Help! I think we need a psychologist in our collaborative divorce

Many moons ago, when Helen and Allen had just met, they took a trip through outback Australia. They had both been working too hard, for too long, without a break from their jobs in the money market. They were high flyers, they had cash to burn, and were both considerable risk takers in all things. On their helicopter holiday, Allen decided to get involved in a tourism venture, which Helen saw as a huge risk, “but it was his money”, and anyway, he didn’t have to tip in the money for several years. Helen didn’t get too involved in any of it, but secretly admired Allen’s daring, and certainly didn’t suggest that he put the brakes on.

Today, Allen and Helen are separated, and their stories about that great tourism investment and other equally rash schemes that followed, are very different. Sadly, a lot of money was lost.

Allen sees it all as part of the whole story of their marriage. Nowadays, Helen sees it as all Allen’s problem that they ended up having to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars out of their joint money, and sees no reason why it should have any negative impact on her share of the settlement.

This couple have significant assets, and the loss of the venture capital will make no difference to their lifestyle, nor make even a dint in their wealth.

Helen and Allen have just had a hard lesson in their divorce negotiation. They chose not to include a psychologist on their collaborative team. They made that decision despite their lawyers’ advice that these events from their past were likely to derail any negotiations. Helen in particular was convinced that adding a psychologist to the team was an unwarranted cost. She dismissed the advice that a psychologist would help them with their communication and letting go of, or accepting, the past. Helen wasn’t at all concerned about how she and Allen would manage their emotional responses to each other, now that the time had come to get down to the nitty gritty of financial negotiations. In her own mind, Helen could let bygones be bygones. Her lawyer wasn’t so sure about that.

Allen and Helen are middle-aged with no children, and both told their lawyers that they could bury the hatchet on their old arguments, and manage to divide their property and superannuation without rancour. After all, they had been separated for several years, they both had good jobs and new partners. What could go wrong?

The first negotiation meeting with Helen, Allen, their lawyers and the Financial Planner went well, and they were close to a settlement. Or at least that’s what every one in the room genuinely believed.

But, at 4am the next morning, a long email from Helen landed in her lawyer’s inbox.

The email blamed the lawyers, Allen, the Financial Planner for “allowing Allen to get away with” causing Helen to lose money, it blamed Allen for taking advantage of Helen’s kind nature, and finally Helen said in her email that she was going to Court. Her lawyer was stunned. It felt as though they had been in two entirely different meetings.

P.S. Helen and her lawyer met a few days later, with Helen deciding that she really did think the collaboration was the best thing for her and Allen. She had been quite tense by the time the negotiation meeting took place, which surprised her. She couldn’t sleep the night after the meeting. The longer she lay awake, the angrier she became about a lot of things that she had decided to let go, but found she no longer could. There was something about Allen’s “swagger” in the meeting that had got to her, and she wasn’t sure how she could go into another meeting with him.

With the support of both lawyers, Allen and Helen finally agreed to work with a collaborative psychologist. They worked on processing the end of their relationship, thinking about what they were responsible for in the ending of their marriage, and what they needed to forgive. The psychologist helped them to prepare for their next negotiation meeting, and attended the meeting as well. Helen and Allen were both distressed by the blow up after the negotiation meeting, and there was a lot of delay and extra work for them to do with the psychologist to get back to where they had been. They both see clearly how all of this anguish could have been avoided, if they had accepted the value of the psychologist’s role on their collaborative team from the start.

This story is likely to have a happy ending, as Helen and Allen move towards their next meeting with a truly collaborative mindset, and a better understanding of what the story of their marriage looks like from the other’s point of view.

(PPS. All went as well as expected, and Helen and Allen have reached a settlement. They agreed to let us tell their story because it might help others to be able to say, “I’m in a much better place today. I thought I had dealt with a lot of stuff that I had really just swept under the carpet. Without the psychologist, I doubt that I’d be feeling as good about the settlement as I do”.)

Posted by: Marguerite Picard, a collaborative lawyer who knows and values the brilliance of her psychologist colleagues.

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