By Dr. Karen Gail Lewis

           When two people decide the love they thought would last forever doesn’t, sadness reigns.  Sad, yes, but not necessarily destructive.  If couples divorce with dignity and respect, their children benefit. Traditionally, the best divorce was to hire a shark who would help the wife “take him for everything he’s got.”  And, help the husband, “make sure she doesn’t get a dime.”

With Collaborative Divorce, couples no longer need a shark.  Collaborative Divorce is relatively new, moving across North America, Europe, and Australia, leaving well adjusted children and cooperative co-parents in its wake.

Collaborative Divorce is client-centered and client-controlled. Rather than the secrecy of typical divorces, here parents and the two attorneys have “four-way” meetings, where information is openly shared. Parents sign an agreement they will not go to court; they will settle disputes between themselves. The goal is for the marriage to end and the kids to be well cared for – at the time of the divorce and far into the future.

The success of this type of divorce is attributed to the team of professionals working with the family: the attorneys, one or two mental health coaches for the parents and there may be a child specialist, and a financial expert. Coaches help parents separate out their feelings enough to be able to communicate around the hot topics of children, finances, property.  Difficult issues are settled without a nastiness that otherwise infects the post-marriage relationship.

“Yea, only if you are a saint and weren’t so badly hurt by your spouse,” say the doubtful.

Evan Sharp is doubtful.    This is his first meeting with me, one of the two the mental health coaches on his team.  He starts with, “Yesterday, Cary and I met with our attorneys, in our first 4-way meeting.  I’m furious; Cary has had this affair for a number of months, and now she wants to make nice and get full custody.  No Way!  I’m only here because they told us we needed to meet with a mental health coach to work on our communication around the issues.”

“Why did you decide on a Collaborative Divorce?” I ask.

“I don’t want to make things horrible for our kids.  They’re having a hard enough time as it is.”  He opens and closes his fist as he talks.  “Nothing is going to make me feel better about what Cary did to me.  And frankly, I worry this coach stuff is going to cost too much.

“I can understand your worry, but in fact,” I reassure him, “if you duked it out in court, it would probably cost much more in the long run – financially, as well as emotionally for your children.  A collaborative divorce saves the mental health of each parent and of your children.”

“Ok, but I still don’t know how we can work this out.  I’m so hurt, and so angry she lied to me about her affair.  There’s no way I’ll ever love or trust her again.”

“This isn’t about loving or trusting her,” I remind him.  “It’s about being able to communicate well enough to dissolve your marriage in a way that doesn’t financially bankrupt you, and doesn’t emotionally bankrupt your children.”

“If we could have communicated better we wouldn’t be getting divorced,” he snaps.  “I want to make her pay for all the pain she’s caused me and the kids.”

I encourage him to talk more about his feelings in discovering his wife’s affair.   After a few minutes of his venting, I assure him, “You have reason to feel this way.  But since the most important thing to you now, you say, is your children, you have to think about what’s best for them.”

He is nodding, but his fist is still moving.    I go on, “Let me ask you a question:  Ten years from now, how do you want your children to remember their parents’ divorce?”

“Wow!  That gets me right in the kisser.”  He thinks. “Of course I want them to see both parents still love them; I don’t want them to feel destroyed by our fighting.  Hmm.  Your question is like emotional blackmail,” he laughs.  “I guess I don’t have a choice.  Ok.  Let’s get this going so we can sort out how I can talk civilly to her.”  He pauses again, “But, I don’t want her to get too much; she deserves to suffer since she’s caused us to suffer so much.”

Of course, Evan needs to share his feelings about the betrayal.  I’m his coach, though, not his therapist.  He needs to separate his anger, hurt, and desire for revenge from the task of making joint decisions about his children.  Coaches help parents improve their method of communication which leads to less difficulty in their decision-making.  Working with the coaches can move the divorce process ahead and save time in the attorney’s office.

Evan and I meet two more times, as he shares his feelings and prepares for the 4-way meeting with Cary and her coach. The biggest issue, he believes, will be custody.  He wants full custody. I ask him to imagine how she will respond when he tells her that.  He mimics a sarcastic response.  He immediately tosses back what would be his own sarcastic retort.  We discuss more beneficial responses, since he doesn’t want his children to remember this divorce with horror.

“Ok.  You’re asking me to eat crow.”

“No.  I’m asking you to remember what you want for your children and what’s the best way to get that.”

“But I still want full custody.  She had the affair; she doesn’t deserve to have the children.”

I ask, “If she refuses, are you willing to make this real nasty?  How will that help your children?  What other options could you offer, could you live with?”

“Well, if they live with me, I guess I don’t mind if she shares custody.  But I’m not going to offer that unless I see no other option.  Of course she won’t like that, but too bad.”

“How do you imagine she will react to this?”

“Oh, she’ll be nasty and sarcastic, I’m sure.”

My job, as his coach, is not to make him change his mind about what he wants to offer.  Nor is it to make him feel better about the divorce or his betraying wife.  My job is to help him negotiate what he wants in the divorce in a way that will be effective and respectful.  With me, he doesn’t get over his hurt and anger at Cary; he just has to be able to put it in some place that doesn’t interfere with how they communicate during the divorce process – and afterwards.  To help him deal with the hurt and anger and other feelings he has about Cary and the divorce, I recommend he see a therapist.  He rejects the idea.

“So, let’s prepare so you won’t have knee jerk reactions if she is sarcastic.”

We did that.  The 4-way meetings went better than he had anticipated.

PS –  Cary’s coach had obviously prepared her well, too.   In their next 4-way, Evan and Cary came to an agreement.  As Evan later wrote me a thank you note with this humorous touch: “As much as I resented meeting with you, it was useful having you coaches.  You really do charge less than attorneys, so I’m glad we sorted out our stuff with you guys first.”

Dr. Karen Gail Lewis has been a marriage and family therapist for more than 42 years. She has offices in Cincinnati, Ohio and Washington, DC. She also runs UNIQUE RETREATS FOR WOMEN, that includes women who are divorced or are considering it. Other areas of specialization are adult siblings and mid-life singles. She is author of numerous books, including Why Don’t You Understand: A Gender Relationship Dictionary. For more information, she can be contacted at 301-585-5814 or

Jul03 Susan Buniva Karen, I really enjoyed your excellent article and look forward to sharing it with clients. I think you did a particularly nice job of illustrating some of the differences between coaching and therapy. Susan