By Alan Freed
When I was growing up in the ‘50s, my mother would read me fairytales with the predictable, yet satisfying ending, “…and they all lived happily ever after.” To a four-year-old, “ever after” has no meaning, so the concept of living happily seemed like the fulfillment of everyone’s dreams.
Those childhood stories never included the possibility of divorce, but no adult in our culture can think about marriage without considering the real possibility that the relationship may not work out as planned, and that the “ever after” part of the ending may be just a tad overstated.
What happens when living happily together becomes no longer achievable? Is it possible to envision a post-marriage life that includes a happy, or at least a low-conflict relationship with your former spouse? The answer to that question may depend upon how the couple goes through the divorce process.
While starting a marriage may happen anywhere from a banquet hall to a church to a tropical beach, ending a marriage always happens in court. It’s how the couple gets to court that can make all the difference.
Thanks to TV and movies, Americans think of divorces being tried in courtrooms by stern and impassive judges, with lawyers engaging in blistering cross-examinations and husbands and wives reduced to tears. Most divorcing couples, however, never see the inside of a courtroom since the vast majority of divorces are settled through negotiations.
Many unhappy couples are unaware of some alternatives to judge-tried divorce, options that trade finding fault and assessing blame for a focus on the family’s future, with particular emphasis on maintaining a good co-parenting relationship. The children, who have no choice in their parents’ breakup, have to live with the consequences. If the parents end their marriage in anger and bitterness, it can take years for them to heal, and the kids can get caught up in their parents’ mutual antipathy, even when well-intentioned parents do their best to shield their offspring. Alternatives to the traditional divorce process can alleviate some of the angst felt by the parents, and at the same time, help the children feel more supported in this transition.
I’ve spent the bulk of my career concentrating on problem-solving approaches to divorce, helping couples begin the healing process while they go through their divorce. This way they can learn new ways of relating to each other as co-parents, even when their intimate partnership has been dissolved. Here are two options:
- Mediation – a process in which the couple negotiates their divorce settlement assisted by a trained, impartial third party who assists them in focusing on the needs of their family, rather than on the problems that led to the divorce
- Collaborative Divorce – in which a team of four professionals, trained in law, mental health, and financial issues, supports the couple through interest-based negotiation that allows them to plan for a successful post-marital life
Divorce is almost always emotional and difficult, but it need not end in lifelong unhappiness. Selecting a divorce process that focuses on the future can provide the spouses and their children the chance at an “ever after” that includes more “happily” than they might have imagined.