Early on in our separation, I met a man who told me that when he and his wife decided to divorce, they assumed the first step was to choose who kept what. As they dove into the gut-wrenching process of divvying up assets, their longstanding parenting disagreements grew. His parents encouraged him to “lawyer up.” With two lawyers involved, the fighting escalated. As the months turned into a year, he and his wife reached a surprising conclusion: they had more in common regarding their sons than they realized. The process of working with adversarial-minded lawyers had obscured their shared values.
Do divorce lawyers egg on fighting spouses, dragging out negotiations for personal profit? Perhaps some do.
It’s easy to fault the lawyers in the free-flowing blame game that divorce can become, especially when you rush to file. Hurrying to make it legal when you feel vulnerable, angry and scared can make you susceptible to divisive, petty, suspicious input.
I was surprised to learn that some of the most exciting improvements in divorce are coming from the legal professionals, people dedicated to creating new processes that actually can improve a relationship on the other side of marriage. When you slow down, rather than rushing to hire the first lawyer whose name you receive, you can choose the legal approach that is best for you.
Here are two of the most innovative ways to make it legal:
A mediator is a neutral third party – often a lawyer or therapist who has taken mediation training—who helps you talk through your concerns, resolve conflicts and make decisions, together. A mediator helps you craft a settlement that feels fair and supportive to both of you. A mediator also can teach you new communication skills that will smooth discussions in the future. The mediator or a separate lawyer than draws up your agreement into a document that becomes legally binding once you sign it. It’s basically one professional working for both of you, rather than two different people who are each ferreting out every advantage against the other.
Couples like mediation because of its success rate.
Mediated agreements tend to stick, whereas those concocted in a poisonous cloud of seething resentment can look unfair or downright crazy when that fog lifts.
In a recent twelve-year study, parents who took part in mediation settled their disputes in half the time as those who used litigation. They were more likely to consult with each other after the divorce about child-rearing issues, and were generally happier in their new, unmarried state.
Mediation training varies, and as with any professional, so does the skill. Ask for referrals from experienced family lawyers, therapists or friends. Many states have a credentialing requirement, and you can search for a mediator on your state’s credentialing website.
2. Collaborative divorce
In collaborative divorce, a newer form of what’s called “alternative dispute resolution,” you each hire your own attorney, but they both sign a contract to resolve the case without going to court. If they can’t help you reach agreement, they have to give up the case. As with mediation, you’re all working together to solve problems and create mutually beneficial plans.
Collaborative divorce is a holistic process; your lawyers also connect you to other experts such as psychologists, financial planners, or a child development specialist who can support your effort to forge a fair agreement and move forward positively and productively.
There are about 5,000 members in the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals, as well as state and local organizations. To learn more, check out collaborativepractice.com, or do a search for collaborative lawyers in your state. Many family lawyers take a similar problem-solving approach without calling themselves collaborative counselors.
If you have a lawyer you like, ask if she’ll engage in a collaborative process, and establish your intention to solve problems in a way that serves both of you.
Collaborative divorce can be expensive because you’re paying two lawyers, and the additional professionals. But it’s less costly than an on-going court battle, and it can lead to a workable, fair settlement, which can feel priceless. It’s is a good choice if you have complicated finances or emotional land mines just under the surface, not yet defused. It also can be a shield against family and friends who insist that you “lawyer up.” Collaborative divorce can reassure everyone who knows you, that yes, you have a strong lawyer representing your side.
Your side, incidentally, happens to be the same one that your future-ex is on.
* This post originally appeared on Wendy Paris's website, wendyparis.com.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is an advocate for family law reform. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.