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A Story of Collaborative Divorce

April 2, 2012

image David Castillo Dominici /

It is 6:15 on a Tuesday Evening and the counseling room is hot.  The heat is being generated from the tension between Jim and Sarah (names have been fictionalized).  I am their Couples Therapist.  I can feel the intensity building and I need to slow them down.  I have to do this now before the lid comes off and someone storms out of my office.  I quickly interrupt Jim and say to Sarah, “I know that you are very angry.  In my experience, it is sadness and fear that lie beneath anger.”  This seems to have caught the 2 of them off guard.  I hear them each breath a bit more deeply and I sense that they are slowing.  But it feels precarious.  I keep going with Jim, “even though you are also angry, can you tell me a bit about what you think Sarah is so sad about?”  This question seems to further break the building tension. Jim and Sarah appear to be listening to one another again and are moving away from the “fight or flight” place where nothing good can come.

Jim and Sarah are in many ways a typical couple who sit in my office during a given hour.  They are in emotional pain with a lot to gain and lose.  They love each other and have also grown to despise each other.  The pressures of their family life, of finances, of not enough intimate time together, have taken its toll.  Their marriage is in shambles but they own a home together.  They have children together.  Their lives seem inextricably joined and they don’t know what to do.  They have contacted me to help them find their way back from the brink and I don’t take this responsibility lightly.  I am myself many years married with children of my own.  I am also aware of other options for them should they decide that their marriage is not salvageable.

It is 1 week later and I am again in session with Jim and Sarah.  We are about 20 minutes in and there is a short but painful silence in the room.  Through her tears Sarah quietly announces that she has been thinking long and hard.  She takes a shallow breath and says that she doesn’t want to remain married to Jim and she is so afraid for his reaction, and what this will mean for their children.  Their youngest is just 5 years old; their older is 9.  “They need their father,” she whispers.  “But not the way we have been living as a family.  Not this way.”  I brace myself and immediately help Jim digest this moment.  Jim unknowingly reaches for his stomach with his folded hands and I suspect he feels like he was just kicked in the gut.  “I suspect that was hard to hear Jim,” I say.  “And it would be easy to retaliate.  I wonder though if you can do something else.  Perhaps you have been feeling for a while what Sarah has just said out loud?”  Jim nods and I can feel their sadness.  I can also feel the calm between them that comes when a couple finally finds the clarity to either stay together or part ways.

Jim and Sarah initially contacted me to work on their marriage.  In many cases, couples are able to use their counseling experience to reconnect.  Often this process can transform the couple’s relationship.  In this case however with Jim and Sarah, the task had now shifted to assisting them with dissolving their marriage and protecting their children and their family from the fall out.  Like many couples at this juncture, the assumption is often lawyers, and court rooms, trials and bloodletting.  And spending lots of money.  On the other hand, there is another option called Collaborative Divorce.  This path is far more respectful, can better protect children, and can even cost less money than litigation.  Jim and Sarah are good candidates for the Collaborative Process.  They have spent time in couples counseling learning how to better manage their feelings and organize their thoughts. They have taken the time to make meaning out of their marriage and family life.  I provide Jim and Sarah with a menu of these 2 options:  traditional litigation or collaborative divorce.

I suspect litigation is appealing.  Not surprisingly, each harbors a desire to hurt the other.  To drag the other through the mud and make them bleed emotionally.  This is a normal response to rejection and a fear of being attacked.  On the other hand, I am hoping that Jim and Sarah can choose the collaborative divorce process instead.  I think it works better.  I lay it out for them, “the plan: we put your family first.  No battles.  Minimize the scars.  Enough of that has been done over the years.”  I continue to work with Jim and Sarah to make sense out of their newly forming family arrangement where their children will learn to thrive in 2 homes.  I also refer them to a collaborative divorce team.  The team assists them in moving through the very stressful, fear inducing experience of divorce.  It has been a challenging journey with Jim and Sarah but I have a sense in my clinical gut that despite it all, the emotional bumps and bruises, this couple and their family will be OK.

Jon Kramer, LCSW is in private practice with offices in Hermosa Beach, CA and Santa Monica, CA.  He is also a member of A Better Divorce.  He can be reached by phone at 310-874-3944 or by visiting his website:

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