Courtesy of The Staff at Collaborative Divorce New Hampshire
I’ll never forget the day in college when I came home from working two jobs to find my mother hysterically crying after finding divorce papers in my father’s briefcase. My father hadn’t told her that he had met with lawyers and the revelation blindsided her, especially when she found out that my older sister had known about it and not said anything. That day began several years of litigation that would disrupt not only the lives of my parents, but my life as well.
Contrary to the early promises of both of my parents not to “put me in the middle” of their divorce, that is often exactly where I found myself. For a family of modest means, litigation was expensive, but that didn’t stop it from taking over our lives. Even the smallest disputes involved a back-and-forth between my parents and their zealous lawyers with the lawyers seemingly all too eager to engage in those fights. For example, one parent was so upset that the other had used the marital home’s laundry machine while the house was being prepared for sale that they caused emails and phone calls between the lawyers that resulted in hundreds of dollars in legal fees for each side to discuss it. When my parents wanted to avoid such expensive conflict resolution, they often turned to me to act as an intermediary, especially when there was miscommunication between them. It put a lot of pressure on me and strained my relationship with my parents, both of whom were often unsure of what to tell me about the case or if they could trust me. The lack of trust led to a question about a tax return and my father giving me money. I had paid for my own tuition in college as a dependent of my parents and as a result my parents had received the American Opportunity Tax Credit for my education expenses. My father handled the finances and reasoned that, because my parents only received the credit because of me having paid tuition, that he should give the tax credit money to me. My mother knew this, but her lawyer did not, and would not, simply believe her for fear that my father was trying to hide the money. Instead of simply explaining the situation and moving on, I had to write an affidavit explaining the situation to satisfy the attorneys. Similarly, I paid a medical bill for my mother because she did not have the funds easily accessible when needed because of miscommunication with my father. Again, the lawyers needed documentation to show that I was owed money from my parents to repay the $1,000.00 I had put out for the bill and could not simply take the word of my parents about it. The attorney’s fees over these issues ended up being more than the issues themselves were worth, much to the frustration of my parents. Yet, it seemed that there was no alternative and that these pain points were an inevitable part of the divorce process.
For me, the worst part was that it felt as if I was not considered during the divorce process because adult children are not a legal obligation, but just an afterthought to the lawyers. Apparently at his lawyer’s suggestion, my father secured a one-bedroom apartment for my mother in hopes that she would leave the marital home, a four-bedroom house, and let him prepare it for sale. However, my mother was not consulted about this and refused to move into the one-bedroom when she was suddenly told about the apartment and provided the keys. Thereafter, after the apartment had been vacant for months, my father arrived in a moving truck one Saturday morning to pick up his things. However, he also told me, for the first time, to pack my stuff too because he unilaterally decided that I was going with him. Barely 18, I felt like I didn’t have a choice but to listen to him as he was the breadwinner of the house, and I was not sure how long my mother and I could stay in the house. I quickly packed my things to move into the one-bedroom with my father. It was a stressful and rushed decision that didn’t make sense and disrupted my life. I struggled with sharing a bedroom with my father for months while my mother, just 10 minutes away, was alone in the spacious house before it was sold. The deteriorating communication between my parents made visits to my mother unpleasant and antagonistic. My feelings and needs seemed left to the side while my parents fought each other and struggled to communicate. Overall, the whole divorce process seemed unnecessarily slow, complicated, and hurtful. I knew there had to be a better way.
My experience with my parents’ divorce led me to seek out and discover the collaborative divorce process. When I learned of New Hampshire’s collaborative divorce process, which includes a financial neutral and a mental health professional, I could instantly see the wisdom in the collaborative approach. My mother had struggled with the emotional aspect of the divorce, which I heard stalled negotiations and mediations on several occasions. I think that having a mental health professional to guide her through the process would have made things easier on her and facilitated the process to make discussions on how to more forward more productive. Similarly, a financial neutral would probably have helped my parents make better choices for the future to make sure that they were each able to make things work after the divorce and consider if and how to continue to support me. Most of all, I also knew that my parents would have benefitted, and probably saved a lot of money and aggravation, from talking with each other and their attorneys openly to find solutions that worked for everyone. My parents could get along fine on their own to discuss things, but the prospect of a final trial and the litigation process overshadowed that and hindered efforts to find the best solutions for all involved. Now that I have had the opportunity to see the collaborative divorce process at work, I can see that people getting divorced can achieve much better outcomes by working together with a team of knowledgable and supportive professionals who all want the best for everyone, including adult children. My parents’ lawyers did not tell them about collaborative divorce, but had they known, I think they could have had a more amicable and fair divorce that would have been better for them as well as for my sister and me in the long run. My hope for the future is that more couples will be made aware of collaborative divorce and choose the collaborative approach instead of dragging themselves, and any children, through adversarial litigation.