By Suzanne C. Doherty, Ph.D.

Although the rate of divorce appears to be declining, married couples with children continue, for a variety of reasons, to end their marriages. The trauma of divorce, which Dr. Lee Salk once described as “second only to death” in a child’ experience, calls into question the very foundation parents hope to provide in a loving, supportive family.

Research over many years indicates that, aside from the natural resilience of the child, the single most important factor affecting the child’s ability to weather the storm of a lifetime is the way in which the divorcing parents create an effective, co-parenting relationship outside a marital relationship. This is, of course, also the most difficult task and usually comes without a supportive structure. Indeed, the traditional adversarial process within the legal system most often leaves all parties severely wounded and parents in continued bitter conflict.

Collaborative Divorce offers an alternative, family friendly model for the dissolution of a marriage. This model is based on the premise that all members of the family need legal protection, emotional support, financial advice and that the divorcing couple needs to be “in charge” of the divorce process.

In Collaborative Divorce, the couple assembles (from among professionals trained in this model) a team to include two attorneys, two mental health coaches, a financial specialist, and a child specialist to guide and support the couple through the divorce process.

The attorneys provide each adult with information about his/her legal rights and responsibilities and review the final agreement to make sure all the legal “i”s are dotted and “t”s crossed. The mental health coaches help each adult client identify and manage his/her emotions during this very difficult life event. (So often it is the primary emotional processes of grief and anger that sabotage parents’ abilities to develop a functional co-parenting relationship.) The mental heath coaches also help clients build effective communication skills with which to move through the divorce process. The financial specialist gathers appropriate information and assists the couple in developing a property settlement. The child specialist serves—literally and figuratively—as the voice(s) of the child(ren) during the divorce process.

The team works together—sharing information and facilitating the process through multiple meetings with various combinations of client and professionals. A unique feature of Collaborative Divorce is that, once a team is assembled and contracted by the divorcing couple, ALL professional members commit to never participate in an adversarial divorce process should the couple decide to end this collaborative process.

The team meets until the client couple develops a final agreement acceptable by all parties. The team continues to be available to the couple in the months and even years after the divorce is final.

Assembling a team of professionals to facilitate the collaborative process may seem like an expensive alternative to the usual way of doing things. Practitioners of the model, however, estimate that the actual cost of Collaborative Divorce is 50 to 60% of the cost of the traditional adversarial process BEFORE the case goes to court.

More important, the children in this process witness their parents managing a stressful life event with emotional maturity and are, therefore, themselves less stressed. The adults in the process negotiate a traumatic life event with dignity and, at the end, an intact sense of self respect.

Finally, the traditional adversarial process “buys a divorce.” Collaborative Divorce, on the other hand, offers the opportunity for a couple to learn emotional regulation and communication skills necessary to maintain an effective co-parenting relationship long past the time of the divorce. Collaborative Divorce is an INVESTMENT in the future.


For more information:
The International Association of Collaborative Divorce,

Suzanne Doherty is a trained Collaborative Divorce Mental Health Coach and Child Specialist and former Counselor at the Center for Pastoral Counseling of Virginia.