Collaborative Divorce Lawyers: Healers of Human Conflict

How would you describe a divorce lawyer? “Legal counselor” comes readily to mind, since the lawyer advises clients on matters of law pertaining to divorce. But what about “healer of human conflict”?  It is a less-obvious description, certainly. Yet, in 1982, United States Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger pointed out, “The obligation of our profession is, or has long been thought to be, to serve as healers of human conflict.” As more and more couples choose collaborative divorce, they are becoming acquainted with lawyers as healers of human conflict.

Though collaborative divorce lawyers are not mental health professionals or social workers, they are negotiators.  Unresolved conflict is what leads to more conflict, impasse and failed negotiations, so deep understanding of what motivates human behavior to be cooperative rather than combative makes collaborative divorce lawyers especially skilled at helping couples reach amicable agreements. Loss, uncertainty and unmet subjective needs–all very characteristic of divorce–lead to anger, anxiety and a host of other destructive emotions. Interdisciplinary collaborative teams help channel these conflicts productively and enable clients to reach mutually satisfactory agreements.

Under the best of circumstances divorce is a painful, wrenching experience, even for those who initiate the process. What makes it so, psychologists tell us, is that divorce is about loss and change, with everything in one’s life being in a state of uncertainty. The typical response? Most of the divorcing population deals with the loss and uncertainty in highly conflictive and combative ways that result in enormous costs, both emotionally and financially in that setting. The parties pursue an adversarial process that is unlikely to resolve the underlying issues.  Negotiations, however, are not driven by what you see, but by what they do not see, such things as core identity issues and feelings (i.e., subjective needs).

Have you ever wondered why parties reach impasse on trivial items of personal property after having agreed on the division of the more significant assets? Psychologists would likely say that the dispute is not about “pots and pans” but about some unspoken need of one or both of the parties. It might be an apology, simply being heard, or having feelings validated. In an adversarial divorce, clients become frustrated and angry, and conflict escalates with the result that both parties become more entrenched in their respective positions. The clients and their lawyers are mostly unaware of what is influencing the clients’ behavior or motivating them to make the decisions they do.

The collaborative process, however, seeks to identify and deal with the underlying conflicts.  How does identifying those conflicts express who the parties are and what they care most deeply about? Can a satisfactory long-term solution be achieved without addressing these issues? With a deeper understanding of the conflicts that are at the root of the divorce, the couple and their lawyers are better able to negotiate the what, why and how of their settlement. A mutually-respectful divorce is a healthy beginning, the first of many healings the parties will undertake. Collaborative divorce lawyers set the stage for these healthy beginnings, helping to heal the human conflicts that must be resolved for new lives to emerge.

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