and divorce. For many non-initiators, the unresolved reasons for the divorce can slow down the process of acceptance which, in turn, slows down the divorce. While many divorcing people will experience these feelings, some will experience them at a more intense level as a true personal-identity crisis. For those individuals, what one may call a divorce crisis may indeed be a psychological crisis. In order to successfully navigate her divorce terrain, the woman described above will likely need psychological help to manage her anxiety, depression, and fears.

Divorce Coaching
Even in cases where a couple mutually agrees to a legal divorce, there is usually one spouse who wants to hold on to the marriage more than the other one does. The same kind of fear of the future where the client feels incapable of surviving emotionally and financially on his or her own may be operative.

Let's look at the next scenario in which the same woman enters her four-person collaborative meeting saying: "I understand we have made the decision to divorce, and I accept that we will have to do that. But I am so angry that since the separation, my husband seems to be having a great time and I barely have enough money to feed the kids, much less have pleasure in my life. How can I possibly manage life on my own? This Collaborative Divorce just won't work."

Unlike psychotherapy, which is broad in scope, divorce coaching targets only the divorce process. Psychotherapy focuses on the past and its impact on present functioning, while divorce coaching assists clients in adapting to and coping with the emotions and practical aspects of the present situation. The targeted intervention of the divorce coach aims particularly at building spouses' communication skills. Divorce coaching normalizes the feelings around divorce to help the individual better manage the current situation.

As explained by Dr. Sanford Portnoy in "Divorce Coaches: A New Resource for Matrimonial Lawyers", American Journal of Family Law, Vol. 19, No. 4, 2005, therapy typically "seeks symptom amelioration or cure". According to Dr. Portnoy, the role of the divorce coach is intended to "help individuals manage situations... The emphasis is on helping the client manage in specific, delineated ways. It is skills training rather than healing."

How Can Lawyers and Mental-Health Experts Best Cooperate Professionally in Guiding Their Clients through the Divorce Process?

Collaborative practice understands that much of what divorcing clients need help with has little or nothing to do with the law. As such, it is important that collaborative attorneys inform their clients about the available services of divorce coaches (members of the collaborative team) and mental-health professionals (independent of the collaborative team) so that they can serve as resources when needed. By educating the client at the beginning of the process to the possible emotional upheavals that may arise along the journey and the potential impasses they may cause, the client will be more open to the referral.

What are the benefits that mental-health coaches and therapists can provide for attorneys?

  • Assess the client's psychological readiness to participate in the collaborative process.
  • Help differentiate the client's psychological and emotional needs from the legal work, thus providing the lawyer with a more able client.
  • Teach the client how to problem-solve more effectively.
  • Diagnose and treat mental-health problems that will facilitate the legal process.
  • Educate the attorney about the needs of the children.
  • Help the attorney to understand a psychologically compromised client.
  • Serve as a consultant.
  • Facilitate communication between client and attorney.
  • Minimize the possibility of more time-consuming negative interactions.

Conclusions

The collaborative approach encompasses the belief that in order to deliver quality legal services, one must "understand" the client. This means that the process of emotional divorce and legal divorce should be coordinated as much as possible. Building inter-professional alliances and networks of communication, and developing mutual trust between lawyers and mental-health experts (divorce coaches and mental-health therapists), will inevitably contribute to their shared vision of working in the best interests of divorcing families.


Dr. Deborah Hecker welcomes calls from both divorce lawyers and clients for assistance during the divorce and post-divorce processes.

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March 17, 2009
Categories:  Coping with Divorce

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