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Can your divorce be collaborative?

Putting your children's needs ahead of your own during the split can make the process less acrimonious

Jen Weigel

Lessons for life

July 10, 2012

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If you've gone through a divorce, you know how challenging it can be to keep your emotions in check. Add children to the mix and the damage can be devastating. But experts say more divorcing couples are seeing the benefits of putting down the boxing gloves and placing their children's needs first.

"There is a turn toward collaboration now," said Linda Perry, who founded Divorce Consultants in Chicago after going through her own divorce. "As a litigator, I've watched so many disasters, and I can honestly call my former spouse a co-parent and friend today. But this has to be a priority for each parent in order for it to work."

Certified divorce financial analyst Nancy Liebman, who is based in Evanston, said she too is noticing the shift.

"There's more of a sense of 'Let's get this done so we don't ruin our children,'" Liebman said. "People are putting kids first rather than revenge."

Perry said one reason for the upswing in collaboration is the economic downturn.

"People who fight and litigate are often so in shock at the bill that they refuse to pay them when it's all over," Perry said. "The average divorce has some aspect of litigation and can run you $20,000. But a divorce with a mediator can be between $1,500 (and) $3,000."

In addition to mediation, couples can opt for what is called the collaborative process, which involves two attorneys, a neutral financial advisor and—if necessary—a mental health professional.

"With the collaborative process, you each sign an agreement that says you are going through this process and if it does not work out, you have to litigate, but you will have to hire a different attorney," Liebman said. "This process lends itself to getting through it without tearing the kids apart. This costs a lot less than litigation."

Here are some tips to making choices that will benefit your children during a divorce:

Don't bad-mouth the ex. "If you talk bad about the spouse, this puts kids in a position to defend the other parent or hide their actions," Perry said. "This might cause them to have anxiety about returning home or they start to wonder what they have to hide or leave out."

"I tell people, 'You are the adult, and you have to act like an adult,' " Liebman said.

Acknowledge your mistakes. "We all mess up, but you can always go back and own your mistakes," Perry said. "If you do something you're not proud of around your kids, say 'I didn't handle that properly' and that really sets a good example."

Avoid settling an issue through email or texts. "With the written word, you are missing someone's tone of voice and expressions," Perry said. "The biggest fights I've had with my ex were over what we meant in email. If you're too upset to speak in person, get a third party, but don't try to solve something in an email. There are too many negative interpretations and misunderstandings."

Don't be afraid to get a new lawyer. Perry said if you're not feeling your lawyer is the right fit, shop around.

"I believe that even though someone has given their counsel a significant amount of money, there is potentially so much more to lose if you remain with an advocate who is not advocating," she said. "Whatever work has been done can likely be transferred."

"I definitely believe in firing an attorney who you feel is not listening or working for you," Liebman said. "You need to make the decision early in the process. The longer you wait the harder it is to do."

Put yourself in their shoes. "One of the things I tell (my clients) to do is to step in to your soon-to-be-ex's shoes and view everything from their side of the table," Perry said. "When you realize that you are working together to jointly raise the kids you start to see them in a positive life again. And now, my kids are not afraid of being in the same room as the two of us and we do things as a family, which is really nice."

(Want to meet our divorce experts? Come to our "TribU: Be the CEO of Your Divorce" event at 6 p.m. July 25. Jenniffer Weigel will moderate a discussion with Linda Perry and Nancy Liebman; see http://www.eventbrite.com/event/3554069317/eorg for information and tickets.)

jweigel@tribune.com

Twitter: @jenweigel