Need For Divorce Coaching

No matter how amicable a couple may be, going through a family dissolution is a very complex and deeply emotional experience. Not only are the parties facing the emotional issues surrounding the end of their relationship (disbelief, hurt, anger, betrayal, fear, loss, and depression to name a few), they are also confronted with a family court system that is intimidating, confusing, and frustrating (Berry, 1995; Gardner, 1986; Hetherington & Kelly, 2002; Webb & Ousky, 2006).

Sadly, many parents use the adversarial family court process as a therapeutic tool to heal or sooth their pain, to justify their actions, or to seek vindication for the perceived “wrongs” of the other parent–all of which become powerful emotional weapons to be used to win at all cost (Tesler, 1999). According to family law attorneys Webb & Ousky (2006), 80% of the divorce process is dealing with these type of emotional issues.

There are numerous effects on family members during the divorce process, from lower levels of psychological well-being, less happiness, lower self-esteem, to increased symptoms of psychological distress, higher incidence of illnesses, and increased rates of depression, anxiety, and feelings of disappointment (Amato, 2000; Hetherington & Kelly, 2002; Laumann-Billings & Emery, 2000; Wallerstein & Lewis, 2004).

Vu (2009) compares the divorce process with a boxing match, the courtroom being the ring and the attorneys acting as the managers–instructing the fighters (the parents) on how to fight and win in the ring (courtroom). Indeed, winning is all that matters in the adversarial arena. According to Vu (2009), the current divorce process is so defined by negative confrontations that it is typical for both parents to come away feeling unhappy, many times becoming so caught up in the boxing match with the other parent that they forget about the well-being of their child.

In their study, Price & McKenry (1988) pointed out that divorce has been found to be one of the most stressful life changing events that a person can experience–using descriptive terms such as “extreme stress,” “near chaos,” and “moderate to high levels of emotional distress.” It has also been found that in the traditional adversarial process there is little communication between the spouses, a fact that produces additional feelings of anxiety, fear, worry, and concern (Webb & Ousky, 2006).

During their family court process, the parties are required to make some of the most important decisions of their lives at a time when they are being stretched to their emotional limits. One of the results of making these major decisions, according to Webb & Ousky (2006), is that no matter what the court ruling, both parties generally will come away with an overwhelming feeling that they lost.

Family law attorneys Webb & Ousky (2006) point out that in many cases (if not most) the emotional issues of the divorce may be more critical than the physical, financial, and property issues. The primary emphasis in family court are those issues that can be listed on a balance sheet. As such, family courts are ill-prepared to deal with the most significant part of a divorce–the emotional issues of the heart. With these procedures surrounding them and taking over their lives, it is easy to understand why parents are many times simply too busy protecting their own interests to take notice of what is happening with their children. As now operated, the family court system is not particularly helpful for children, and may even be harmful (Webb & Ousky, 2006).

Some of the factors contributing to how well parents and children handle the family restructuring process are the level of pre-divorce conflict in the family, the availability of social support systems, the continuing conflict between mom and dad, loss of contact with one of the parents, and economic decline (Amato, 2000; Hetherington & Kelly, 2002; Kelly & Emery, 2003; Laumann-Billings & Emery, 2000; Tesler, 1999; Webb & Ousky, 2006).

However, children may or may not be “damaged” by their parents’ separation and divorce. The determinate factor appears to be that in many cases, the parents themselves can make the choice for their family by the way they behave toward each other. It has been shown that how the parents deal with their emotions (short term and long term) has a significant impact on how their children will deal with their emotions. In fact, the parents’ behaviors during the divorce process can have a greater impact on the children than the divorce itself (Amato & Keith, 1991; Berry, 1995; Gardner, 1986; Vu, 2009).

In a divorce, it would appear that a critical component would be a mechanism to assist the parties in dealing with their emotional issues, helping to reduce the conflicts between them. If 80% of the family court process is dealing with emotional issues (Webb & Ousky, 2006), then it would appear that addressing the emotional issues would be a significant aspect of any solution.
One mechanism to deal with these emotional issues may be the new phenomenon of divorce coaching, an outgrowth of the coaching explosion.

Divorce coaching is different from therapy. Traditionally, therapy involves the assumption a client is coming into the process due to some real or perceived “problem” that they want to have “diagnosed” and for which they need “treatment.” The reason for treatment is usually because their normal coping skills and problem solving techniques are not working for them. They need some new kind of “cure” for their problem. However, therapists also work with couples and families to help heal, repair, or enhance damaged relationships, build or rebuild intimacy, or to bring couples and family members closer together (Corey, 2005; Groth-Marnat, 2003).

While divorce coaching may be therapeutic, it is not therapy. In coaching there is no assumption of a mental health problem, and the coach does not assume any pathology. Coaching is not based on making a diagnosis and developing a treatment plan. Divorce coaching does not delve into the client’s past to look for root causes of maladaptive behaviors or unproductive problem areas. Problems and pathological issues are only dealt with if they impede the divorce process, and then only by way of making the appropriate therapeutic referrals (Portnoy, 2005; Schwartz & Finley, 2009; Tesler, 1999; Webb & Ousky, 2006).

An experienced and competent divorce coach will provide forensic (family court) education, offer insights and observations (especially as to communication issues with the other spouse), give viable and realistic possibilities, and at times may even propose certain strategies for the client to consider. An experienced and dedicated divorce coach can help their client distinguish between legal issues and the emotional components surrounding those legal issues. Furthermore, a professional divorce coach is trained and experienced in unraveling the “intangible” emotional issues surrounding the “tangible” legal issues (Child Custody Coach (CCC), 2009; International Academy of Collaborative Professionals (IACP), 2005; Portnoy, 2005; Schwartz & Finley, 2009; Tesler, 1999; Web & Ousky, 2006).

A divorce coach works as a team member with the client, the client’s attorney, and other professionals involved with the client and their divorce process. A divorce coach helps their client come to terms with ending the intimate relationship with their spouse, coaching them on how to participate and remain pro-actively engaged in their family court case. Another goal of divorce coaching is to help the client recover from their family court experience in a more restorative and positive manner (Portnoy, 2005; Schwartz & Finley, 2009; Tesler, 1999).

Divorce coaching may be very pivotal in the overall outcome of a divorce. Looking systemically at the overall situation, rather than addressing just the immediate complaint of either the husband or the wife, the coach can help their client see options and alternatives in relation to all family members. Additionally, a divorce coach may review opportunities for their client to learn more appropriate responses, resulting in more positive outcomes (Portnoy, 2005; Schwartz & Finley, 2009).

An example might be the family portrait with grandma. The father will pay any price (emotional or financial) because it is the only picture he has of his grandma. However, the mother will also pay any price (emotional or financial) as it is the only picture with little Johnny missing his front teeth. In the traditional adversarial process, both parents would present their justifications to the court and the court would make a ruling. If both parents had a divorce coach, then the back story of why the family portrait is so important becomes the focal point. The divorce coaches would be available to facilitate a joint discussion of the emotional concerns that each parent brings to the family portrait issue. Through this type of conflict resolution, not only is it possible to resolve the primary issue of the family portrait, it is also possible to resolve the hidden or buried emotional issues surrounding the family portrait issue. This type of conflict resolution is also a role model for the parents to experience an alternative way of resolving future issues that may arise between them.

An experienced divorce coach offers structure for their client. However, they also hold their client responsible for their decisions and behaviors. A professional coach learns to become a mentor to their clients, recommending reading materials, assigning homework, offering instruction on modified conversation styles, and modeling behavioral changes. Divorce coaching focuses on what has worked for the client in the past and how to mold those past successes into current and future successes (DivorceNet, 2006).

Divorce coaching is also a highly structured process that focuses directly on enhancing communication skills, with the attorney, the other party, the court, and other connected persons (evaluators, children, collateral resources, etc). A divorce coach will focus on identifying and validating their client’s feelings, promoting insight into emotional reactions, and teaching assertive communication strategies (as opposed to aggressive communication strategies as found in the adversarial family court process). An experienced divorce coach will assist their client in the development of accepting and respecting the other parents’ perspective that may be different from the client’s perspective ((After Divorce Coaching (ADC), 2009; CCC, 2009; IACP, 2005; Tesler, 1999; Webb & Ousky, 2006).

There are varying levels of intensity of emotional pain from the death of a relationship (Pruett, Insabella, & Gustafson, 2005). There may be feelings of denial, rejection, abandonment, grief, self-pity, anger, feeling of failure, depression, and guilt (Bustanoby, 1978; Gardner, 1986; Price & McKenry, 1988). A coach can greatly assist a client in working their way through these emotional experiences that could otherwise become overwhelming and very challenging for a client experiencing the confusion and stress of the adversarial family court system and its requirements (Tesler, 1999; Webb & Ousky, 2006).

During their divorce transition, parents will need to either develop a plan for sharing their parenting responsibilities and dividing their family finances, or allow these decisions to be decided upon by a third party judge who knows almost nothing about their family system and absolutely nothing about their family dynamics (Webb & Ousky, 2006). Either way, it would make sense to have seasoned and experienced divorce coaches supporting, informing, and encouraging the parents during their reorganizing and restructuring process.

The assessment process in divorce coaching is primarily understanding the client’s status within the emotional divorce process, whether the client’s goals are compatible and realistic to the probable outcome of their case, and identifying triggers that may set off reactions in the client that are likely to increase distress and lead to unhealthy consequences. A divorce coach needs enough marital history to gain this information as well as discovering the client’s current legal status of custody, visitation, support, assets, and debts. This appears to suggest a professional divorce coach should be a licensed mental health professional (with the required training and experience in assessment and treatment), someone with mediation experience, and probably someone who has had training in forensic work as well (Portnoy, 2005; Tesler, 1999; Webb & Ousky, 2006).

Some may argue that an individual divorce coach is unwarranted due to court-mandated programs now required by most jurisdictions, as well as the abundance of private programs. Pruett & Savage (2004) outlined a litany of agencies, organization, programs, and initiatives, both governmental and private, designed to disseminate information and give education to parents confronting the family court system. While the goal of these programs is to mitigate the negative impact of the drama, confusion, and stressful experience of the family court system, there appears to be a lack of research indicating whether or not these programs are as effective as typically believed (Hita, Braver, Sandler, Knox, & Strehle, 2009; Holtzworth-Munrow, Applegate, & D’Onofrio, 2009). Due to the lack of positive outcomes from current established programs, there appears to be a need for the emerging divorce coaching phenomenon.


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