Saturday, October 1, 2011

You Don't Have to be Crazy to Benefit from the Mental Health Professional

Collaborative lawyers in Tarrant County, Texas will almost always insist on using a neutral mental health professional (MHP) in a major role in a Collaborative Law case here. Although the Collaborative Law statute doesn't require the use of an MHP, there are few, if any, cases started in Tarrant County that don't include an MHP. If you are considering whether to try the process as a settlement method, you might want to know why we insist on bringing in another professional.

At first, using the therapist may just seem like an unnecessary additional cost for the clients to bear. When we started doing Collaborative cases 10 years ago, we didn't automatically bring in the counselor at the beginning. We sometimes brought one in during the process if things started to fall apart and the parties were threatening to quit. A therapist at that point sometimes was successful in helping us reach an agreement, but sometimes things were too far gone to be fixed. The lesson became clear: the neutral MHP was very helpful, especially if we brought them in early.

Here are some specific reasons why mental health professionals have become integral to the Collaborative Law process:

1. MHPs can help the parties change perspectives during the case. When the spouses are dealing with kid issues, they need to relate to each other as adult parents who are on the same team. When they are dealing with property division issues, they are in the roles of spouses -- husbands and wives -- which is different from parents. Co-parenting is an important goal for most well-intentioned parents, and an MHP can help spouses switch gears and get into a co-parenting mode when they discuss child support, visitation and other child-related issues. Husbands and wives still need to be cooperative in dealing with property division issues, but it is a different point of view.

2. MHPs can help the parties learn to listen better. That is a very valuable skill that will improve communication and can lead to better cooperation. Everyone feels better if they know they are being heard by others. Too often, spouses going through a divorce engage in arguments without seriously listening to each other. A neutral therapist can help train the parties to improve their listening skills and that may help the parties have a better relationship post-divorce.

3. MHPs can help the parties learn to communicate better. Word choice is an under-appreciated element of effective communication. With some guidance from a neutral MHP, a party can become a more effective negotiator by avoiding saying some things that will usually trigger an angry response from their spouse. Therapists can often help the parties recognize and avoid emotionally-laden words and phrases. Just avoiding using the word "you" and replacing it with an "I" statement (for example: saying "I feel insecure when I don't get to see the financial records...." instead of "You never let me see the bank statements" ) effectively conveys the message without attacking the spouse.

4. MHPs help the parties manage their emotions. With skills that attorneys don't ordinarily possess, therapists can often recognize anger, fear and other emotions in time to deal with them before they derail the process. As effective as Collaborative Law is, the process is still often very emotional and difficult. MHPs often meet or talk with the parties between joint meetings and can help defuse small problems before they become big issues.

5. MHPs observe and are alert to developing problems at joint meetings. They keep the peace and keep the parties from becoming upset at meetings. With a counselor watching and listening to the parties, we can quickly intervene and stop escalating bad behaviors, such as anger, offensive body language or controlling actions or statements. The MHPs help the parties keep the high ground and not fall into old patterns of arguments that can be very destructive.

Having a neutral mental health professional active from the beginning of the case helps the parties be prepared for problems, avoid problems and react appropriately to difficult and stressful situations. Rather than being considered just an additional expense, MHPs are usually a lifesaver for the process, an excellent investment in reaching an agreement and a better post-divorce relationship.

Don't be surprised if your Collaborative divorce lawyer in Fort Worth or Tarrant County insists on working with a therapist. You would be crazy to disregard that advice.

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