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Mental Health Professionals in a Collaborative Divorce

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In this episode of the Jennifer Hargrave Show, Jennifer’s special guest is Dr. Honey A. Sheff, Ph.D, PC, whose role of a mental health professional is pivotal to the collaborative divorce process.

If you don’t have time to watch the entire video, the following content highlights the key areas and questions touched upon, slightly edited for easier reading.

Dr. Sheff is a psychologist who has worked with families since 1983. In addition to her work as a therapist, she also taught psychology at the University of Texas at Dallas, and has been in the middle of some of the most contested high-conflict custody cases. In addition to her litigation work, Dr. Sheff also developed an area of expertise in collaborative divorce, and she’s been well-recognized for her work as a collaborative divorce professional. In fact, she recently received the Gay G. Cox Award for Excellence in Collaborative Law, and she is a Mastered and Credentialed Collaborative Law Professional, which is the highest credential a collaborative professional can achieve.

Dr. Sheff kindly shared her knowledge of the collaborative divorce process with Jennifer, and below you will find highlights from that show, lightly edited for easier reading.

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mental health professional in collaborative divorce

What is the role of the mental health professional in the Collaborative Divorce process?

Dr. Honey Sheff

Well, let’s start with what the role of the mental professional in a collaborative divorce is not.  It’s not to be a therapist, it’s not to be a counselor, it’s not as an evaluator, and it is not as a diagnostician.

Jennifer Hargrave

Those are some big words. So let’s break them down a bit and in breaking them down, that will help us kind of better understand what it is. So what is a diagnostician?

Dr. Honey Sheff

So a diagnostician is when there is a question of whether a disorder is present or not present, and you go to a clinically trained professional to receive a diagnosis of some kind whether a disorder exists or doesn’t exist and what it might be.

Jennifer Hargrave

So, for example, a diagnosis of narcissism or borderline personality, or any of those terms that we often hear in law, you actually have to have a clinically-trained expert to diagnose.

Dr. Honey Sheff

That is correct. And we don’t do that in collaborative divorce at all. And that is a big distinction. Also, during the collaborative divorce process, we don’t do evaluations. For example, in custody work, you do psychological evaluations designed to identify strengths, weaknesses, and be able to make recommendations about custody and visitation. In collaborative divorce, there is no such evaluation.

Jennifer Hargrave

As a decision-maker, you’re not rendering a judgment or any recommendation as to who the better parent is?

Dr. Honey Sheff

Absolutely correct. And I’m not a counselor and not a therapist. It’s not a counseling process, and it’s not therapy.

Jennifer Hargrave

So this isn’t marriage therapy. The couple is getting ready to divorce. The marriage hasn’t been great. They’re not going to work out all those problems in your office.

Dr. Honey Sheff

And that’s really critical because in my experience, so many people when they’re told by their attorney that a full team will be used including the two attorneys, the neutral financial professional, and the neutral mental health professional, their immediate gut reaction is I’m not crazy. I don’t need a counselor. I don’t need a therapist. There’s nothing wrong with me. But that has nothing to do with why the mental health professional is involved in the process.

So the number one and most important thing is the mental health professional is neutral. They are not there to take sides. They’re not there to align with either parent. And they’re in many ways by working with the parents, advocating for their children, if there are children involved. So neutrality is critical.

The other thing that they do is to be more of a facilitator. They facilitate communication between the husband and wife. They facilitate communication among all the team members. They’re also managers. They manage the emotions of all the team members, including the couple. So they are responsible for taking care of the couple and managing the emotions that sometimes can be very, very high.

Dr. Honey Sheff

The mental health professional role is also designed to help the couple learn to communicate more effectively, develop good communication skills and learn how to resolve conflict. These are also skills that are critical, right? Because in doing the conflict resolution education, and communication training, they are laying the groundwork for the post-divorce co-parenting relationship. They are giving the parents the opportunity to create the very best post-divorce relationship that they can.

Jennifer Hargrave

So you’re telling me that you take a couple who are at odds. They can’t agree that the sky is blue. But you are there to help them with that through building conflict resolution skills.

Dr. Honey Sheff

Yes, that’s correct. And it works! It’s almost magical at times when you watch couples who have been adversarial, be able to enter the room and learn to work together for the benefit of their children. Another very specific task that the mental health professional does, if there are children under the age of 18, they help the parents develop a parenting plan. And it is in the process of developing that parenting plan that communication skills and conflict resolution skills are taught because you are helping them identify possible disputes and work to resolve them. The other thing that a lot of people don’t know is that as the MHP, I run the meetings.  I run the agenda and I keep everybody right.

Jennifer Hargrave

And you do a very good job of that!

Is it important to give space to everyone’s emotions?

One of the things about collaborative divorce is that people often think it is easy. Like we come together, sing kumbaya, and it’s all easy. But the truth is it’s not. We’re walking into this couple’s own minefield of triggers and heightened emotions. And in order for collaborative divorce to work, it has to feel safe. And so, when you talk about managing emotions, it’s important to give space for all the emotions that show up.

Sometimes the attorneys are not entirely on board with that.  There are times when six of us are in a meeting, or we might all be on a Zoom call and the couple starts to get upset. One may start yelling. The other one may respond. And the attorneys are looking at me expecting me to do something.  But at times, I may have made a clinical judgment that they need to do this. They need to let this go. Now I won’t let it go too far, and I will intervene, but sometimes it needs to come out.

Do you know in advance which emotional topics should be given space?

I often ask the couple to help me to know where the mines are in the minefield because if I know where they are, I can sometimes avoid them getting triggered or if they are triggered, I’m prepared. I know what to expect, because I know it’s there.

Sometimes I may deliberately trigger a mine because if I don’t, the couple will carry it forward into the rest of the negotiation process or into their co-parenting relationship. And for me, one of the most important parts of my role is helping these parents have a healthy co-parenting relationship moving forward. This is especially so if there are children, even adult children. And that’s the foundational work that I do in this process.

Jennifer Hargrave

I’ve also seen you inform the team so the other attorneys and financial professionals know what these possible landmines are so that as a team, we can work together to help them. And I think that’s one of the things that is so significantly different about the collaborative divorce process, the lawyers are not out to fight a war. We are there to help solve problems. And when a couple is working with you as a mental health professional, and you have information you can share with us, it helps us as a team help them move forward.

Dr. Honey Sheff

In many ways I envision it as the team linking arms around this couple and creating what we’ve called in the business, a safe container, right? It is a place of safety and security so that people can be transparent. They can be honest, and they can share things that are really important to them, especially around their goals and their interests, and their needs.

That feeling of safety is created by the structured process and the agenda that I mentioned earlier, that I run during the meetings. That’s designed to create safety so that nobody’s going to walk into that meeting and ever be blindsided. And if there’s an issue, say they’d had a crisis the night before, we’re not going to deal with it in the meeting. We’ll figure out a way to deal with it, but we are not going to address it in that meeting, because we don’t want anyone to walk in feeling worried about a shoe dropping or concerned that they’re going to get hit with something. And that communication among the team members facilitates the ability to keep the room safe.

What is a parenting plan and what issues should it address?

Dr. Honey Sheff

The reality is that if you were to ask a divorcing couple on the street, John and Jane Doe, what is a parenting plan? They are most likely to say, “Oh, isn’t that the schedule thing that shows where and when the kids are going to be?” And yes, that is a really important part of it, but a parenting plan is so much more than a schedule. A parenting plan is a structure.

Think about it. When you are married and living together, there are no rules about parenting, right? Who’s taking the kids to soccer? Who’s taking the kids to get their hair cut? You do this, and I’ll do that. And oh, by the way, little Johnny has a doctor’s appointment on Friday. Are you available to take him? The life and rules around your parenting and your family just evolve.

Well, when you’re divorced, you need to have rules because you’re living in different homes. And so you do need to have rules around how you’re going to make decisions, how you’re going to share time, how you’re going to parent and how you’re going to co-parent, and how you’re going to resolve disagreements. Because disagreements are going to occur, married or divorced, there’s going to be disagreements. And so the parenting plan is a structure that addresses all of those elements that need to be addressed for your post-divorce co-parenting relationship. And so when you put all that together, it does create a structure and that structure is a parenting plan.

Jennifer Hargrave

There are certainly some parenting plan issues that are required to be in the divorce decree, right? So we have big words like conservatorship to talk about rights and duties and where the children can live most of the time, Then we have the possession schedule.

Dr. Honey Sheff

When I’m working with a divorcing couple, I use much more family-friendly language. When it comes to decision-making, I talk about parental responsibilities. When it comes to possession and access, I use sharing or parenting time.

Jennifer Hargrave

That is much more family-friendly. But there are other things to think about as parents, depending on the age of the children. If they’re younger, you’re probably not thinking about are we going to buy a car for a child? Or what are the rules around dating going to be? And of course, teenagers love it when the parents are at odds because they can exacerbate that conflict for their own benefit.

In a Collaborative Divorce, what types of co-parenting issues are you able to address that might not be addressed in a traditional divorce?

Dr. Honey Sheff

So one of the sessions of the parenting plan is called (and I’ve yet to come up with a really snazzy title for this) ‘additional topics’. And I actually tell parents that those topics, while they’re not in the family code, and are not required, are probably the most important discussions for them to have for a variety of reasons. These are the things that people tend to get into conflict over post-divorce. These are the things that bring parents into my office post-divorce when I’m working as a parenting coordinator. So we’ve learned that by dealing with these topics upfront, that parents don’t tend to get into arguments or conflict or problems around these issues, post-divorce.

What is the topic that causes most conflict amongst parents post-divorce?

Dr. Honey Sheff

You might think it is the introduction of significant others or curfews, but it is neither of them. It’s actually extracurricular activities. Parents get into so many arguments about extracurriculars. What they’re doing, are they going, are they not going? They want to stop. Should they stop? Who’s taking them? When are they going? What happens when they miss and who is paying? So one of the additional topics we cover is extracurricular activities. We talk about what the children are currently doing. What do you think they’re likely to do now with older kids? Sometimes their schedules are pretty well set. They’ve already been doing these things and a lot of it is just discussing whether they should continue or not.  As the mental health professional, I do not deal with money issues at all. Finances are dealt with by the whole team.

But I ask parents to look at the topic in a vacuum and think about how they want to make decisions about extracurricular activities. Going back to what I said earlier, several things are happening. They’re talking and sharing their perspectives. They’re giving their interest and thoughts around those issues. Maybe they don’t know. Great. So now what do we do when we don’t agree? How do we resolve this issue? How do we resolve this dispute? You have several ways. Let’s talk about the ways you could resolve it.

This process takes a couple, even if the emotions are high, and they’re not in agreement, and teaches them how to communicate. And one of the really nice parts about the role is that even though I’m not operating as a psychologist or a therapist, the parents are still getting the benefit of all of my knowledge, all of my experience. I’ve worked with kids, my entire practice. I know what kids need in divorce. I know what’s important to them. I know what works and doesn’t work. And I’m able to educate parents. Ultimately it is their decision about what they do or don’t do, but I often play devil’s advocate and say, have you thought about this? Have you thought about that? Have you thought about how this might appear to your children? How do you want this to appear to your children?

Jennifer Hargrave

That’s such a good perspective, and it reminds all of us that it is important how the divorce looks and feels to the children. A lot of people who are considering divorce worry about how their child or children will cope with the process.

Does the mental health professional interview the children?

Dr. Honey Sheff

As the mental health professional on the team, I do not interview children. And a lot of parents will ask why don’t you talk to the children? But there is a need for my neutrality. So let’s say one parent mom wants a certain schedule for the children and dad wants another, and they really are at odds. That happens a lot, obviously. So they may say, well, why don’t you talk to the children because little Janie’s told me this is what she wants, or Johnny has told me he doesn’t want to do that? If I was to interview the children and little Janie was to tell me that or little Johnny was to tell me that, and then I go back to the parents, my neutrality is now compromised. I could be accused of aligning with the other parent. And again, remember everything tracks back to the significance and value of that neutrality. I do think children’s voices are critical, so I approach it in three different ways.

One, sometimes I coach the parents on how to talk to the children about what’s important to them, what they need, what do they want the parents to think about when they’re making these decisions? Some parents are able to do this on their own very effectively without coaching the children. The second approach is to get information from the child’s therapist if there is one. Now, keeping in mind, I can not share any information with that therapist because of the confidentiality of the process.

However, I can solicit information from the therapists, and sometimes I may ask the therapist to get more information for the parents. However, I think the most effective way of gaining the children’s voice is when there is a child specialist on the team and I have served in that role.

It is a separate mental health professional role, whose job is solely to get the children’s voice. They focus on finding what’s important to the children, what they need, what their fears are, what their wishes are, what their hopes are, what their concerns are, what their thoughts are about holidays and traditions and summer activities.

It’s a very limited narrow focus designed solely to get the childrens’ voice. Children understand in that process, that they are not a decision-maker.  They get a voice, they don’t get a vote.

I believe you’ve had Jennifer Leister on the Jennifer Hargrave show, who talked at great length about the child specialist role. She is wonderful, probably the number one child specialist in the state.

So they provide that feedback and now parents actually have a database and information base upon which they can choose to factor that child’s voice into their decision-making. Sometimes it just doesn’t work. They try really, really hard. And the kids are prepared for that. They’re told, you know, just because your parents know this is important to you, there are many, many things that go into their decision-making and they may not be able to honor this request

Recommended episodes of the Jennifer Hargrave Show featuring child specialist, Jennifer Leister

Protect Children in Divorce with Jennifer Leister, LPC

Preserving Mental Health in Divorce with Jennifer Leister, LPC

Are there any general themes regarding a child’s experience of the divorce process that you would like to share?

Dr. Honey Sheff

One of the things I do as the MHP is to help parents structure and script their divorce conversations with their children. If they haven’t yet done it, I’m able to help them create the environment and the dialogue that they’re going to have with the children.

Part of that process is ‘must tell’ messages. So some of the must tell messages are:

  • We will always love you. Nothing will ever change that.
  • We will always be your parents. Mama will always be your mom. Dad will always be your dad. Nothing’s going to change that.
  • This is not your fault. That’s one everybody knows about, right? This is not your fault.
  • There are things that are going to change.
  • There are a lot of things that are not going to change.

So many of the things that parents and their families experience post-divorce have nothing to do with divorce. They’re still parents and they still have the same decisions that have to be made about the car, about the house, about tutoring …The myriad of decisions that we make as parents really has very little to do with divorce. And so for your children, there is a lot that will change, but there is so much more quite frankly, that doesn’t change. And I think that’s a really important message.

Another one is we will always be a family, just a different kind of family. And I think probably the most important one is – we will all be okay!

Jennifer Hargrave

These messages are all so important. There are lots of examples of how destructive a bad divorce can be to children. As a child of the seventies, many of my peers struggled with their parents’ high-conflict divorce, and ever after,  it was really hard for them to have relationships. And so I think that is we can pave the way for a healthy divorce, a positive divorce, that that has an impact for generations. It’s not only beneficial for this immediate family, but also for the relationships the children will make in the future.

Dr. Honey Sheff

I have been blessed to do probably over 200 collaborative divorces. I have never really counted the number, but it’s probably over 200 and I am so grateful because parents are trusting me with the rest of their family’s lives to help them create the kind of homes, the kind of family that they want their children to experience.

The reality is divorce means that a marriage is ending. That is true, but the parenting relationship goes on forever. And I have been lucky enough to hear from clients down the road. I mean, 10 years later, about the nature of their relationship. It can actually make me tear up because some of the emails that I get about the quality of their post-divorce life are so gratifying.  That’s that magical moment that I’ve talked about. I’ve had several couples in the course of my work, in my collaborative cases actually reconcile. You just don’t hear that very often in litigation.

In the course of your work, do you ever see people actually become better parents as co-parents, post-divorce?

Dr. Honey Sheff

I do, and as I said, I hear from people all the time. I was actually at a workout studio and a couple of women came up to me and one said, “I don’t know whether you remember me?”  I told her that I did. This was about five years later, post-divorce and I had been the neutral mental health professional on their team. She said, “I just want you to know how amazingly, well we are still doing.  People come up to us all the time at the kids’ athletic sports events. And they say we can’t believe you’re divorced. You just don’t even act divorced.”

She happened to mention that they’d started a tradition during the divorce of having Sunday night dinners. And she said, “I want you to know, we’re still having our Sunday night dinners”.

I got another email from a dad. They were doing an alternating week schedule with mid-week dinners and his kids were over 18. They were still doing the alternating week schedule and mid-week dinners. That is such an opportunity but not every couple is able to achieve that. Not every couple is able to establish a parenting connection and let go of the marital dysfunction and unhealthiness. Not every couple is able to overcome the hurt or the anger or the betrayal. But the collaborative divorce process gives them the tools and opportunity to work on making a better relationship.

Compare that to the litigation process which is designed to add fuel to the adversity and the anger and the hurt.  Or even the collaborative divorce process with mediation. And I’m a huge fan of mediation. I am a mediator. But the reality of divorce mediation is you have people in separate rooms and the mediator is playing Henry Kissinger, just going back and forth, playing shuttle diplomacy, exchanging proposals. The collaborative process is the only one that offers them an opportunity to begin the healing process.

Listen to the rest of the podcast on our Youtube Channel! Our conversation continues and we go over co-parenting, mediation, and more.