Qualified counsellors are a cheaper, more effective option in divorce cases

Warring exes often turn their lawyer into a therapist, but a divorce counsellor is a cheaper, more effective option, writes Kate Whitehead

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 January, 2014, 12:11pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 January, 2014, 12:11pm

When you're about to make a decision that will affect the rest of your life, you want to be calm and clear-headed. Yet when it comes to divorce, men and women routinely make choices while under the influence of hot-headed emotions.

What's more, the people often leaned on for support are lawyers, who aren't trained to deal with emotional issues.

I realised the court system isn't designed for a family ... it's for criminals
Lior Sade, divorce mediator

Enter the divorce coach, a therapist who can help with pre-legal advice, while also dealing with emotional baggage and getting the divorcee's life back on track.

Divorce coaches have been operating in the US for about a decade, but they've only started making a real presence in Hong Kong in recent years.

No great surprise there - the city has been slow to adopt alternative means of resolving disputes compared with many developed countries.

Collaborative Practice Group, which seeks to work with lawyers and other professionals to end a marriage without going to court, opened its Hong Kong centre in 2011.

The aim is to make divorce more amicable and less traumatic for the children involved.

"Recent research has shown that it is not the legal conflict that is detrimental to children, but the parents' emotional conflicts; the loyalty tugs of war, the being put in the middle, the later guilt that adult children have because they were asked to choose a parent," says Maureen Mueller, a mediator who offers divorce coaching.

The loss of a relationship triggers strong emotions, she says. Before long, both parties are locked in huge fights with even bigger legal bills.

"The only way to get out of the fight and win is to employ bigger weapons, hoping that the other party will lose and have to pay all the legal bills. You escalate to avoid being caught with the parcel when the music stops," says Mueller.

Lior Sadé agrees. An experienced mediator in the corporate world, she became a divorce coach after a nasty break-up of her own.

After five years and HK$5 million in legal fees, she tried to work out what had gone wrong.

"I realised that the court system isn't designed for a family. The court system is designed more for criminals and for punishment.

"But divorce isn't just about ending the marriage contract. It's about children, emotions and things that can't be dealt within the current system," says Sadé.

Dr Melanie Bryan is a clinical psychologist and family therapist who offers divorce and post-divorce coaching.

She says parental conflict puts a huge amount of stress on children. This is made even worse when parents confide in their offspring, make snide comments about their former partner or turn to a particular child for comfort - a process known as "parentification", which places a tremendous burden on a child.

So what are the advantages of a divorce coach?

For some, it's an opportunity to vent about your former partner to a professional who won't charge as much as a lawyer. Let's not forget, lawyers aren't therapists.

Some people use a divorce coach to take lawyers almost completely out of the equation.

"I go into court with someone who represents themselves. I'm allowed to do everything but speak to the judge," says Sadé.

But most people use divorce coaches together with a lawyer and the pairing can be beneficial for the legal team and the children.

In Hong Kong, the divorce process can take up to two years. During this time normally rational people can behave otherwise.

"Divorce coaching helps to bring the temperature down. It helps the couple reconnect with their wisdom, so they can more cleanly disengage from the other," says Mueller.

Her clients are almost exclusively parents. Having children to protect is a huge incentive for finding a way to manage your emotions. People need to "love the children more than they hate the ex", Mueller says.

But divorce coaching can also help childless couples, who want to manage intense emotions. "While anger can be galvanising, it's more often a constrictive emotion that obscures choices and solutions," says Mueller.

If all this sounds like the sort of thing that friends are for, then think again. While peers can be a fantastic rallying force throughout a divorce, these relationships are unlikely to survive the intense and openly honest work that is at the heart of therapy.

"Therapy works, in part, because - unlike friendship - it is not mutual. Within the safety and confidentiality of the therapist's office, a client is free to explore and reveal their most private selves without risk of judgment or rejection," Bryan says.

Divorce coaching isn't about helping any party to "win". It's about promoting effective communication so both sides can discuss the issues without blame, and work towards a fair solution through compromise. "I once heard a nice definition of compromise: 'Where neither party gets exactly what they want, and both sides are satisfied with the result'," says Bryan.

Once a court judgment is made, the legal team is dismantled and both sides go their separate ways. But divorce coaching continues, if the client wants it.

Post-divorce challenges will depend on how long a couple was together and how it ended. Common issues include being comfortable in one's own company, breaking old bonds, becoming socially at ease, dating again and shared parenting issues, Bryan says.

She helps divorcees define and redesign their lives.

Divorce coaching is still a relatively new field and anyone seeking a coach should do their homework. After all, this is someone who will be listening to your most intimate thoughts and offering advice when you are at your most vulnerable.

The most critical factor to consider is the coach's background. Anyone can call themselves a divorce coach and there are plenty of training courses around, of mixed reputation, so research their qualifications. Are they coming from a legal background, from finance or counselling?

You want someone who is professionally equipped to help you get you through the divorce.