It always makes me smile when I read articles like this one from The Arizona Republic. Too often when we meet people they are defined by the negative experience that they went through during their divorce. Many times they speak of it as if it just occurred yesterday when in essence many years have gone by but the bitterness and the pain is still fresh in their minds and hearts. No longer do divorces have to destroy families. I hope you find this article inspiring and informative.
When John Jarvis visits his 13-year-old daughter, he stays in the guest room of his ex-wife’s house. Bob Murphy of Chandler offered his ex-wife a key to his house when they divorced earlier this year after 26 years of marriage.
It’s nothing like your parents’ divorce, right?
Some of today’s divorcing couples, who as kids in the ’80s witnessed some wretched family separations as bitter as the movie “War of the Roses,” are vowing to do it differently. Even if their own parents didn’t divorce, many kids saw how hard it was on their friends.
So more couples are opting for a friendly divorce, whether through mediation, collaboration or even do-it-yourself kits. And the majority of couples choosing friendly divorces are those with children.
However they do it, they want the process to be more amicable. In the end, they save time, money and increase the odds that they might actually still be friends. And the kids are the biggest beneficiaries.
Joint custody has become the norm, with arrangements more fluid than in the generations when children mostly lived with Mom and saw Dad on Wednesday evenings and every other weekend.
This new kind of divorced mom and dad might attend parent-teacher conferences together, work jointly to get one kid to Little League and the other to piano lessons – even if it’s not technically their visitation day – and share calendars electronically so Dad can arrange to take the kids when mom’s out of town on business.
“It just seems much more humane and friendly,” says Jarvis, 54, who admits that his staying at his ex-wife’s Chandler house when he visits his daughter, Hannah, does raise some eyebrows. Many divorced couples can’t stand to be in the same room together, let alone spend days together and face each other every morning over coffee.
Jarvis lives in Massachusetts, and staying with his former wife not only means he gets more time with Hannah, but it saves money on hotels and rental cars, so he can afford to come more often.
When he and Elenore Long decided to get a divorce earlier this year after 16 years of marriage, they agreed to go to mediation. Their lives were going in separate directions but they still wanted the best for one another.
They went to the Agreement House in Phoenix, a firm that offers personal and business mediation services. It was opened a year ago by a longtime family-law attorney and a mediator.
There, Jarvis and Long sat side by side across the table from the lawyer and, together, came up with some financial solutions and custody arrangements.
“It’s not that the conversation didn’t get lively and emotional, but with a mediator at the table, we kept coming back to ‘What’s best for Hannah?'” Long, 46, says. “It really asked us to be our best selves rather than our petty selves.”
Traditional vs. friendly
Most divorce cases still are handled in the traditional way, with lawyers on each side trying to get the best deal for their client, often through nasty disagreements over custody, child support, property settlements and finances. Divorcing couples typically aren’t feeling friendly toward each other anyway, and contentious experiences in court can make those feelings even worse.
“It makes it almost impossible to have a civil relationship going forward. You don’t forget what it’s like to be cross-examined by your spouse’s lawyer,” says family law attorney John Zarzynski, who co-founded Agreement House. “It sets them up for years and years of not being able to communicate well.”
Mediation is one kind of a friendly divorce. Collaboration is another, in which both parties retain their own attorneys but also use experts and work together for a solution for everyone. Couples don’t set foot in court in either instance. Proponents say it reduces the emotional costs on everyone; both children and adults start their new lives on relatively stable ground.
No one keeps statistics on the number of mediated and collaborative divorces. But Zarzynski, during 31 years of practice, has seen the trend firsthand. When he started, mediated cases were rare. Ten years ago, he mediated about a dozen a year; last year, that number was 75.
“A lot of the folks who have come have really already figured out that it doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend a lot of money on lawyers to battle it out,” Zarzynski says.
A typical traditional divorce can stretch out for months – even years – and cost both parties $15,000 to $25,000.
Zarzynski says a mediated divorce, on average, costs $1,000 and takes 70 days, including the state’s mandatory cooling-off period of 60 days.
A collaborative divorce involves more people – it may add a financial adviser, psychologist or divorce coach to the mix – so it costs a bit more than a mediated divorce. A 2004 study in Texas shows that instead of a typical 18-month, $14,000 process through litigation, a collaborative divorce took an average of 18 weeks and $9,000 to complete.
And a divorce with no kids involved and a do-it-yourself legal kit for $39.95 may run $500 with court fees.
Over the past 30 years, mediation’s popularity has grown as an alternative to going to court across the U.S. in all kinds of legal disputes. Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia now offer mediation programs to settle disputes over money, property and other matters within their court systems. In California, mediation is mandatory for contested child custody and visitation. And, in attempts to ease the negative effects of divorce on children, at least 28 states, including Arizona, require divorcing couples to attend parenting classes that among other things teach the importance of parenting together.
Friends, not adversaries
As for Bob Murphy, he had seen all five of his brothers go through ugly divorces, and he wanted none of it. So when Murphy and his wife decided to split up earlier this year, one of his brothers, hoping to save his little brother from the same bad experience, suggested Murphy call Zarzynski.
“Instead of both of us going out to find the most expensive, meanest lawyer we each could find, we sat down together – on the same side of the table – and figured out what would be best for our kids,” Murphy says. It took four hours.
Together, Murphy and his now ex-wife decided he would keep the house when they divorced and stay there with their four kids, ages 21, 18, 12 and 10.
“After it was all said and done, we agreed that this is a good deal for both of us,” he says.
By their agreement, his ex-wife gets the kids three days a week. But he wants her to see them as much as she likes, so they often talk daily to arrange visits. He even made a key to his house available, to make it easier for her to pick up forgotten homework or sports gear while he was at work.
Murphy and his ex-wife attended their son’s recent college graduation together, sitting with the rest of the kids as a family. Murphy figures they have a lifetime of those kinds of occasions to come: graduations, holidays and weddings.
“Now I can look at my ex-wife as a friend and not as an adversary,” Murphy says.
Setting the tone
How parents interact and handle the kids during the initial separation and early in the divorce sets the tone for the years ahead, says Barbara Schaffer, a clinical social worker in Tucson who is part of the Collaborative Law Group of Southern Arizona. She got involved in the friendly- divorce movement in 2002 after going through her own divorce and thinking there had to be a better way.
Research shows that kids who remain close to both parents are less stressed by divorce, and dads who are connected to their kids are more likely to keep up with their obligations, financial and otherwise.
Jarvis grew up on a reservation in Idaho, where amicable divorces were plentiful, so he was open to mediation. After his parents divorced, his mother and stepfather regularly played cards with his father and stepmother.
“I didn’t realize how unique that was until I grew up,” Jarvis says.
He and Long suspect it will be the same for Hannah. She is still sad about her parents’ divorce, no matter how well they get along. But when Jarvis stays at Long’s house, he gets to enjoy the small moments of parenting: seeing Hannah tousle-haired first thing in the morning, being there in the middle of the night if she has a bad dream. On a trip this summer, he and Hannah spent 18 hours at her computer, editing a book she’s written.
Jarvis likes that he can still be a good dad to his daughter and a good friend to his ex-wife. And, because the split has been so manageable, he can still keep the relationships he developed over the 21 years they were together. Both couples have kept ties with each other’s families, and friends haven’t been forced to choose between them for weekend barbecues and parties.
When Jarvis is in town, he helps around Long’s house, fixing the washing machine or toilet. He and Long talk on the phone often, asking about each other’s work and life in general. They’ll attend a family wedding together in August.
“This is someone I loved for a long time,” Long says. “We still want the best for each other.”