As the court expands the definition of marriage, lawyers in the trenches guide couples through the painful process of divorce. Some cases involve blended families, some are high conflict, and some have children caught in the crossfire of parents divorcing for a second or third time.
Traditionally, family lawyers have been surgeons dismantling marriages with a scalpel of skilled advocacy in a courtroom, mediation or collaborative four way meeting. Until now family lawyers, and lawyers in general, have overlooked our role as a resource for another option: marriage preservation.
A group of collaborative lawyers in Minnesota noticed some clients who came for consultations had mixed feelings about whether to divorce. In response, they teamed with University of Minnesota professor Dr. Bill Doherty and his marriage therapist colleagues, to explore the issue. Guided by studies that show one year after divorce 31% of men and 13% of women said, “I wish I had worked harder to save my marriage,” and research that showed 50% of divorces were from low-conflict marriages, the lawyers and therapists named this phenomenon “divorce ambivalence.”
According to Dr. Doherty, people considering divorce will reach out to friends, family, coworkers and divorce lawyers hoping to gain insight in the decision making process. As leaders in our social circles, lawyers are often these “marital first responders” among our friends and family, in addition to those clients who seek our services. Doherty’s research concludes that marital first responders have a great influence over whether these people actually divorce.
Although Iowa is a “no fault” state, people usually describe the reasons they are considering divorce. In Doherty’s studies the “hard issues” (abuse, addiction, adultery) are less frequently cited. Instead it’s mostly “soft issues” such as lack of attention from one’s spouse, money problems, inability to talk together or a spouse’s personal habits.
Doherty finds all marital first responders can influence the following depending on the advice they offer:
- Whether a couple ultimately divorces;
- Whether a couple talks through ambivalence so they gain clarity on whether that divorce is the best option for them;
- Whether a couple “airs out” the emotion and reasons for the choice to divorce, or carries unresolved emotion into a divorce proceeding.
Iowa Code Section 598.16, provides for “conciliation,” upon the motion of one party. In my experience, court orders forcing marriage counseling only guarantee a body sitting in a chair at a counselor’s office. Marriage counseling of unknown duration sounds unappealing to a spouse who may have one foot out the door. Many lawyers tell a client NOT to talk to their spouse, resulting in suppressed emotions while the lawyers begin to plan for battle.
Responding to this gap in resources, Dr. Doherty developed “discernment counseling” a counseling protocol of 1-5 sessions directed at the specific question “Should we get divorced?” not “How can we save our marriage?” After completing training for lawyers on this discernment protocol, members of my collaborative law practice group have begun to suggest discernment counseling to clients. We have also recruited some local marriage counselors to travel to Minnesota to train with Dr. Doherty.
Discernment counseling creates a “pause” before jumping into divorce. At the first session, the couple begins a conversation about whether they should continue in the marriage in it’s present state, commit to a fixed term of six months of intensive marriage counseling, or divorce. They identify as “leaning in” or “leaning out” of the marriage.
I notice a number of positive byproducts in my clients who have chosen discernment counseling.
- Spouses resisting divorce who may otherwise create barriers are less combative, indecisive, and feeing “pushed” by the divorce process and court deadlines;
- Strong emotions move out of the way faster, so I can offer higher quality legal work due to less triage of emotional outbursts;
- Couples easily plan healthy scripts to tell the children about the divorce together, so that one spouse doesn’t hijack the conversation to try to vindicate blame.
- The couple feels like they truly exhausted all options before divorcing.
- Couples work better as a team, often opting into collaborative divorce and creating a “softer landing”.
Although I am unaware of studies indicating how many marriages are preserved in this process, I am sure there are some. In each of my consultations I carefully guide clients through a discussion about whether the marriage can be saved before rushing into filing for divorce. I mention it often when I serve as a mediator, especially as I detect ambivalence in the stories I hear. I can’t remember ever having any potential client be put off by this and instead I have had incredibly good responses to this approach, including from the clients who have opted for discernment counseling then come back to go through with divorce.
Each of us is likely to be a marital first responder at some time, either professionally or personally. Do we say, “I’m so glad you are finally leaving him/her!” even when we are approached by friends or family? Or will we encourage those in crisis to reflect carefully about their decision to divorce? In our legal practice, should lawyers take down initial data and run to the scanner to e-file a divorce at the first visit? Or are we better gatekeepers for families in every walk of life to realize the influence we have on those contemplating divorce, and to encourage the possibility of a “pause?”
I know I have felt an increase in my effectiveness and satisfaction as an advocate for families, by providing a deeper exploration of divorce ambivalence with those who seek my guidance.