The Role of the Psychotherapist in Collaborative Divorce

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By Gail Streisand

When a client seeking the dissolution of a marriage arrives in a lawyer’s office, it is always the case that emotional tension is high. This is generally problematic for a successful legal solution to the host of problems that present on termination of a relationship. Most lawyers, well-versed in the ramifications of divorce, are not so equally comfortable with the psychological fall-out from these kinds of situations.

The goal of the attorney is to represent his/her client in terms of financial distribution of assets, custody issues, and negotiation of a separation of interests. This cannot be done when emotional fragility and volatility dominate the response of the client. A skilled therapist is able to address these concerns so that the necessary legal work can be done in as efficient a manner as possible. He/she can assist with the establishment of an alliance between lawyer and client. This fosters active cooperation, and contributes to a successful conclusion to legal negotiations. Communication between partners, and between clients and lawyers can be facilitated by a therapist who recognizes the difficulties inherent in the situation, and can apply strategies for minimizing the tensions that express themselves.

What are the primary issues? Clearly, there are many, and these can vary from couple to couple. However, in general, the therapist needs to address with the client the loss of the dream that the marriage held. It is important that people be assisted to conceptualize the divorce, not as a failure, but as an opportunity for change and growth. While anger and hurt are expected, a skilled therapist can allow the ventilation of feelings simultaneous with a mobilization of resources toward conflict resolution. This usually involves encouraging people to see their role in creating relationship problems, and their responsibility in orchestrating solutions to them. Specifically, the therapist can help clients express their disappointments and needs, and can then assist with negotiating compromises that are acceptable.