Collaborative Divorce to maintain compassion and dignity
Washington, DC–area psychotherapist Kate Scharff has more than 25 years’ experience working with children, adults, and families on a wide range of issues, yet currently, she dedicates a large portion of her practice to families going through separation and divorce.
In 2010, she cofounded the Collaborative Practice Center of Greater Washington, a welcoming professional space where mental-health practitioners, attorneys, and financial experts can maintain their private practices while helping those who are divorcing restructure their families with compassion and dignity.
Q: As a child of divorce and onetime Solo Mom, do you draw on your own experience in your work?
A: I do. There’s a lot of advice out there. Unfortunately, even good advice can often feel more preachy than helpful. It’s easy to tell someone else what they should do when you’ve never stood on that precipice, terrified of losing the things you hold most dear.
There is an expectation in our culture that single parents should be able to simply “carry on,” to do everything in the same way everyone else does—parent, work, run a house. It’s tough enough to do all that with two parents pulling together. Our society judges—there’s an implication that single moms fall short on lots of fronts. For example, there’s a common myth that single moms can’t set limits with their kids.
It’s easy to judge a mom whose child is pushing boundaries, to say she’s permissive or using her kid as a substitute partner. The truth? That mom is probably just too damn tired. She’s already taken that iPad away 18 times; she’s already said “No” so many times that the word has no meaning; it’s 6:30 p.m., and she still has to feed and bathe the kids, put them to bed, and write a brief before collapsing at midnight and getting up six hours later to do it again. When my kids were little I remember thinking, What’s with this food thing? You feed them, and four hours later you feed them again . . . forever?
Q: What led you to specialize in divorce?
A: I still have my general practice, but 15 years ago I wandered into the divorce arena—a long-standing area of personal and professional interests. It brought together a lot of skills I’d accumulated, and I loved the idea that I could help couples have a less painful divorce than I’d had and support them in protecting their kids in ways my own divorced parents couldn’t protect me 40 years ago. Also, I get to use other parts of myself. Although I love doing therapy, I was never fully happy in a solo practice. I like working with other people and on multidisciplinary teams.
Early on in my divorce work I wore a lot of hats. I did mediation but also a lot of work with high-conflict couples. I did “parenting coordination,” helping divorced folks improve communication and coparent more effectively. I did custody evaluations and served as an expert witness in custody trials. I learned that although divorce has legal and financial components, it’s mostly an emotional process. Lots of people who are legally divorced are not emotionally divorced. I came to see the destructive power of the legal system when applied to fractured human relationships.
I felt pretty discouraged for a while, but I wasn’t alone. There were mental-health specialists, enlightened attorneys, and financial professionals who shared my concerns.
In 2006, I was invited to participate in a training session on “Collaborative Divorce.” Mediation is terrific, but since a mediator is a neutral professional who can help a couple reach agreement but can’t offer legal advice to either, it’s not necessarily the best fit for someone who wants or needs their own attorney present at the table. If, for example, you’re in a relationship with a power imbalance, you might want your lawyer at the table, advocating in a way that’s reassuring. Some mediating couples deal with this by consulting frequently with their own lawyers or having their own lawyers at the mediation. Those strategies can work well, or be inefficient, expensive, and unhelpful. A lot depends on the players involved. It’s important to remember that the possibility of court is like an anvil hanging over everyone’s heads. In mediation, if people aren’t interested in win-win solutions, you can end up with a “courthouse steps” agreement where a couple makes decisions out of fear of a worse outcome. They aren’t given the needed time to reflect on their options.
The point is divorce shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all process; every couple needs to find their own best process. These days I do a lot of “Collaborative Divorce.” Collaborative is special in that the parties begin by signing an agreement saying they won’t go—or even threaten to go—to court. If they do, they lose their lawyers and their entire work product. It’s a great incentive to stay in the process, and it allows people to be vulnerable in ways they wouldn’t otherwise be.
Q: How does a couple know Collaborative Divorce is an option?
A: They either are lucky enough to wander into the office of a lawyer who is trained in Collaborative or actively seek one out. Both parties have to agree to Collaborative. Often people come to someone like me for a consultation: “We’re considering divorce; what are our process options?” “When do we tell the kids?” “Do we stay in the same house?” etc. I like to think of what I offer as a divorce triage—stabilize things and figure out the next steps.
Q: What constitutes a collaborative divorce?
A: Collaborative divorce has four linchpins:
- The qualification agreement. [This means] nobody can go to court with anyone on their Collaborative team.
- Transparency. There is no formal discovery or nastygrams asking for document production, but [there is] an expectation that all parties will provide the necessary information. If we find out they haven’t, we withdraw from the process. But frankly, if someone has secret property in the Cayman Islands, they may not disclose it in any process.
- It’s nonadversarial. In Collaborative we look for win-win solutions—both attorneys are thinking of the needs of the whole family. No behind-the-scenes strategizing, and you can’t take advantage of someone else’s mistake.
- It’s multidisciplinary. It pays attention to all elements of divorce simultaneously—legal, financial, and emotional.
Q: As a therapist, what is your function in the process?
A: Usually there are one or two mental-health professionals called coaches. They generally have three roles:
First, they emotionally shepherd the clients through the process and make sure their voices are heard. Often in a marriage, one partner capitulates to a spouse’s demands. The coach helps you to not re-create your marriage in your divorce.
[Their] second [role] is to help the team not become fractionalized or fall back into adversarial roles. The attorneys don’t want to do this, but if they overidentify with their clients, they can get pulled into it. We keep an eye on the team, including ourselves. It’s why I like to work with another coach. Both clients have compelling stories, and we must keep a three-dimensional picture in order to find the best resolution possible—especially for the kids, who are our primary concern.
The third [role involves] the custody agreement. We call it a parenting plan. My partner and I work in four-way meetings with the parents and walk through all the clauses of the plan.
Q: What’s the difference between a parenting plan and a custody agreement?
A: A parenting plan is not handed down by a judge, is not negotiated by attorneys, doesn’t have boilerplate language, and is very detailed. We get granular by walking through lives day to day, deciphering the best way to do something and its implications. If you’re going to alternate Thanksgivings, what constitutes Thanksgiving? Does it start on Wednesday and end on Sunday, or are you just talking about the day itself? Many of us have done hundreds of parenting plans, so we can help parents think through contingencies they can’t anticipate on their own. A parenting plan is a living, breathing document. We know that what a four-year-old needs is different from what a 14-year-old needs. We build in lots of mechanisms for adjustment and revision. The more detailed the plan, the freer parents feel to be flexible with each other because they know they have a default that protects them.
The content of a parenting plan is totally up to the couple, but it’s important to have someone there who’s an expert to discuss potential wrinkles and share what’s worked for other parents. Having these conversations allows parents to retool their relationship from a romantic one to one of businesslike coparenting. Plus, working with mental-health professionals is cheaper, since we tend to bill at a lower rate than do attorneys.
Q: Tell me about the Collaborative Practice Center.
A: I, a psychologist, and two attorneys founded the Center in 2010 and work there full time. Another 20 or so professionals—therapists, attorneys, financial experts—are affiliated and are there part time. We each have our own practices but come together in a shared space with the goal of helping families structure their divorce with compassion and dignity. No matter who one sees at the center, they will get someone who cares.
Q: How does one find a Collaborative Practice Center?
A: There are very few such Centers around the country, but there are many Collaborative professionals and Collaborative groups. There’s an organization called the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals, and you can find professionals in your area on their website.
Q: You have also written books on the subject.
A: My colleague Lisa Herrick and I met at a training in 2006 and have been in constant conversation ever since regarding how to help divorcing families in the most effective ways possible. In 2010, we published a book for Collaborative Divorce professionals. This spring we have another book coming out for divorce professionals of all kinds who want to help their clients have the best divorce possible. We’re very proud of it.
Right now, I’m focusing on writing for divorcing people, particularly parents. I want to do more to support newly single parents by talking about the toughest topics directly but with the compassion that comes from having been there. On my website I have a blog and links to my Huffington Post pieces.
Q: What about women with money issues?
A: Two things to remember:
- Some people don’t understand the law with respect to money. Although it’s often true that divorcing women don’t have access to marital funds, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any marital funds. It’s important to find an attorney who can help you manage in the moment but pretty quickly address the problem of access. A good lawyer can take care of the immediate problem without creating conflict prematurely.
- Sometimes there really is no money in the family. Most jurisdictions offer pro bono or low-fee services. And many family lawyers do some pro bono or reduced-fee work—so always ask. Also, an attorney you can’t afford may be able to help you find someone who perhaps has less experience (so is willing to charge less) but is talented and hardworking.
Picking the right lawyer is one of the most important decisions you will ever make!
Q: What is your number-one piece of advice for the soon-to-be Solo Mom?
A: You are going to get advice from many voices. Everyone has an opinion and the name of a shark attorney. But be thoughtful about whose office you walk into. When you hire an attorney you’re getting on a train that will take a particular course; it matters what train you get on.
Take a beat: Read the bios on a firm’s website. Google the attorneys. Look for people who don’t use fighting words. If I go to a firm’s site and see pictures of the scales of justice and a gavel—next! But if I see pictures of professionals interacting with children and parents—especially if there’s been some thought to diversity—I say, OK, maybe here.
Even the best-intended parents can have a hard time keeping the kids’ emotional needs front and center during their divorce. The only way to do this is to have the right kind of support, and Collaborative Divorce is often the best way to go.
Mastering Crucial Moments in Separation and Divorce: A Multidisciplinary Guide to Excellence in Practice and Outcome, coauthored by Lisa Herrick, is due out this spring. See more at katescharff.com.
Sister Chat is a great place to ask other Solo Moms about their experiences with mediation and the divorce process.
Kathleen Laccinole, ESME’s Dating Resource Guide, has penned numerous films and parenting books but is best known for producing the highly lauded Greta, age 20, and William, age 16.
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