Friday, February 1, 2008

I'm Not Crazy -- Why Do We Need a Therapist?

Collaborative Law divorce cases in Texas more and more are relying on a single neutral mental health professional (MHP) and a single neutral financial professional (FP) to assist the attorneys and parties. Some people resist bringing in the MHPeither because they think the cost will be too great or because they don't think they will need the help. I'll deal with the cost issue in more detail in a separate post, but now I would like to discuss the value an MHP brings to the process.

Many parties to a divorce (or other Collaborative case) think they aren't "crazy", so they don't need to use a therapist. Ignoring, for now, the fact that most people are not really able to objectively diagnose themselves, craziness is not really the rationale for using an MHP in the process. The MHP does not do "therapy" with the parties or try to cure problems. The therapist generally works more as a "coach" for the parties to help them deal with a difficult and stressful situation and still be able to function effectively.

The following are my Top 5 Reasons for using a Mental Health Professional in a Collaborative case:

5. The MHP can help maintain order at meetings. At the first joint meeting, we normally agree on behavior guidelines for all to follow. While we all start out with the best of intentions, people sometimes forget the original agreements and slip into old patterns of arguing. That's when the MHP can step in and gently correct the behavior and help us get back on track. Even with parties who seemingly get along very well, it is easy for a session to degenerate to an argument unless there is expert help to intervene.

4. The MHP is much better than most attorneys at observing and interpreting body language and can help head off small problems before they get bigger. I had a case where the MHP became aware that one party's feelings were hurt by something that was said and the attorneys were completely unaware of it. The MHP was able to stop us so we could address the party's concerns and then get back to the discussion on finances. In another case, the MHP detected that one party was becoming nervous and upset. The MHP correctly figured out the party felt that her spouse was being domineering and she felt she was not being heard. We were able to provide reassurance by changing the way the discussion was proceeding. Because the MHP talks with the parties before and after the joint meetings, the MHP is alert to potential problems and can step in early to provide help.

3. One of the most beneficial things an MHP does is help keep both parties focused on the important goals for each of them. Even with good intentions, one or both parties will often get off subject and start discussing topics that don't really help them get to final agreements on the primary issues. An MHP can easily and nicely help the parties to remain focused on the important goals they identified at the outset.

2. The neutral perspective of the MHP is helpful in providing feedback to both parties. The MHP is perceived as impartial, so criticisms and suggestions are more easily received by the parties. Sometimes, the parties like to run ideas by the MHP for a reaction and analysis. Having a neutral expert is really helpful to the parties when discussing the merits of different ideas.

1. A divorce or other family law dispute really is a stressful situation and the MHP helps both parties deal with the stress. The MHP will usually meet with both parties before the first joint meeting and discuss how the process works as well as the background facts of the case. The MHP will usually talk with the parties after each joint meeting and normally attends all joint meetings. Each party gets well prepared and knows generally what to expect at the meetings. In addition, during meetings, the MHP is there to reassure both parties and maintain an atmosphere that is respectful and safe. The parties in a Collaborative divorce are not free from stress, but they are much better able to handle it and usually face smaller doses of it than they would in a traditional litigated divorce.

These are some of the main reasons why it is really helpful to have a mental health professional help with each Collaborative case. In the end, the parties have always (in my cases) appreciated the work of the MHP. In my experience, there is no doubt that an MHP increases the likelihood of a successful outcome for the case. You would almost be crazy to not want to use one. Seriously, you should discuss with your Collaborative attorney whether to bring an MHP into the case. If you do bring in one, I'm sure you'll see the benefit.

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