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XX-YY The Case For Gender-Balanced Divorce Coaching (Part 2)

March 12, 2012

By Robert Rutman 

Part two of a two part article. Read Part one of this story here.

Nancy Ross and Pauline Tesler have given us some direction on this subject.  They have suggested that if we could contain the emotions that exist in the highly charged atmosphere of divorce, we could expect a less chaotic process and a more successful outcome. The short list of these disruptive emotions includes anger, fear and hurt.  Nancy’s group expanded this list to include broader categories of personality characteristics.  They suggested that if problems arose during divorce negotiations, they would likely be related to the following: female – dependency, nurturing and cooperating; male – independence, providing and competing.  With the acknowledgement that there could be major exceptions to the following hypotheses, I propose: (1) that it is more likely that female coaches will understand these female characteristics and (2) that it is more likely that male coaches will understand the male characteristics.  This understanding, when effectively communicated to the partner, is one of the central ingredients of effective coaching interventions, as it often is in therapeutic interventions.

When we first began our work over five years ago, and had not completed even one case, we could only consider the significance of this gender-related understanding from a theoretical, or intuitive perspective.  For example, our practice of gender-matching coach to partner has been predicated on the following sequence of intuitive premises: Males can better understand males and females can better understand females (rather than the opposite). If the feeling of being understood is successfully transmitted from coach to partner, and if this feeling increases the effectiveness of the coaching relationship, then it makes sense to match coach and partner.  Because we now have more than 150 cases from which to extract information regarding what works and what does not work as well, we have the additional data from an experiential perspective.  Put another way, data from our experience to date has taught us much about coaching effectiveness in general, and, in particular, about the advantage of gender-matching coach and partner.

As I look back on the cases I have done, two factors rise above all others in their ability to distinguish successful from unsuccessful outcomes. These factors are (1) the connection I make with the partner, and (2) the dynamic that is evident in the four way meetings.  When we first learned about coaching by listening to Pauline Tesler, Stu Webb and Nancy Ross, the contrast to therapy was strongly emphasized.  These teachers made it clear that coaching was time and goal limited.  We were trying to make the divorce better, not the marriage.  As such, we were not supposed to “do” therapy.  Since then, I have realized that not “doing” therapy does not prohibit me from doing “therapeutic things” while face to face with a person going through a very traumatic time in his/her life.  These therapeutic things include, but are not limited to, listening compassionately, responding empathetically, and creating a working relationship whose primary purpose is to teach the partner how to successfully navigate through the twists and turns of his divorce.  If I prohibited myself from being “therapeutic” in this way, I could not succeed as a coach.

The obvious benefit of successfully establishing a good working relationship with the partner is that specific troublesome issues can be neutralized through the development of strategies during the two-way meeting.  By the time the second two way meeting is over, I am confident that if certain issues come up in the four way, we will be able to avoid a major emotional spill.  Without belaboring the point made earlier, I believe that a portion of my ability to “understand” what a man is saying is based on being a man myself.  I do not, however, believe that my gender alone accounts for this understanding.  For example, I certainly can imagine “understanding” woman x much better than man y, given a not too unusual set of circumstances.  In fact, in my professional practice, I treat at least as many women as men.  In general, however, I think that the men I have successfully coached have correctly believed that I have appreciated the emotionally difficult situations they are in, even if I personally may not have experienced similar circumstances in my life.  To a significant degree, its just because we both are men and have lived our lives from a male perspective.

Interestingly, where this male-male empathy really matters is in the four way meeting.  When running smoothly, this meeting is extraordinary in its ability to dynamically shape and reshape the relationship between the divorcing partners.  Having established the bond in the two way meeting with the man, I am free to fully engage with the perspective expressed by the woman.  I can do this without threatening the relationship with the man.  While I am doing this, I am modeling empathy and concern, which ultimately are the cornerstones of all positive emotional changes that occur between the partners.  These changes in perspective can occur for both of the partners because while I was learning about the emotional profile of the man, my counterpart was doing the same with the woman.  When we join together in the four way, the synergy is palpable.  By trusting the female coach, and with her trusting me, we are free to model healthy collaborative behavior.  An example of this might be helpful.  We are in a four way meeting and the conversation surrounding the issue of parenting styles comes up.  I have listened to the woman speak about her anger that her husband has failed to participate in much discipline with their ten year old.  As I begin to respond to her, my coaching partner notices that the man is reacting – he has a certain look on his face that I did not see because I was focused on the woman (modeling, hopefully, a respectful concern for her feelings.)  My coaching partner “interrupts” me to say that she would like to have the man speak about his feelings (that only she has noticed.)  I immediately stop my response out of respect for her intuitive sense that the man needed to have the chance to speak right then and there.  This is collaboration at its best.  This models cooperative behavior designed for a win-win outcome.  It always is done respectfully and it always turns out to be helpful.

A few final points… with two females and two males in the room, a four way meeting feels balanced.  Imagining a four way meeting composed of three females and one male, or three males and one female does not.  In trying to figure out why this is so, I think that nearly every divorce exists, at least partially, as a male/female struggle.  Thinking of it this way, it seems unnecessarily adversarial to add another female for the man to deal with or another man for the woman to deal with.  I say this realizing that the added man or woman is the coach.  I say this realizing that our job is not to be an advocate for our clients, but to help each partner better understand the other’s emotional reality.  I say this because at some point in the long and always emotionally volatile atmosphere in the unbalanced four-way, one of the divorcing partners is sure to turn to their coach and say, “you just don’t understand, you are not a woman/man.”   I believe that empathy, in this unbalanced, pressure-packed situation, eventually loses the battle with biology!

Not understanding because of a failure to comprehend is vastly different from not understanding because of gender difference; the first may be fixable, the second is not.

After spending all this time trying to support the case for gender balancing, it occurs to me that we may not need consensus about this issue in our group.  It may be better to resolve the matter democratically, by acknowledging that each of us has the right to disregard the practice of gender balancing.  Both the attorney and the coach have this right, as certainly does either spouse. We coaches will have to decide whether working with a coach of the same gender is acceptable, or if we believe it creates too large a risk for an unsuccessful outcome.  Unfortunately, we can never formally test the gender-matching hypothesis because we cannot use our clients as subjects for our experimentation.  We must therefore decide beforehand, and participate in the collaborative process following the dictates of our own professional judgement.

Robert Rutman PHD is a Mental Health Professional based in Hermosa Beach CA. as well as a member of A Better Divorce.  His primary goal as a divorce coach is to help his client move smoothly through the divorce process from beginning to end.

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