Collaboration: Divorcing With Dignity

author  |  stephen r. van schoyck, ph.d.

Choosing the Collaborative Option

In my 25 years of practice as a clinical psychologist, I have had the privilege of helping many couples resolve their differences and improve their marriages. I have also had the misfortune to treat couples who have come to me too late, built up layers of resentment and hostility, and dissolve into irreconcilable differences. For too many, I have watched the legal system add fuel to the fire and more misery to the lives not only of those adults but also the children and extended families of each partner.

I felt compelled to do something other than watch the destruction created by the standard divorce proceedings. I learned about a new approach to divorce, Collaborative Practice, while at a professional convention this past summer. I spent a weekend in Harrisburg this past fall being trained in this new process, and joined both the national and local professional organizations that promote this approach to divorce. I am now a proud member of both the International Academy of Collaborative Practice (IACP) and the Bucks County Collaborative Law Group. I am excited to work as a team member, putting the collective strengths of attorneys, psychologists, and financial advisors to work for you.

I've listed below a few thoughts for you to consider in deciding whether a collaborative approach to divorce is right for you. My hope is that they will help you see the value in collaborative practice, and to know what to expect of yourself and others to make it work for you.

The Team Concept in Collaboration

One of the most unique elements of a collaborative divorce is the use of a team of professionals working together to help divorcing couples move forward with their lives.  When I joined the IACP I was fortunate to meet Bonnie Raynes, a collaborative attorney, with offices in Willow Grove and Langhorne.  The focus of her law practice is out of court divorce settlements.  She regularly works with psychologist as well as financial planners and child specialist to help her clients' move through the divorce process in the smoothest and quickest way. Since we met we have been working together to help my clients navigate the divorce process while at the same time avoiding the stress and hostility of a court based divorce process.  What I have found is that the collaborative process protects the health of everyone involved.  Every team member helps each client to build a new relationship grounded in mutual respect and joint problem solving.

Psychological Goal of Collaboration

I believe the primary goal of the collaborative process is to preserve the health and well-being of the entire family during and after the end of a marriage. A healthy divorce comes second only to a healthy marriage.  The greatest threat to that collective well-being is the assignment of blame for the failure.  The "blame game" only leads to resentments, hate, and "throwing stones" at each other. It makes people want to get even or get their due to right past wrongs. It makes people unable to talk without yelling or screaming at each other. It turns rational people into irrational beings who see only bad in their former partner. It makes them turn to attorneys to fight for their rights. In the end, it makes them lose their money and their dignity.

To achieve a healthy divorce, each partner has the psychological task to accept some responsibility for the loss of the marriage. The key is to accept that actions and reactions result in the marital problems. Both are to blame to some degree no matter what the problem. Change either the action or the reaction and you end up with a different relationship. While this is a difficult framework for some to accept, it ultimately serves the greater purpose of protecting your needs and interests, whether that is your assets or your children. When you can come to terms with the past, you can focus on a common goal for collaboration that sets the stage for a different relationship that can stand the test of time.

Managing Anger: A Universal Problem

Maintaining healthy exchanges in the collaborative process requires that both parties manage their anger in a healthy way. Collaboration can only occur if reasonableness prevails. When anger arises, people must fight fair. Healthy anger is directed at solving problems. While it can get animated and passionate, the ability to listen and have room for both opinions is critical to keep the process healthy. When anger turns to rage, more damage occurs. Characters are assassinated. People scream over each other. They discount each other's opinion. They try to hurt each other. Time is lost. Money is spent.

Managing anger is no easy task in a working relationship, much less a broken one. As Aristotle once said in the Nicomachean Ethics, "Anyone can become angry - that is easy. But to be angry with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way - this is not easy". It is a universal problem because all people are scared of their own anger. When anger is suppressed, it gets acted out in your actions or your body. When it finally comes out, it comes out like a shaken can of soda. This is rage, not anger and does more harm than good.

Learning to recognize anger at its first appearance and working with it at a low level is the work of psychotherapy. In the collaborative process, it does not matter where it comes from. Anger needs to be managed in a healthy way for the process to work. The healthiest use of anger is to direct it at solving the problem. Rather than attack, use it to define what you want or need. If your soon-to-be-ex asks for something outrageous, counter with your own need rather than critically evaluate their opinion. Trust that compromise and negotiation will result in the best outcome.

About The Author

Stephen R.Van Schoyck, Ph.D. welcomes your thoughts and reactions to this article. You can email me directly from the web site ( or call me directly at 215-752-7111.  I will be happy to answer your questions. I hope that you choose the collaborative path that keeps you in control of the process and contributes to your self-respect and the respect of others.