Divorce is so much more than just a legal separation. It includes an emotional break up, social disconnection and financial severance, as well as identity changes and a move into the new territory of co-parenting.
“Our conventional way of handling divorce is for the parties to engage lawyers whose expertise is limited to the legal matters,” points out Nina Mensing, a counsellor and FAMAC accredited mediator who specialises in family matters, who is speaking at the upcoming SACAP Festival of Learning. “Without help, guidance and support around all the other powerful aspects of divorce, it’s no wonder that it so often results in a bitter and traumatic fall-out impacting over the long-term not just on adults, but on children too.”
There’s growing awareness that there are significant benefits to doing divorce differently, and this is becoming more of an imperative if there are children in the family. Research shows that respondents who went through mediated divorces reported less conflict in co-parenting a year after the divorce, whereas parents who had litigated divorces reported an increase in conflict (Sbarra & Emery, 2008).
“Mediation is based on a model of co-operative dispute settlement,” explains Nina, “The process aims to prevent the escalation of conflict between the parties, which is so easily fuelled by litigation. This is vital when there are children involved. In any divorce involving children, the relationship between the parents has to be maintained at a mature and suitable level so that they are capable of co-parenting effectively.”
Nina advises on 10 steps to doing divorce differently:
Make an informed decision, and be sure that divorce is the way forward - If divorce is presented as an option, it is important that both parties are well-informed about what lies up ahead before this decision is actually made. Reactive decision-making can have long-term negative effects on all involved. It is important to know and understand all the different impacts and implications involved in a divorce from the legal and financial ramifications to the practicalities of co-parenting and the effects of the identity shifts. It gives both parties a sense of control over the process if they’ve done research, gone to counselling and experienced divorce coaching before they reach a decision to divorce.
Get the professional help you need – Divorce is an arduous process that can push the limits of our usual support networks. Each party needs to take responsibility for managing their emotions, expectations and the stress. Going to individual counselling or coaching taps you into a robust resource of independent, professional advice and support.
Get your finances in order - Make sure that you understand your financial situation before discussing how to split your finances.
Empower yourself - Learn about the process. Learn about the law. Learn about what would be best for your situation and your family. You don’t need others telling you what you should be doing – this is your life and your family. Don’t let others make decisions for you. Learn from others, get support from others, but make your own decisions.
Do not discuss adult subjects with your children - First and foremost is to not talk negatively about the other parent. Children like to know what is happening in their lives. Allow them to ask questions, tell them what is going on, but do not go into details or blame the other parent for anything. Be the adult, and let the children be children. Learn about how to co-parent effectively.
Stop defending yourself - Attacking and defending plays into the game of litigation, and is a never-ending cycle. De-escalate the conflict by not attacking and not defending – except in the case of abuse. If the marriage is abusive then go through the correct procedures to ensure your safety, emotionally and physically.
Work with a financial planner – Do this together for the sake of the children, and also individually.
Go to mediation – An accredited mediator will facilitate the process in a collaborative manner, always with the children’s best interests as the focus. Ongoing communication during mediation allows for more effective co-parenting during this difficult time.
After mediation, get independent legal advice before signing – The mediation process will result in the drafting of a negotiated divorce agreement. Go back to mediation if advised by your lawyer that the agreement is not fair. Starting a litigation process at any point will escalate the conflict, which will have an adverse effect on the children.
Remember that every decision that is made, and every action and reaction between the two of you, will affect the children – It’s easy to fall into a mode where it feels like the divorce is all happening to you. But divorce is never about an individual, it is a family process. Think always about the children’s best interests – some times that means backing down and lessening the conflict rather than having full control over every situation. Don’t win the battle to lose the war. Our children learn from us, and will learn how to handle conflict the way we do. Teach them that one can collaborate, and despite the marriage breaking down, that the two of you can still be parents together for their sake.
“It is important to re-frame the way we have always looked at divorce,” concludes Nina, “Divorce does not break families up; it recreates new types of families. How you divorce has a big impact on how you will co-parent and interact with your ex-spouse, for years to come. Doing divorce differently through mediation is essentially doing it in a far more mature and constructive way.”
SACAP Campus, 1st Floor, Sunclare Building, 21 Dreyer Street, Claremont, Cape Town
Short Talk Programme (evening): R200
Full Day Programme: R200
Student tickets for each event: R80
For more information on the event or ticket queries, please visit www.sacap.edu.za/psychology-festival/