Getting the Picture

"It is hard to see the picture when you're inside the frame."

A friend once told me her method for losing the "blues": "Look at your life as a picture frame. If you are the only one in the frame, then you will always feel dissatisfied. Step outside the frame; fill it with other people, and the picture will change. You will be happier then."

It's true: Even though it's important to love oneself, there is not much satisfaction in omphaloskepsis (examining one's own navel)! Self examination is good too; but self absorption can lead to a kind of psychological hypochondria that paralyzes the soul. That's why sometimes the best way to heal the Self is to help someone else.

Shifting the focus away from our own bottled up, negative emotions to help another with their challenges can be a pathway out of our own grief. For example, Ann Landers used to advise young people to overcome shyness at a dance by turning the focus away from their own fears to others: To defeat one's own shyness, turn away from it! Reach out! Help someone else have fun! The enemy will evaporate.

Every one of us, no matter how strong we are, carries unresolved hurts from the past. I have learned that one way to heal my own past is by helping others avoid some of the pains I still sometimes feel. I have applied that principle to my professional life.

As a lawyer, I practice collaborative law in an adversarial system. For my divorce clients, a collaborative divorce is a way of separating from the life partner with whom they have lived, while preserving their position of honor and respect wherever it's possible to do so. Of course, the legal objective is the same—to divorce; to divide, and move on. At the same time, that goal is pursued within a framework of continuity, with due respect to the client's own history with the other spouse.

Everyone gets married for a reason, yet when they divorce, it is easy to forget those initial positive feelings. By preserving the respect that brought the parties together in the first place, people preserve respect for their own past, and diminish the load of regret that accompanies almost every divorce. By keeping respect in the equation, it's often possible to preserve the lines of communication that are essential to the ongoing tasks of parenting and financial management which remain after a divorce.

It is possible for couples to end their relationship as it began --with love. Much of the anger, mistrust, and expenses that come about in divorce are a product of the adversary process. They are exacerbated by the fear associated with going to court, rather than just a reflection of the parties' actual feelings towards each other.

Like most really great ideas, a collaborative divorce is remarkably simple. Two people hire like minded lawyers to negotiate a resolution for them with a view to settlement without going to court. This whole process can be much less expensive than the traditional adversarial approach. It is always less costly emotionally.

In an adversarial divorce, the lawyers talks only to their own clients, then the clients sit mute and uninvolved while the lawyers "duke it out." In a collaborative divorce, the four participants come together at the beginning of the case and read a participation agreement aloud. The parties understand and agree that the lawyers will represent them for settlement purposes only. Each states an intention of not going to court, and promises to be honest in providing information to the other. All the participants talk together at the settlement meetings (called "four-ways").

Each spouse has a divorce coach available to them, to help them stay focused on the issues and communicate proactively when the going gets tough. If the parties don't need them, the coaches don't get involved.

Other resources available to the couple may include a neutral financial adviser who takes the asset information and comes up with different proposals to divide property for the highest good of all concerned. For perhaps the first time in the couple's life, they can see what their choice will look like twenty years down the road. This can be very important to a spouse who has not been in the work force for many years; who needs to make choices like whether to stay in a large house and give up monetary benefits for the privilege. It also helps the couple decide the most tax-wise division.

Many times, parents get caught up in emotional or financial battles and don't even realize the trauma they are causing their children. One of the best features of a collaborative divorce is that the parties sometimes select a therapist who talks to the kids and advocates for their best interest to both parties. This is unheard-of in the traditional adversarial system, but it's an absolutely brilliant way to minimize the negative impact of divorce on children.

Through a regular series of meetings the divorcing couple works out all the terms of the final settlement. The clients are always in the driver's seat. They never have to sit passively, looking bewildered as their lawyers engage in ego battles with each other.

If you are considering divorce, or representing someone who is, I hope this information touches your heart. Although it is a new approach, collaborative law is sweeping the country and may become the norm in divorce cases. This is incredibly important in a country where 53% of first marriages, 60% of second marriages, and 90% of third marriages end in divorce. To me, this approach may be the difference between people entering into a new relationship that works, and choosing another one that doesn't. It's a lot easier to move forward if you're not dragging along a lot of baggage! It could be the difference between a vast generation of dysfunctional kids with no clue of what a good relationship is, and kids who see parents that, though divorced, treat each other honorably.

For my part, every time I help a couple dissolve their marriage in a loving, peaceful way, it heals the child in me that was hurt by my own parents' bitter divorce. As we learn new ways of being and doing, we become more confident and loving people. We are able to release the old ways that don't work, and learn new ones that do. Collaborative law helps us do that, with more guidance and support than we may have at any other time in our life.

In his book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, Deepak Chopra advises us to "Give what you want to receive." Do you want more love in your life? Then give love to everyone involved as you go through the divorce process. Send it out, and it will come back. It's the simple law of cause and effect.

Remember my friend's example of the picture frame. A divorce involves not only the couple but also their children and all the relatives who start taking sides. If you think only of you in this moment, you will feel wretched and scared. If instead you fill your picture frame with your whole family, and behave in a way that serves you all, you find yourself feeling much happier and peaceful.

Mindy L. Hitchcock