Collaborative Practice Marin
“Mom and Dad, Thank You for How you Did Your Divorce.”

My adult son said this to me thirty years after his father and I were divorced.  He went on to say, “I have strengths now that I don’t think I would have except for the way you and Dad did your divorce.” 

I was astonished when my son said this to me.  Jim is now the father of four children and works with children and young adults as the director of a summer camp for kids.   When his father and I were separating Jim was 14 years old and his brother was 11 years old.  During our separation and divorce and afterward his father and I just wanted to make sure our kids would be okay – we made all of our joint decisions based upon what we thought would be in their best interests.  It never occurred to me that our children might develop strengths and resilience as a result of our separation and divorce.

Jim described for me how he experienced our separation and divorce: “For one thing, we always knew we would never lose a parent.  We never heard you and Dad arguing, and neither of you ever said anything bad about the other.  And then, by moving between Dad’s house and Mom’s house on a regular schedule every week, I developed the ability to be completely where I am when I am there.”   

 Jim went on to share with me how, when he went away to college, his experience living at both Mom’s house and Dad’s house gave him the insight and resilience to settle into his dorm room and be completely there. He saw other students sometimes struggle dealing with this first experience of living away from home – a struggle that he didn’t have. He added that his ability to be completely where he is when he is there has been a strength that he has appreciated for a long time. 

For me, this conversation with my son clarified for me that how parents conduct themselves during and after separation and divorce has a significant impact on their children and, interestingly, can help their children develop strengths and resilience along the way.  Life is full of challenges and giving our children the opportunity to face and conquer age-appropriate challenges (divorce offers many such challenges) can give them the gift of developing lifelong strengths and resilience. 

Edith Kelly Politis is an attorney and mediator in Marin County. More information in her bio on the "Find A Professional" page. 

Photo credit: Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Escaping the Minefield of Divorce: Five Practical Steps to a Peace Agreement

Escaping the Minefield of Divorce: Five Practical Steps to a Peace Agreement

Divorce can be a minefield.  An emotional explosion that occurs can cause grave injuries and lasting scars.  How can you avoid the dangers of this minefield?  Using the metaphor of a minefield, let’s look at how you can prevent the war damage and move off the battleground and into the peace room.

Why War Words in the Language of Divorce?

The language of divorce is often the language of war: battles, winners and losers, custody, a “broken home,” damage, destruction, conflict and failure.  Being in an adversarial divorce is like being on the front lines of a battlefield with weapons that can hurt and harm for many years, if not a lifetime. But the enemy opposing you is the person you once loved and with whom you perhaps made children.  And between you stand your children, at risk of being caught or lost in the crossfire.  You and your spouse both love your children, but in a war they are caught in the middle with no protection. While your anger might be directed at your soon-to-be-ex, as in all wars there are innocent victims.

Five Steps out of the Minefield

So how can you steer clear of the dangerous mines in the divorce minefield?  There are tactics to help you move from seeking “victory” in the war room (or the court room) to a truce at the negotiating table and a peaceful ending of the conflict.  It starts with learning about how things can go wrong, and developing new skills to avoid the escalations.  The following strategies will help you avoid the explosions that can derail your divorce process, increase your costs, and damage your children.

  1. Look at the History of your Marriage

First, the history of your marriage can help you predict where things could go badly in a divorce.  How did you and your spouse handle conflict or make decisions in the past?  Did you have arguments that became hostile, demeaning, or fights that led to impasse?  Did you feel you needed to avoid difficult discussions or “duck and cover”?  Did you or your spouse withdraw into “radio silence”?  Did you feel you had to surrender without being heard?  Did your spouse feel that you “always called all the shots”?  Did you quarrel most often about money, the children, parenting, or something else? These same issues will likely be the potential mines in your divorce negotiations. As someone once said, “A divorce is like a marriage, only more so.” This history will help you anticipate the difficult territory that you will be traversing, topics that could trigger you or your spouse, and how you or your spouse might behave when triggered.  Learning new ways to communicate, negotiate, problem-solve, compromise, and resolve the inevitable difficult decisions that lie ahead will be well rewarded in time, money, and a future cooperative relationship.  This is especially important if you have children. 

2. Be Alert to Warning Signs

Second, be alert to warning signs that indicate potentially explosive issues. In a minefield there may be clear signs of danger or more subtle indications of disturbances. Pay attention to what your spouse is saying and watch his or her body language and tone. Listen carefully to track what your spouse is saying. You might ask questions rather than make assumptions. Monitor your own tone of voice and body language. Couples often speak in a “code” that outsiders are unaware of, and as a result you will probably sense that you are in or near unsafe territory before anyone else notices it.  One client told me that she would know that her husband was steaming mad when he looked down, refused eye contact, and clenched his jaw. Asked how one would know that she might erupt, she said she would just stop talking and shut down.

3. If Triggered, “Hit the Deck”

Third, stop! If the explosion is imminent or has already started, “hit the deck.” Don’t engage, and don’t return fire. A hasty response will probably add fuel to the fire and increase the toxicity of the interaction. Breathe deeply for a few minutes, and think carefully about your next step. Contain your impulse to react, and move forward slowly and thoughtfully.  If you are facing your spouse at a mediation or settlement conference and sense that either of you is getting extremely agitated, take three deep breaths.  Breathe deeply into your belly.  Get a drink of water. Take a short walk outside.  Think of a beautiful, peaceful scene in nature. Check your pulse and don’t start the discussions again until your pulse has slowed. Arguing is not only pointless and unhealthy, it is also expensive.

4. Get Help and Support

Fourth, warn your helpers.  Let your coach, therapist, attorney or mediator know that you sense danger.  If either of you is escalating, disengage and ask for help or guidance. Talk with your attorney, therapist, or other helper about what triggered you, and what you would like your spouse to understand. If you realize that your spouse has been triggered, try to understand what triggered her.  If you feel it is warranted, offer an apology or recognition of where you may have said something hurtful. Let your helpers know when you are discussing an emotional and problematic issue, and talk through the various options with people you trust. Get the help, support and information you need to stay in a safe zone.

5. Don’t Touch that Landmine!

Fifth, just as you would not pick up a landmine, don’t take the bait tossed out by your spouse. Monitor yourself if you are tempted to toss out your own bait. If necessary, back track or call a break, and regroup so as to navigate safely through the most sensitive or explosive issues.  You may need to end and reschedule the discussion or meeting in order to consult with your helpers, calm down, and access your supporters.  One client brought a friend to a difficult meeting so that he could help the husband stay calm.  He was also able to help the husband interpret what was being discussed without the emotions interfering with his ability to take in the information.

Divorce Need not be a War

In the book, Crucial Conversations, the authors (Switzler, Grenny, and McMillan) suggest asking yourself:

  • What do I really want for myself?
  • What do I really want for others?
  • What do I really want for the relationship?
  • How would I behave if I really wanted these results?

If you really want what is best for the children and for yourself, consider leaving the minefield. Find a way to develop a support system that doesn’t encourage anger and retribution. Use your team to help you make appropriate decisions. And look for ways to achieve your goals without the need to hurt the other person.   A friend was going through a divorce and he adopted the logic of the 1960’s anti-war slogan, “What if they threw a war and nobody came.”

Divorce does not have to be a war. Divorce can be a problem-solving restructuring of your family that will allow you and your soon-to-be ex to heal and move on. It lays the foundation for a healthy co-parenting relationship post-divorce.  Shifting from a war model to a truce and peace agreement starts by changing the words we use to talk about divorce. We can talk about sharing time with the children (“custody” is for prisoners, not children), or developing a peace treaty (a parenting plan), and negotiating to a resolution that is a win-win for the entire family through mediation or collaborative divorce.


Ann Buscho, Ph.D. is a collaborative divorce coach, writer and psychologist in Marin County.

This article was originally published in Fatherly Magazine, at www.fatherly.com

Photo credit: Kim Dae Jeung from Pexels 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in Divorce Often lurking under the surface of what appear to be strictly legal or financial questions are
issues that can be considerably more important than money to the people involved: questions of
identity, of saving face, of fighting for one’s honor or one’s dignity, of finding one’s voice and
one’s empowerment, of saying no to abuse, or neglect, or dishonesty, of holding onto one’s own
sense of self, of fighting to be free to be who one truly is, and so on. These more hidden issues,
that go to the heart of who we believe we are and of what really matters most to us, are the ones
that get people really worked up, even to the point of their seemingly transforming into someone
unrecognizable. We have probably all heard stories of the sane, reasonable spouse, or sibling, or
business partner, suddenly turning into Mr. or Ms. Hyde when a parent dies, when a spouse asks
for a divorce, when a business partner is underperforming, etc. Why does this happen, and how

can people best deal with it?


There are at least two things going on that can explain these phenomena. First, as Freud
explained over a century ago, people in intimate relationships tend to superimpose onto their
intimate adult relationships unconscious traces of their relationships with their earliest
caregivers. The technical term for this is “transference,” and the earlier childhood relationships
that are transferred are called “object relations.” What this boils down to is: not only do we tend
to unconsciously see our spouse or boss as our parent or older sibling, but we also tend to see
ourselves as the infant/child who was in relationship with them. And the infant we used to be
often had painful issues with these childhood figures: abuse and/or neglect; feeling unloved or
unheard or unseen or unvalued; not getting our needs met in a consistent fashion; feeling that our
caregivers’ love was conditional, or our love was rejected; and so forth. Whether these slights
were perceived accurately or not, the infant took them to be true, and felt them to be truly
traumatic and horrifically painful events. On the other end of those Olympian figures, infants
often felt small, helpless, and weak, as well as enraged, heart broken, and terrified. If these
childhood conflicts have not been worked through in therapy—and usually they have not—they
will show up in our conflicts and in our divorces. 

Under the stress of conflict, people will unconsciously act out the role of the angry, unjustly-treated three year old, and view the other person as the ogre-like parent or sibling who humiliated and hurt them. The stakes are then no
longer about who keeps the house, but about who finally gets to say no the abuse and abandonment of their forgotten childhood.

The second thing that may be going on has to do with what the infant does in response to these
early traumas: the creation of what Winnicott called a “false self.” When an infant is not greeted
and nurtured with sufficient attunement, valuation and love, it perceives this both as traumatic
and as a threat to its very being. And so, in order to protect itself from further harm, it develops
a “false” self—one that meets the needs of one’s caregivers rather than one’s own, and protects
the “true” self, which must be kept hidden and protected. 

This happens in two parts. 
First what develops is a “deficient self,” which is comprised of all the negative self-beliefs that help explain
what happened: I am unlovable, I am stupid, I am bad, I am selfish, etc. You can imagine how
painful it must be for any child to believe this about themselves. In fact, the amount of pain that
the deficient self generates is intolerable, and as a result, each child develops a “compensatory
self,” which is comprised of qualities they would like to believe about themselves: I am capable,
I am lovable, I am talented, I am kind, etc. The compensatory self becomes what Carl Jung
called the persona—the mask we show to the outer world, and behind which we hide what we
secretly continue to believe to be true about ourselves: the deficient self. As adults go through
painful separations and losses, tremendous pressure is placed on the viability of the
compensatory self, threatening to shatter it and reveal the deficient self underneath. This
pressure often shows itself during mediation, and a lot of the surprising, negative behavior that
emerges can be explained by people’s desperate attempts to keep the compensatory self intact
and keep the deficient self hidden from view.

All of this is quite complex, and usually way more than the participants themselves can deal with
given the stresses and strains of being in a divorce process with an intimate other. In order to
successfully navigate these complicated psychological structures and dynamics, the help of a
skilled mental health professional (a divorce coach) is essential. The coach can help identify
these psychological dynamics when they arise, and in compassionate, non-jargony language help
steer people out of the minefield of confusion and hurt and into the light of a clearer, more
objective understanding of what is actually happening. Freed, even temporarily, from the
projections of unresolved inner conflicts, the people are then able to see each other more or less
as who they are, rather than as roles in their respective hidden inner dramas. They can then more
easily turn their attention to the issues at hand that need to be resolved in the divorce, and
work together in a more constructive, objective, and dispassionate way.

Stephen H. Sulmeyer, J.D., Ph.D. is a mediator and divorce coach in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Photo credit: Nathan Cowley from Pexels 



Can I Save Money if I Prepare My Own Financial Disclosures in a Collaborative Divorce?

Will I save money by preparing my own legal financial disclosures in a mediated or Collaborative divorce?

I had a potential client call me yesterday to ask about my services.  She wanted to know why she and her spouse couldn’t or shouldn’t just prepare their own legal financial disclosures as she wanted to save money.

I answered that the short answer is yes, you can prepare your own and you will save money on the front end.  Costs begin to significantly add up though when both your attorney and your spouse’s attorney or your mediator begin asking questions about your disclosures because your disclosures are likely to be incomplete and not as thorough as needed to begin to negotiate the terms of your marital settlement agreement. 

You can save money and time and if you engage a neutral Certified Divorce Financial Analyst to prepare your disclosures.  Here’s why:

  • For a shorter, more informed negotiation process, you will be asked to provide all documents/information.
  • You will not pay for two financial specialists. This will help you build trust in each other and allow the process to develop smoothly.
  • You are encouraged to raise all issues that are important to you.
  • Both of you will be legally protected in the future knowing that all the pertinent information has been disclosed and the divorce judgment will not later be set aside.
  • You review and approve all reports before they go to other professionals. 
  • You can get right down to the negotiation process - the reports and disclosures are settlement ready.

A neutral financial professional can be very helpful at the table when settlement options are discussed.  This professional can suggest options you have not considered, and because the professional is neutral, the ideas may be easier to understand than ideas offered by your spouse.

Your divorce process can be expedited, less emotionally fraught, and less costly when all information is provided upfront and understood by both spouses before decisions and agreements are made.

Call a neutral Certified Divorce Financial Analyst today to see if he or she is a good fit.


Judith F, Sterling is a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst and CPA in Marin, Sonoma and SanFrancsco counties.


Photo credit: Skitterphoto from Pexels 

How to Deescalate Conflict in a Divorce


It is often said that a divorce is 95% emotional and only 5% legal.  A divorce is a life crisis, with intense emotional reactions, such as anger, fear, guilt, and despair. In the midst of this emotional soup, you must make huge decisions regarding your finances and your children.  While emotions are normal and expected, if not monitored and managed they can derail your divorce process. Arguing during a divorce is both destructive and pointless.  Anger itself is not wrong or bad, but what you do with the anger is what matters. The attack-defend model will not work. With professionals in the room, fighting is also very costly in both time and money. Here are some ideas to help you deescalate.

  1. Take your time. Rushing into and through a divorce is usually a mistake as emotions easily hijack your good judgement. Once the decision to divorce is made, take the time to digest what is happening, especially if you didn’t want the divorce. Use the time for self-care, and get emotional support from family, friends or a mental health professional. Even if you want the divorce, allow yourself and your soon-to-be ex some time to feel emotionally ready for the legal process.
  2. Speak respectfully, even if your spouse does not. Use “I statements” and avoid words like “always,” “never,” and “yes, but…” It may be difficult to avoid the triggers that lead to escalation of conflict.  Monitor your own voice and body language, speaking calmly and quietly. Avoid language of blame, criticism, threats and insults, and if you (or your spouse) find this difficult, simply call for a break.  “This isn’t a good time for us to talk about this. Let’s get back to it when we have each had some time to cool down.”
  3. Agree to treat each other with respect, even when disagreeing.  If necessary, set a boundary to end the conversation if you feel it is no longer respectful. You may need to limit your conversations by meeting in a coffee shop, or communicating by email. Never, ever bring your children into the conflict.
  4. Focus on the future. In a divorce, rehashing the same arguments that ended the marriage will be unproductive, hurtful and could lead to an impasse. If you feel that getting to the heart of the conflict will help clear the air, or strengthen your future relationship, especially if you have children, then perhaps a mental health professional can facilitate the conversation before you get into legal discussions.
  5. Listen to your spouse with an open heart and curiosity. Focus on one thing at a time; don’t bring other issues into the discussion. People tend to escalate when they don’t feel heard. Listening to your spouse does not mean you agree with what your spouse is saying. Ask questions to clarify issues and convey your interest. Listening to understand and reflect back what you understand (in a non-judgmental way) will help your spouse deescalate. People shout and repeat themselves when they don’t feel heard. Let your spouse know that you are listening attentively, even if you don’t agree with what he/she is saying. Understanding is not the same as agreeing.
  6. Conflict often escalates when one’s wants or needs are not being met.  Ask yourself, “What do I really want here?  What do I need?”  “What does my spouse want, and need?” When you are able to say what you want and need, and are able to reflect your understanding of what your partner wants and needs, you may find common ground and be able to develop win-win solutions. This may require you to think through your priorities, what really matters to you, and where there is room for compromise.
  7. Take ownership of your part in the conflict, and apologize if necessary. “I’m sorry you feel that way” is not an apology. A non-defensive apology will deescalate a conflict quickly. You may not have intended to hurt, insult, or goad your partner, but if your partner feels that way, the conflict will grow worse. A good apology conveys your awareness of what you did that crossed a line, and how it affected your spouse. A real apology expresses genuine remorse, and a sincere commitment to change the behavior that offended or hurt your spouse.
  8. Compromise when you can. This builds goodwill and increases trust. Remember what is most important and focus on those things.
  9. Breathe.  Conflict raises your fight-flight reactions, depriving your brain’s frontal lobes of the oxygen needed to think rationally and clearly.  Keep breathing and notice that your body will calm down, your pulse will slow, and your muscles will relax.

Divorce is a painful process. There are many ways things can go wrong in a divorce, and there are many ways to avoid those risks. It comes down to mutual respect, a commitment to non-defensive communication, and constructive problem-solving.


Ann Buscho, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a Divorce Coach in Marin County.


Photo credit: Ann Buscho, Ph.D.




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CPM is a community of legal, mental health and financial professionals working together to create client-centered processes for resolving conflict.  We are located in Marin County, California. 

Why Collaborative Divorce?

“Divorce is never easy but the collaborative process made mine bearable.  I had more control and therefore less stress and anxiety because I had an active role.”

~JF

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