Sometimes, people start to wonder what they've gotten themselves into. They go in to hire an attorney to do a Collaborative Divorce and they end up with a lawyer and a shared therapist and shared financial advisor.
So, why should they feel good about working with a neutral mental health professional (MHP)? Here are some of the benefits:
Communication Facilitator. The MHP helps the parties be comfortable in meetings. Since the Collaborative process relies heavily on getting both parties to express their feelings, wants and needs, it is important to have someone who is trained in helping people express themselves effectively.
Maintaining Order. An MHP acts like a discussion traffic cop, if necessary. That means that the MHP not only draws out information from the parties, but helps regulate the behavior of the parties, and even the attorneys, if needed. Family law issues are very personal and emotional. Attorneys are not trained to be able to recognize emotional issues and responses, much less manage them, but the mental health professional is. I have had many situations where we took a "time out" in a joint meeting at the insistence of the MHP to cool things down or deal with some emotional issues that were building up that us attorneys weren't noticing. Our meetings were literally saved by the MHP being able to intervene and help everyone.
Improving Listening. People take it for granted that they know how to listen to others, but lack of listening is actually one of the biggest complaints in marriages. MHPs are constantly helping parties become better listeners. Part of that effort is helping people speak appropriately and part is making sure that messages are being heard correctly. Having a neutral expert help with that develops an extremely beneficial skill which people can take away from the process.
Coaching. While an MHP does not get involved in therapy during the Collaborative process, he or she can help the parties deal with the pressures and stresses of going through a legal process. As a side benefit, I have had MHPs help me better understand my own client by explaining what's going on under the surface. Getting a divorce or dealing with other family law issues can be less daunting for both with the expert help of the neutral MHP.
Parenting Specialist. Sometimes, we bring in a separate child specialist to help the parties develop a parenting plan to take care of the children. In many cases, however, we utilize the MHP who generally has considerable experience in helping to resolving kid issues. They can help the parties work out living arrangements, shared possession schedules, support issues, how to share the powers of parents and such hot-button issues as managing extra-curricular activities and expenses and how and when to tell the children about new romantic relationships of the parents. Much of the preliminary work on those issues can be handled off-line.
Caveat 1: The above is based on how we work with mental health professionals in Texas. Other states and jurisdictions work with MHPs in different ways. No way is automatically better than all others. Each area tends to develop their own approaches, so just be sure to get information that relates to your jurisdiction.
Caveat 2: Because of my experience, I will generally not handle a Collaborative case without a neutral mental health professional. That is true with many other Collaborative attorneys in my area.