Evolution in Our Revolution: The Changing Role of the Mental Health Professional in Collaborative Divorce

Evolution in Our Revolution: The Changing Role of the Mental Health Professional in Collaborative Divorce by Lauren BehrmanWhen our organization, the New York Association of Collaborative Professionals (NYACP) first grew out of the New York Collaborative Law Group, and incorporated mental health and financial professionals in addition to attorneys, we were committed to changing society’s adversarial divorce culture. Yet, we also had a bigger goal in mind: to change the way people resolved conflict—not only in family settings or divorce situations, but in all situations across the world.

A number of geographic specific ‘pods’ developed out of NYACP where professionals who work together locally could meet and develop their collaborative skills. Recently, I met with my Northern Westchester collaborative divorce “pod” and had the pleasure of presenting about the evolving roles of divorce coaches and mental health professionals in the collaborative process.

We’ve been doing this interdisciplinary work in the New York metropolitan area for 13 years, and I’m proud to say that much has changed—particularly the way mental health professionals function on a collaborative team. Our revolution has evolved and has since benefited countless families facing divorce.

Initially, we worked exclusively in one of the following two capacities: coach or child specialist. We’d typically be assigned to a particular person and participate in both individual coaching meetings and four-way meetings with the other party and his/her coach.

The model really started to shift in 2010, and we transitioned to being the sole mental health professional on the collaborative team—working with, and for, both parties (the family) and the broader team throughout the entire divorce process. This role came to be known as ‘neutral process facilitator’ or the ‘single coach model.’

It is important to note that it is not uncommon for a child specialist to be present on behalf of the children, even in cases with a neutral process facilitator. This results in two mental health professionals working as neutrals on the collaborative team.

This shift in the role of the mental health professional was, and still is, significant because it encourages creativity and room for custom approaches based on the family’s circumstances and needs.

Dr. Susan Gamache, a colleague from Vancouver, created a paradigm to understand families and their unique needs. Using this structure, we examine families from four perspectives (the four Cs):

  • Capacity: The individual’s ability to be self-aware, empathic, communicate, self-regulate, change, or learn.
  • Complexity: The dynamics of the couple in addition to the challenges of parenting, mental health issues, or legal and financial concerns.
  • Commitment: Each person’s level of commitment and availability to make use of the collaborative process.
  • Characteristics: The age, gender, race, sexual orientation, health, occupation, etc. of family members in addition to pertinent information about extended family.

By looking at the four Cs of the family, we can get a clear idea of what the composition of the collaborative team should be (attorneys, financial advisors, and mental health professionals, etc.). In addition, we begin to understand the types of services that the mental health professional may provide (mental health support, process concerns, etc.) during the collaborative divorce process or mediation.  

A new role for mental health professionals has evolved, which combines the roles of neutral process facilitator and child specialist. Some have called this role ‘family specialist.’  In this role, we as mental health professionals can use all of our skills to assist children and families by helping them to create:

  • a vision statement for post-divorce parenting;
  • a narrative to explain the transition to the children;
  • a transitional parenting plan; and
  • a sequential transition plan.

In addition, we’ve helped parents:

  • engage in difficult conversations;
  • manage day-to-day conflicts and decisions; and
  • tolerate the difference in each other’s pacing before, during, and after the divorce.

Neutral mental health professionals also work with the collaborative team on post-divorce concerns such as educational issues and the parental communication pattern.

As Shakespeare said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” The neutral mental health professional has many names and wears many hats; regardless of what we are called, our service to families and collaborative teams is comprehensive and invaluable.

Contact us with your questions.

My Divorce Recovery

Jeffrey Zimmerman, Ph.D., ABPP

Lauren Behrman, Ph.D.