Connecticut CollaborativeDivorce Group 2015 Retreat; Divorce: What’s Love Got to Do With It? Inspiration from IACP
By Elaine Ducharme, PhD, ABPP
The Connecticut Collaborative Divorce Group is an interdisciplinary group of 30 professionals devoted to helping families divorce with dignity. This year we held our Third Retreat. Our Retreats have been planned as a way of helping us grow as individuals and as a team.
As I began to think about a program for this special day, one of the psychologists in our group, Dr. Elizabeth Thayer, called and asked me what I thought about using the Special Edition, Winter 2014 Volume 15 issue of The Collaborative Review, Divorce: What’s Love Got to Do With It? as our focus. I had read most of the articles, loved the idea, but was not really sure how or what we could do with it. We assembled a planning committee which included me, my co-president Attorney Robert Fried, Dr. Elizabeth Thayer and Attorney Jennifer Davis. The committee decided to modify the symposium’s program to something a bit more manageable for 25-30 participants. We were concerned that the attorneys might be baffled by the concept of “love in divorce.” Some were. We struggled with the open space concept for only 25-30 people. And frankly, we were not sure how peoplewould respond.
We also needed to find a suitable space for the Retreat. We did not want it to be too “academic” a setting. We searched for a place we could afford and that would encourage relaxation, and found a lovely inn. Although located in the middle of our town, it had a beautiful sun porch where we could all sit for our initial meeting and lunch. We also had the use of a comfortable living room, dining room and bedroom/sitting room combination. We began with a light breakfast, provided a casual lunch and had snacks available throughout the day.
As I noted, the goal of these retreats is to help us get to know each other better and grow as individuals and team members. With that in mind, we began the day with an opportunity for each member to talk for 2-3 minutes about their own personal cultural history and background and what brought them into this field. My thoughts had been that we all work with different cultural groups and we all bring some of our own culture to the process. As we went around the table, however, people began to share more than just their own culture and background. Much to my amazement, people expanded on that concept and talked about their family history — the good and the bad, which demonstrated the depth of trust that has begun to develop among the members of our group. During this process, we threw a ball of yarn to the next person we chose to talk, while holding on to our own piece of the yarn. In doing so we shared our own “interconnectedness”. (See “The Unexpected Collaborator” for more about this part of our experience.)
This exercise set the stage for the rest of the day. The planning committee decided to have three rooms, each with a specific focus: 1. What does love have to do with family law practice and the role of forgiveness?, 2. Non-defensive communication, and 3. Building healing spaces. We gave people the option of staying in one place for as long as they wished or rotating every 30 minutes. Each group had a leader/moderator to begin the process by posing a few questions for people to think about. It was our hope to engage participants in meaningful discussions about these three topics and have people end the day with a few “take-aways”; specific ideas they could utilize in their own work.
The questions posed by the moderator as a possible beginning for discussion were as follows:
Love and Forgiveness
1) How do we experience love in our roleas professionals?
2) Is forgiveness necessary or appropriate here? Or is itmore about letting go?
3) What are our reactions to clients’ strongnegative emotions?9
1) How can we stop giving the most power to the most negative person in the room?
2) Is it just about what we say or is it about how we say it?
3) How do we communicate a sense of caring and empathy in the room?
1) Why is it important?
2) How does it impact trust?
3) Does it have to be expensive and do we need an interior decorator?
These questions helped us begin a rich dialogue. Most people changed rooms after thirty minutes. It is interesting to note we had a few people who stayed in the room on communication for longer periods.
Love and Forgiveness
Many participants felt the idea of loving clients was draining. The need for empathy while being careful of our own boundaries was also a concern. Some attorneys noted that they learned “law” while in law school but they have no experience in dealing with the emotions which arise during the conflict of divorce. Some wondered whether attorneys should call their clients after a tough meeting or go out for coffee or a meal. They worried that their behavior might be viewed as sexual or seductive. These issues are quite clear for the psychologists; not so clear for the attorneys. Psychologists are quite comfortable with checking on a client after a difficult session, but we would never think of going out for dinner with them. Financial planners, however, do these things regularly. The question was raised as to whether or not it mattered if the attorney was a male and the client a female. People were split on this idea based on the vulnerability of clients during the divorce proceedings. The vulnerability of women, in particular, and perception of the attorney as powerful and caring could lead to boundary violations.
Our group was particularly interested in discussing the Four Loves in Family Law discussed in The Collaborative Review, by Kimberly Stamatelos, JD.: Eros, Storge, Phileo and Agape. People really identified with the concept of Agape, the idea that Agape flows from our passion for the well-being of others. This concept seemed to help us all move past the ideas of sexuality, intimacy and friendship. Agape allows us to look at love in the Collaborative process as “involving deep listening, empathy, compassion, minimizing blame and encouraging collaboration.”
We also discussed why letting go of anger is probably more relevant for clients in the middle of a divorce, rather than forgiveness. I have published a book on the consequences of premature forgiveness in the case of sexual abuse. However, I have found that the same principles apply to divorce. Most are not ready to forgive their partners. But, they can still learn to behave respectfully towards each other, especially if children are involved. Our hope was and is that clients can learn to let go of their anger and move on with their lives.
We discussed the importance of being authentic and helping clients remember that before their divorce, there was love, and encouraging them to use that foundation to help them co-parent their children. We looked at how to love and accept clients with rigid religious beliefs and questioned whether or not loving our clients can be an impediment in our work. In fact, many found that rigid religious beliefs made the process of divorce more difficult for both clients and professionals.
We ended with a discussion of self-care when working in this field which can involve a fair amount of trauma. Psychologists were more comfortable recognizing the traumatizing effects on the professional working in these difficult situations. We have been trained to note our own burnout and hopefully make attempts to stay healthy. We explored ways that we each find time to relax and let go of the stress of our work. People identified hobbies such as golf, knitting, gardening, traveling and peer group support as ways to maintain our own well-being and avoiding burn-out.
Communication is at the core of all we do. We recognized that if couples could communicate better, they might never be sitting in our offices getting divorced. We also recognized that the professionals have an opportunity, and in fact, an obligation to model good communication, cooperation and compromise. People rotating through this room raised the following issues:
Connecticut Collaborative Divorce Group 2015 Retreat… (continued) 10
1) What is an apology? Are apologies helpful in the Collaborative process? When and how do you know it is meaningful? Is an apology necessary for forgiveness?
2) How do you work with anger and control issues in the room? How can we reshape the communications through listening and feedback to clients?
3) How can we utilize three-way meetings with the lawyer, mental health professional and client to resolve highly-charged emotional issues?
4) How do we take the power away from clients who dominate the Collaborative process with their emotions?
5) How do lawyers communicate with each other, both in and outside the meetings?
6) We need to recognize that communication occurs through body language as well as just words. As professionals, we must be prepared to acknowledge all forms of communication.
7) We must be able to set limits on behaviors in order to promote respectful communication.
8) Communication in the Collaborative process is about helping a family move from one point to another — reconfiguring the family.
The group also identified a list of provocative words to ponder — power, apology, surrender, withdrawal, escape, manipulate, honesty, voice tone, phrasing, questioning, clarifying, compassion.
As a result of the discussion, several ideas emerged as being particularly relevant. Many felt that it was extremely helpful to have the coach manage the meeting and maintain the focus of the group. One-on-one meetings with the coach were found to be very helpful, especially before any five-way meetings begin. This allows the coach to assess what types of emotional issues are likely to arise, which may possibly sabotage the process. I always meet with the clients individually and ask what their hot buttons are. I want to know what their partner may do that will trigger them emotionally and how they are likely to respond; i.e. shut down, cry, yell, etc. Then we talk about what techniques I might use to help them regain control, such as note that they have shut down and ask what is going on for them, take a break, etc. It was also felt that if the meeting seemed to be getting very emotional, taking a break with the attorney, client and coach could be helpful. This technique also allows the client to discuss possible options for compromise in a less pressured situation.
The group felt it was important for the professionals to use language that deflates the power (struggle) and changes the focus to the emotions of the person who is trying to control or manipulate the situation. This technique allows us to look at what is actually driving the behavior. When fear and anxiety are identified, the negative energy can often be discharged.
This topic raised some fascinating issues. Initially, people commented that they were worried they would have to spend lots of time and money buying new furniture. While all agreed that good lighting and comfortable seating were important, the group began to explore a much broader definition of ‘environment’. They felt that it was actually up to the professionals to set the tone of the room by the tone of their voices and their body language. They looked at environment in terms of energy, not objects. They also discussed the importance of cultural awareness regarding things such as eye contact. In some cultures, good eye contact is a sign of respect and honesty. In other cultures, direct eye contact is inappropriate in this type of setting.
Food was another interesting topic. Overall, the participants were divided over whether or not to have snacks. Some felt that this is a professional meeting and that food was inappropriate. Many felt that the food was more often eaten by the professionals than the clients. One financial planner in our group routinely bakes chocolate chip cookies in the office as we all arrive for meetings. Personally, I’ve never heard anyone, professional or client, complain about the cookies! But, the question arose in terms of protocol – who eats the first cookie or unwraps the first piece of candy? Clearly, environment is not just about expensive interior design. Comfort, safety and respect are all major parts of the physical space.
After ninety minutes, the groups reassembled on the sun porch to share the highlights of these discussions. We shared chocolates across the table and ended the day with a few bottles of wine. We had reserved the inn until 5:00 p.m. A number of people were not ready for the day
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to end so a smaller group went to a nearby restaurant to continue talking and building the connections that strengthen any working group. It was a wonderful day, and we are all grateful to IACP for setting the stage to explore the idea of love and forgiveness in divorce.
Connecticut Collaborative Divorce Group 2015 Retreat… (continued)
Elaine Ducharme is a board certified clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at University of Hartford, who has been in private practice for over 25 years. She has specialized in treatment of trauma and abuse and is the author of Must I Turn the Other Cheek, a book about the consequences of premature forgiveness in survivors of sexual abuse and assessment and treatment of Dissociative Identity Disorder. Her work as a neutral coach in Collaborative divorce has become a passion as she helps families avoid as much trauma as possible and navigate the process of divorce with dignity.