When a Collaborative Client Also Has a Therapist

When a Collaborative client is in therapy as they go through their divorce, they will often say things such as: 

“My therapist thinks you guys don’t understand what a liar my husband is.  She thinks I should consider hiring a different lawyer.”

“My therapist doesn’t understand why my wife and I can’t meet with him to do our parenting plan.”

“Could you talk to my therapist? I don’t know how to explain to her why this process is taking so long.”

And it makes sense.  They are linked up to the emotional life support offered by two simultaneous processes.  And while these processes, therapy and Collaborative Practice, are both based on therapeutic tenets, there are key differences.

In therapy, the client determines the goal, content, agenda, and timetable.  The clinician simply follows the client where he or she goes.  While a good therapist listens with a benignly skeptical ear and offers reality testing when appropriate, he or she is less interested in facts than in feelings, and is decidedly non-neutral. 

By contrast, Collaborative Divorce is structured and goal-oriented. While clients determine content, they don’t drive process.  Mental health professionals on a Collaborative team offer containment and emotional support, and (if there are two of them) are non-neutral.  But Collaborative professionals have a responsibility to hold their clients accountable to the (sometimes hard) realities associated with successful outcomes— including the necessity for compromise, acceptance of emotional and financial realities, and the limitations of any legal process.

In summary, here are the two processes: 1) Therapy, in which the professional helper stays as close to the client’s narrative as possible, with the long term goal of helping the client to “stretch” their narrative to include other perspectives, and 2) Collaborative Divorce, in which the helper/s ask the client to “stretch” relatively early on—and to do so while considering the needs of others as well as themselves.

In some ways this duality becomes, in the mind of our clients, a metaphor for divorce itself.  Unconsciously, they say to themselves, “Here are two “parents” on whom I rely. One is loving and soft.  The other is emotionally supportive, but not always soft; it provides direction, structure, and limits. The two don’t communicate, and seem to be in conflict.”

Even in Collaborative Practice, disappointments are inevitable.  But with our support (and that of their therapist), a relatively healthy client will weather them well. By now we are familiar with the capacity of a less healthy client to derail team functioning through the power of their anxiety and mistrust.  Why should it be any different for their therapist?  When their client panics, they often do too.  

This is the moment a therapist begins to question our work.  Their client is stressed, anxious, and bringing their darkest fears to the right person– them. They want to know: “What the heck are you Collaborative people getting up to?”

Because most therapists know little about Collaborative Divorce (particularly the complexities of the multi-disciplinary team model), they often mistakenly assume that the Collaborative professionals are not “on it” when it comes to their client’s concerns.

 A therapist’s anxiety reinforces our shared client’s anxiety.

And when an outside therapist sides with the part of our client’s personality that “bucks” the process, our job gets harder.

It begs the question: shouldn’t we have an easy way of opening a line of honest communication with our client’s understandably skeptical therapist, so we can address their concerns head-on?

In that spirit, I wrote the letter below.  Now, when my Collaborative client reports that their therapist has doubts, I ask for permission to send it.  I’m always careful to make it clear that I’m not interested in piercing the bubble of confidentiality around their treatment; the communication is explicitly one-way from me to the therapist.

I wrote the letter from the point of view of a coach, but I don’t see why it couldn’t be modified for use by a Collaborative attorney.  I’m interested in what others of you think.  Feel free to use, share, modify, offer edits, etc.

Here it is:

Dear Colleague,

I am writing with the permission of your client, _________________, who has engaged me as his/her Collaborative coach (please see attached Release of Information). You may already be familiar with Collaborative Divorce, or this may be new and unfamiliar territory.  My desire in contacting you is to offer some introductory information about Collaborative Divorce (including answers to questions that psychotherapists often have about the process), and to open a potential line of communication for use in whatever way makes sense to you.

What is a Collaborative Divorce?

Collaborative Divorce is non-adversarial, out of court process that offers divorcing couples the opportunity to maintain control over the restructuring of their family.  In Collaborative Divorce, spouses hire specially trained attorneys who are committed to helping the couple find mutually agreeable solutions to the challenges they face.  The couple also has the option to hire mental health and financial professionals, who are similarly dedicated to helping them to identify and accomplish their goals.  The process is based on transparency, compromise, cooperation, compassion, and integrity.

What is a Collaborative Divorce coach?

A Collaborative coach is a mental health professional trained in Collaborative Practice who has extensive experience working with separating and divorcing families.  Coaches have a depth and breadth of knowledge in individual and family dynamics, child development, and in creating deep and durable co-parenting plans.  Although Collaborative coaches are trained psychotherapists, their function on the Collaborative team is not to do therapy.  In this context our job is to help our client and his/her team to move through this process by:

  • Offering emotional support and encouragement
  • Helping our client to identify goals, interests, and concerns
  • Helping our client to work through emotional obstacles in him/herself and anticipate and manage those in his/her spouse 
  • Working toward decreasing acrimony and improving communication in the divorcing couple
  • Facilitating smooth team functioning and efficiency
  • Developing a child-centered, lasting, and comprehensive plan for how the couple will take care of their child/ren now and into the future 

Concerns you may have about the process 

As clinicians, Collaborative coaches know that any divorcing person, regardless of whether they have sought the divorce or feel blindsided by it, is likely to be in a traumatized state– reeling, destabilized, frightened, grieving, and angry.  We understand your desire to know that your client is in the right process for him/her– a process that is safe, fair, non-judgmental, and protective.  A process in which your client’s emotional vulnerabilities can be identified and shored up rather than exploited, and their needs (as well as those of their children) will be attended to– even if they themselves don’t yet know what those needs are.  You want to know that your client is in competent hands.

Here are some questions and concerns we’ve heard from other therapists:

  • My client is afraid of her husband and has a hard time speaking up for herself.  How do I know she won’t be bullied into an unfair settlement?
  • My client has young children and has been the primary caregiver.  He tells me the team is pushing joint custody.  How is that in the best interest of the kids?
  • My client is conflict-averse.  If this process is client-driven, how do I know she won’t be taken advantage of?
  • This process seems to be taking a long time and costing a lot of money.  Is my client being exploited? 
  • Based on what my client says, I’m worried that the Collaborative team is siding with his wife or doesn’t understand her pathology.
  • My client’s husband is a chronic liar.  If this process is based on trust, how will my client be protected?
  • The team is worrying so hard about being “fair” they are missing some important issues in the marital dynamic.
  • My client already has a therapist– me! Why does she need a coach?
  • I don’t think my client is being honest with her Collaborative team about how she feels about the process.
  • I wonder if my client would get a better outcome in court or mediation.
  • What is the role of the lawyer in this process? Is my client being adequately represented? 
  • I understand that if this process fails my client will lose his lawyer.  How is that in his best interest? 
  • My client seems very anxious about his divorce, and complains a lot to me about his Collaborative professionals.  Is no one on his team listening to him?

Collaborative doesn’t mean easy

Regardless of the legal process a couple chooses, restructuring a family is complex, nuanced, and painful.  Even when the work is Collaborative, divorce is one of life’s most challenging developmental tasks.  Though we have high ideals, we know that along the way the process will be tough. We will work our hardest to help your client achieve his/her goals.  But in order to do so we must help him/her to bear in mind not only their emotional and practical needs, but the ongoing question: “What will it take to get them the best possible outcome?”  That means that we will be asking both members of the couple to consider such factors as the limitations of their financial and emotional realities, the parameters of the law, their own and their future ex’s psychological and logistical capacities, the needs of their children, and the necessity for compromise.

Rest assured: your client will never be pressured (nor permitted!) to sign an Agreement about which he/she was not fully informed and which he/she does not believe to be fair and reasonable within the context their situation.

Continuing the conversation

Collaborative Practice is organized around the core idea that a multi-disciplinary, integrative approach to dispute resolution is by far the best practice.  We know that our client’s work with you is crucial as they move through this life transition.  Please know that I am available to communicate directly with you— either about Collaborative Practice in general or about any aspect of this case in specific– should you and our mutual client feel that it would be helpful for us to do so.




Here’s a short list of books about Collaborative Practice, in case you’d like to read up a bit.  You’ll find more references and in-depth information about Collaborative Practice on the website for the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals.

Kate Scharff, LICSW, LCSW-C is an individual, couple, and child therapist with 25 years of clinical experience– much of it spent working with divorcing families. Her website is here.  She is a founder and Principal of The Collaborative Practice Center of Greater Washington, and on the faculty of The Collaborative Practice Training Institute. Kate writes extensively on the topics of therapy, divorce, and Collaborative Divorce. She is the co-author (with Lisa Herrick) of Navigating Emotional Currents in Collaborative Divorce: A Guide to Enlightened Team Practice (ABA, 2010), and blogs regularly for the Divorce section of The Huffington Post.


Jun08 Karen Plax Kate, Thank you for such a thoughtful and clearly expressed discussion of this topic. The existence of individual therapeutic relationships occurs often when working with divorcing couples. Your suggestion of directly contacting the therapist is a really helpful suggestion. I am following your articles on Huffington Post. Thanks for contributing so aptly to a wider understanding of collaborative practice.

    Jun08 Kate Scharff Thanks, Karen. Glad the article felt helpful. Yes, the therapy issue comes up a lot– it’s amazing to me that it took as long as it did for me to think more dynamically and systematically about reaching out to my therapy colleagues. It’s like those moments in a case when we are overwhelmed and unable to think, and finally it dawns on us (again!)– “Wait a minute, this is a shared problem! I can ask my team for help!” Best, Kate

Jun03 Margaret Nichols I applaud this approach. In the one collaborative case in which my client and her therapist insisted that the addition of a coach would complicate matters unnecessarily (the therapist himself is trained in collaborative coaching), it was a huge mistake and the case did not resolve in process, largely due to my client’s inability to appreciate and work with all the competing vectors, made more difficult by the belated realization of her therapist that the two roles could not mesh without real harm to the therapeutic role, which he opted to preserve. She and her therapist readily agreed that not having a coach for her had been a mistake.

     Jun03 Kate Scharff Margaret, great example, and just the kind of anxiety-driven (misguided) thinking I’m hoping we can all work to avoid– for the sake of our clients! Kate

Jun03 Mark B. Baer Excellent article, Kate, and thank you for sharing your letter with us. This also demonstrates the paradigm shift that mental health professionals must make when working in the realm of collaborative practice. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard mental health professionals state that there is no paradigm shift for them.

    Jun03 Kate Scharff Mark, I’m surprised to hear you say that Collaborative MHP’s have denied that we have to make a paradigm shift. We do, and it’s a tough one– with lots of pieces. It’s quite a complex job to take all the accumulated skills and knowledge that we have and apply them in new ways. There is discipline involved in shifting to a more goal-oriented approach, to sharing the sandbox, to going only “as deep” as we need to to move the ball forward, etc. Thanks for pointing that out! Kate