My divorce was a Collaborative Divorce. What does that mean? On the surface, it means that you agree to keep your divorce out of the courts. That was one of the reasons why I agreed to try the process when I was getting a divorce from my husband. There had been more talk about the Collaborative Approach to Divorce at the time of our separation as the family law in British Columbia was undergoing a change and as part of that change, lawyers were required to begin informing their clients about Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR – an acronym that lawyers use a fair bit – did you know what it means?).
So we heard from many at that time that the Collaborative Approach to divorce was the new way to get a divorce. It was the better way and so those two concepts (new and better) convinced me and my husband at the time to try it to get our separation agreement so we could get a divorce.
So we tried it.
And I really did not like it.
Of course, divorce is incredibly stressful and trying to come to an agreement with someone that you are in conflict with is already a challenge so it is no wonder I didn’t like it. But I think I hated it even more than what I imagined the alternative was, which was to have a no holds barred fight.
I had been trained all my life to avoid conflict. Many of us are. I had also been trained to think I was a reasonable person that could deal with almost any situation. What this meant for me was that I tended to let things go a lot. But I didn’t really let them go. Instead, I buried them and sat on them and then tended to explode when I couldn’t do that anymore. That was where I was at when I finally separated from my spouse and had to figure out a way to now come to agreement so we could get a divorce.
The Collaborative Approach is the opposite of the all consuming war that I had been training up for and which I have to say many of us envisage when we think divorce. We think fight. We think courts and nasty revenge. We think there will be at least one loser in this war and often there are two. We have been trained by society (TV really) to have a certain picture of what divorce looks like.
The first four way meeting in our Collaborative Divorce we went to with our lawyers I almost had a coronary. I should explain what a four way meeting is. It’s a meeting with you, your spouse, your lawyer and your spouse’s lawyer present. You get to a separation agreement by way of these four way meetings. I don’t know if either of our lawyers could have talked any slower. And the stuff that was coming out of their mouths? Seriously? I felt like I was back in kindergarten where I was being told how important it was to share. At the same time I was thinking “this is costing us two hourly lawyer rates to sit here and learn about manners.”
I already knew what the answer to our problem was and so sat through this “Collaborative Approach.” for 8 months until we got there. In the end, the agreement we got was pretty close to what I had wanted. “Hey – I guess the Collaborative Approach worked for us” is what I thought at the time.
Little did I know that I never really understood “Collaborative” even after we were done.
Why is that? How could I have spent 8 months in meetings with 4 different professionals that practiced the Collaborative Approach to divorce and still not understand how it was supposed to work? They had all explained how it was supposed to work – at the beginning of the process, during all the meetings and at the end where they said – “see, we have an agreement – it all came together.” And when I think back on it now, out from the fog of emotion, I know that they did. They were explaining it clearly but something was preventing me from hearing and understanding it.
How did that happen?
Well, I think part of the reason that happened is that I had each spent 40 years learning a different way to resolve conflict. I had spent my life learning how to avoid conflict. Then I had learned that if the conflict was still there and bothering me, I had to really stand up for myself and battle through to make that conflict go away. My belief about myself was that I don’t get all bent out of shape over minor issues but watch out if someone crosses me. I switch from being an avoider to being a highly motivated person who is going to win at all costs.
So instead of seeing how we had just resolved our conflict a different way than I knew; because how can you learn a new way of doing conflict in 8 months after spending your entire life training a different way to do conflict, I slotted our divorce into my old way of seeing things. I had avoided separating from my husband and then when I realized it was unavoidable, I found a solution and hammered it through. Because deep down, I felt like I had been the one driving our agreement process. I had made sure the meetings happened, I made sure my ex did the “homework” and I made sure our agreement got signed.
How can you learn a new way of doing conflict when you are at your most emotional point in life? I was not calm or rational. I was alternating between being sad and angry on a minute by minute basis. The only thing I was focused on was revenge. I could not hear a thing those professionals were telling me. I was living in an extremely stressful situation where I was sharing a house with a person I did not want to have anything to do with anymore and I had two small children that I was extremely worried about. I was not at my best for learning new concepts.
So, while we used the Collaborative Approach to divorce, it was only on the surface. We stayed out of court. Oh wait – no we didn’t. We ended up in court after we were separated and divorced.
Our agreement allowed us to get a divorce but we were still in conflict and were still not able to resolve it. We reverted to our old patterns and styles of managing conflict as soon as we were released from our professional team.
I think this is what it is like for many people. Everyone has learned a certain style of conflict. Some people may have learned a more collaborative approach to resolving conflict and when they enter the Collaborative Approach to divorce, they get it and things progress and it works.
So what about the rest of us? Those of us who have been trained throughout life not to do things collaboratively?
We need more help. We have to be told again and again what it means and how it works because it is a difficult concept to grasp when you are in the midst of emotional upheaval and have years of resolving conflict in a different way.
I myself only started to understand what it meant about a year after my divorce was finalized and after I had started to train to become a Collaborative professional myself. Here is part 1 and part 2 of posts I wrote when I finally did start to understand what Collaborative means.
Now I find myself helping people with their own Collaborative Divorces. I have heard them say exactly what I said during my divorce: the meetings with the Collaborative professionals are slow, it doesn’t seem like actual issues are being addressed and the divorce is not progressing.
These words have become signals for me to sit up and pay attention. I have to remind myself how much time it took me to understand how Collaborative works. I realize that the best way I can help people is to help them gain that understanding too. I have to fight my natural inclination to go back to my life training to be a problem solver and solve these people’s problems and remember instead I am helping to facilitate a Collaborative process so they can figure out the best way to move forward with hope.