Episode 37 of the Jennifer Hargrave Show features a brilliant lawyer, Elise Buie. Elise practices family law in Seattle, WA, is the founder of Elise Buie Family Law and has a heart for helping families transition through the divorce process with hope for a new future. This is a transition she knows well herself, as she shares her story of transition – from leaving New Orleans after Katrina, and embarking on a path that has led her to an amazing life. She also hosts a podcast, called Maximum Mom, where she provides hope and encouragement for Moms who are juggling it all as professionals, wives, and mothers.
In this episode, Elise discusses some of the *positive* aspects of divorce and the opportunities for personal growth and self-development that divorce can afford us.
Watch the video or jump to the transcript below, slightly edited for easier reading.
Where are you today, and who the people are in your life who bring you joy?
Like Jennifer said, I’m a family law attorney in Seattle and I am married to the most amazing human on the planet. I just have to say that though. I’m sure everybody else’s spouse is amazing as well, but I’m married to Doug Russell who is just the most supportive, wonderful human. Together, we have a blended family with six young adults now, Katelyn, Shannon, Katie, Ian, Eric, and Ethan. There are 10 years spanning those six young adults so it’s a ton of fun. And now we even have grand puppies and Doug and I have two of our own puppies cause we were a failed empty nest. When we brought Ethan to college, we ended up getting two.
What was life like in New Orleans, during and after hurricane Katrina?
Girl, we’re going to have to have a longer time. Hurricane Katrina was a wild adventure to say the very least. Actually it began a few weeks before the hurricane struck for me. My best friend in New Orleans, who was also a mother of six. And divorced at the time, was diagnosed with stage four, colon cancer. It was the most shocking diagnosis. So I was super involved.
I mean day to day, 24 hour a day kind of involvement with her family, her kids, medical care, getting her set up with chemo. I mean the whole bit. So you have to put all that into my hurricane Katrina mix. When the hurricane actually came to New Orleans, I was in the hospital with my friend Lisa who was in the ICU.
So, it was extra shocking when my ex-husband ( at the time he was my husband), called me at the ICU and told me we needed to evacuate. I’m like, what are you talking about? We don’t evacuate, I’ve never evacuated from a hurricane in my life.
But he said, was no, this is for real. We need to evacuate. I’m going to pack for the kids. I really thought something had gone crazy with him but it turned out it was a real thing and we did need to evacuate. So we evacuated to his parents’ house in rural Georgia and actually lived there for a year, then moved to Minnesota for five years. And then I got remarried and moved out to Seattle.
But the hurricane Katrina story is not complete without the reality that my ex and I were preparing to divorce at the time the hurricane hit. So we then obviously had to rethink the timing of that divorce as we’re evacuating andLisa is in a coma in ICU and I’ve got her kids to deal with. So,there was a lot going on to say the least. And so we, David and I stayed together until we could stabilize and make both those moves to Georgia then to Minnesota. And then we divorced five years after hurricane Katrina hit.
Oh my gosh. So at the time, not only were you dealing with the hurricane but you were also losing a best friend and you knew at that time that you were going to be getting a divorce. That’s a lot!
With so much going on, how did you manage all that?
Yeah, it was interesting. At the time, I had four young children, 11 and under, with about a six year span. Focussing on them was a huge part of it. Really being focused on what this experience was going to look like for them? The hurricane alone obviously traumatized many children. I mean, we lost touch with our friends. People we’d been friends with forever.
I’d lived in New Orleans, my entire life within a mile of the house my kids were born in and so our whole lives were thrown upside down. It really became very apparent to me that I needed to focus on what were they going to glean from these bad experiences. First Lisa, who they were very close to, and her children and then the worst hurricane that had been seen to date. What were they going to be able to look back on and say?
It was very important to me that I had the right mindset and the right attitude. I really tried hard to bring joy into the situation. I mean an example and it probably sounds so silly now, but when we moved to Georgia initially, we had nothing. I won’t bore you with all the details, but we literally came with the clothes on our back. We had barely any money in the bank. I mean, that’s a whole long story in and of itself. And so though we signed up for horseback riding lessons, I couldn’t afford horseback riding lessons for these four kids. But we did a swap with the barn to do lots of work around the place, muck out stalls and the like. In return the kids got to spend hours around the horses and learning horseback riding.
At the time I was homeschooling the kids so that was something we could do along with their schooling. And, oh my gosh, it was an amazing opportunity. From my three-year-old who learned to ride this little pony named Rosie, and we all have memories of him up on Rosie going, “Walk, Rosie, walk.” and she’d just walk along.
For me it was important that my children’s childhood should not be taken away because of this bizarre natural disaster and my friend’s cancer diagnosis, which turned out to be fatal, obviously. I wanted them to see that we can find life and hope and joy in the worst of circumstances.
That’s such an important key to resiliency to know that in the midst of even the most traumatic events, there’s always opportunity. And if you focus on the opportunity, you’ll find the blessings. And I think that’s such an incredible story.
How did you co-exist in that period of time when you knew you were going to get a divorce?
Wwe both were very focused on the best interest of our children and we knew that divorcing at that moment really would have been damaging. There were financial issues. Both of us were attorneys but we were not barred in Georgia. Then when we moved to Minnesota, we weren’t barred in Minnesota. So we both had to go through that rebarring process.
There was a lot to be done after losing everything in hurricane Katrina,so we knew that we needed to stay focused on what was best for our family and make sure the children would be as stable as possible. And so we just kind of co-operated, like co CEOs, cooperating to maximize our children.
It was clear that our relationship was not going to survive our co-parenting relationship not only had to survive, it had to thrive. Our children counted on both of us and they still do in different ways and for different things.
What are some tips to help people stay focused on the children in the midst of the divorce?
It’s really hard. And to say that I have failed countless times is an understatement. Obviously it’s always a work in progress, but I think one of the things that I always ask myself, and I ask my clients is, do you love your children more than you hate your ex? That sounds really harsh with the word hate in there but I think it’s really important to get down to that nitty gritty detail.
Most parents absolutely love their children more than they have any negative feelings towards their ex. And I think you remind yourself of that every single time you’re making a decision or having a conversation. Sometimes that’s going to mean biting your tongue on something that maybe you want to say, or not reacting in a certain way or not jumping on things when your soon-to-be ex starts pushing your buttons.
We all know that we can push each other’s buttons but the children are victims of the divorce. They are innocent of all the conflict and they need to stay that way so do everything you can to put their needs first and keep them out of the conflict. I used to say to my ex that co-parenting is not a competitive sport. We can both do this and we can both work to our strengths because there’s definitely things that he does better than I do. And there’s things that I do better than he does. Learning to parse that out is huge. There’s a book called Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live) by Eve Rodsky, which I would say is game-changing for co-parents. It’s not written in the divorce context, but it can absolutely be used during a divorce to help parents the things that need to get done and how to divvy them up in a way that makes sense. Fair Play and the card game that goes along with it is so game-changing for parents.
I’m going to explore that some more but for now I want to go back to a couple of things that you said are just gold. The fact that the divorce itself is a period of transition and children can survive transition. It’s the conflict that’s the hard thing.
What were the moments for you, when you realized that you loved your children more than you hated your ex?
We were involved in a collaborative divorce process, so we were trying to do the divorce in a positive, more amicable kind of way and stay out of litigation. There was a situation where we were dealing with money and child support stuff, and it turns out my ex was not being honest at all. I kept asking him about it and asking him about it and he kept giving the same answer. And literally as we’re driving to the lawyer’s offices separately to meet at a meeting, he calls me and says I haven’t been honest with you.
Well, duh. But it was one of those things that could have blown up our collaborative process. Issues about financial documents and I had, all this stuff about disclosures and things. But in that car, sitting in a parking lot outside of subway in Minnesota, I remember thinking I could blow up our process and start litigation and really go toe to toe with him on these things. Or I could let this process get to the end and we could try to stay as amicable as possible.
And I could, because at the time I had just gone back to work. I had not been working for a long time, but I thought to myself in that parking lot, I’m going to earn circles around this guy one day and I’m not going to give a hoot how much money he pays me. And that was a very defining moment for me in that parking lot of the subway in Minnesota.
I love that. You know, what I love most about it is that people often think that settling or walking away from something that could be used against the other party is weakness. But in fact it comes from a place of strength. Of course, if you feel like you have to settle because you’ve no other options and you’re being pressured to settle, that’s coming from a place of weakness. However, if you are exploring all of your options and you’re making the choice to move forward instead of staying stuck, that is such an empowered decision.
Were you practicing family law when you were divorcing?
I was a lawyer then, but I was hired by the state of Minnesota as a guardian ad litem in one of the judicial districts there. I wasn’t earning a ton of money, but it was a great entry to me back into the legal world because I’d been a stay-at-home mom for a decade, totally dependent on David. And so it was a major shift for me and obviously things don’t happen overnight. I wasn’t all of a sudden able to support myself perfectly in 2010.
As I sit here today in 2022, it has been a long process of developing and growing my own practice, moving to Seattle, remarrying, and putting all my kids through college with no help from my ex. But that’s okay too. I realized in that parking lot long ago that I could spend the rest of my life being bitter and angry about the financial aspects of things or I could decide to enjoy my life and just let the anger go, not allow it to rule what I was going to be like.
I tend to be kind of playful and fun. My children would call me zany, and I like that about my life. Bitterness and anger tears at you and eats you alive. It just sucks the joy out of every day. I wanted to go on moon drives and look for orca or whatever it is I like to do. I don’t want to be angry and bitter.
And now you get to see orcas out your front window which is just so amazing! That day in the parking lot when it felt as if the world was caving in, it would have been easy to feel like you were losing the core of who you are. But you didn’t let anger take over. You stayed true to who you are and pursued a path where you’re not only benefiting yourself and your children, but now you also benefit so many other families.
How did you end up in Seattle?
Life is kind of funny. My current husband Doug and I had known each other for years. They’d lived down the street from us in New Orleans. Well, both Doug and I found out we were divorcing our spouses of many years and so then we just started seeing each other. Doug flew out to Minnesota and we started seeing each other and we did a long distance thing for a while. That was kind of hard. But then we found it was the right time, and Doug asked me to marry him.
There was some juggling with the kids but they were at good stages. We had one who was starting high school, one starting middle school, and one in elementary school.
I had a daughter who was going to be a junior in high school too. She really blessed the move and that was great because that was the one I was most concerned about from a transition standpoint.
Then moved to Seattle and have lived out here ever since. And you know, no doubt blending families is rocky. Even with our children who knew each other since they were iddy-biddies. They grew up down the street from us in New Orleans so our children knew each other since the oldest were around kindergarten age, down to me having baby Ethan.
So, we have done, I think, a really remarkable job of being able to blend a family and give the kids all the space they need to do that successfully. And now we really get to enjoy the fruits of that. You know, as we enjoy our young adults from all over and get to travel with them, spend time with them in different configurations.
I always love hearing stories about your children. You have amazing children and that’s just awesome.
When did you decide to move away from the guardian ad litem and and open Elise Buie Family Law Group?
Well, I still do guardian ad litem work today. Actually I take on less and less, but my passion is guardian ad litem work focusing on high conflict divorce and its impact on children. I have a massive passion for helping children not suffer from high conflict divorce, but that being said in Seattle, I passed the bar here in 2012, I guess I got my license here in 2012. And so then worked for other people here in the family law arena, doing both family law and guardian ad litem work. And then in 2015, I started my own firm. I’m very focused on a law firm that was going to be able to bring working moms back into the workforce and offer that flexibility-
At the time, I had a bunch of kids, you know, middle school, high school. I couldn’t see how I was supposed to sit in the office all day, every day when I’m the football mom, the lacrosse mom, and all the things that I did. It really became obvious to me that I needed so much more flexibility. And if I needed that much more flexibility, so do a lot of other moms.
So I started a firm in 2015 virtually. At the time, I didn’t know necessarily where our firm was headed. But since that time, I’ve been very focused on growing a firm that is a super positive place to work, that offers that flexibility. And it has an amazing law firm culture because law firms are not known for their amazing cultures, and that is something that means a lot to me.
I really have a heart for the idea that we can have it all, but not in the way that I think that sometimes is used. Women in particular, juggle so many things. And I think it is very important that they’re able to have a thriving professional life as well as a thriving family home life. And I think to do that, it requires different parameters than a lot of law firms put in place.
Well, I just love what you are doing. And I think you’re such an inspiration because it’s true, the practice of law doesn’t have to suck. I think I got that from you. I say that all the time, but I mean, It really can be an amazing field, especially for women,managing all of the different things that we do.
Now I want to shift gears and talk about Fair Play, because I’ve heard you talk about the book before and I’ve been listening to the book and you did a great interview with Eve Rodsky on your podcast.
What have you implemented in your own life from Eve Rodsky’s Fair Play?
I found out about Fair Play really soon after the book came out and was drawn to it immediately. Once I started reading the book, I immediately got the card game and I had Doug and I play the card game. I thought for certain he would hold the majority of the cards because Doug is truly a Renaissance kind of progressive guy. He is so supportive. There is no thought in his mind that I should be doing things solely because they’re traditionally women held tasks. He just doesn’t look at things like that. So when we played the card game, it was pretty striking to me to see that even in our scenario, I still held the majority of the cards.
And, and so that made me realize that most women hold the majority of the cards, like 90 plus percent of the cards. Okay. So what are the cards? Well, each card represents a task. One of them is called School Forms as an example. As anybody with children knows, you fill out school forms in the beginning of the year and it is a part-time job for a week. I mean, you are filling out hundreds of forms. Multiply that times the number of kids, and it becomes a full-time job. Anything tasks you can think of are cards, divvied up into different areas.
Things related to children, home. The wild cards are my favorite, like home renovation as an example. And that’s something Doug and I have been going through all 2021. So the cards are divvied up in these different categories and you evaluate the cards and determine a minimum standard of care for each thing. Like what I think might be critical in dinners for example. Maybe I’m a total vegetable freak and I think we need three vegetables at every dinner. Whereas, my spouse might be all about boxed Mac and Cheese and think if he feeds the kid’s boxed Mac and Cheese, every night, we are golden. You know, that can be a real disconnect between couples.
So once you get over the minimum standard of care, then you look at the cards and Eve’s entire point is about the owner’s mindset and owning the entire thing. So conceptualize, planning, and execution. In most families who don’t play this game, women are doing the conceptualizing and planning on almost a hundred percent of things. And then executing, that’s where men step in. And we see it all the time where people will be like, oh, but I drive the kids to, and from soccer. And well, that’s awesome. But who found the soccer team? Who bought the soccer equipment? W·ho decided what size was for the soccer equipment? Who returned the equipment you bought that was not the right size? Who made the medical appointments so you could go get the medical releases signed? Who signed up for the listserv? Who scheduled the carpool? You know, there’s a lot more to just driving to and from, sorry.
I think this is such a brilliant concept because what happens in most families is that spouses take on certain roles, sort of by accident, right? And what I noticed as I’ve read the book is , like I did over the holiday weekend my husband is in charge of the turkey. Like he conceives the turkey, how he’s going to cook it. He went out to the store and bought the turkey. He did all these things and I was just looking at that going, wow, that’s great.
There are so many things that he’s doing that I’m not paying attention to because I’m so preoccupied over here with all of the side dishes that I have to get ready. But when you look at it, there’s really a new found appreciation for the roles that we are playing. And I think the idea of making it a little bit more fair, divvying it up, being intentional about it really opens up such a different conversation.
It’s wildly informative to your conversations in general. Yeah, one of the sections of the cards is called the Daily Grind. And you can imagine with that title, what we’re talking about. You know, meals, laundry, the things that are just constant and get really onerous in some families.
After playing the game, you might end up with a family where one person makes the dinner on Monday, the next one, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, so forth and so on. And it really depends on people’s strengths, interests and time. There’s no set way to do it. What’s fair for my family might not be fair for your family. And in no way, am I talking about divvying up the cards, 50/50, because obviously something like home renovation would be a massive card.
I could do laundry, 20 times over and never hit one day of project managing in the home renovation department, you know? So you’ve really got to look at what works and I’m a firm believer in people working to their strengths. I should not be doing something that I know I suck at. Let’s just not put me in that role. And same with Doug. We are very honest about the things that we’re good at and the things we’re not good at. And if we both suck at it, we’re the first to find somebody to delegate it to if we actually need to do it. Because one of the first things you do when you get these cards is you deal your own deck.
That means you’re going to go through a hundred cards and see if you both care about each one. And if you both don’t care about a card, by all means, throw it out of your deck right now.You don’t need to deal with that because a lot of what we all do comes from what I call the ‘shoulds’. Like we should be doing all these things. I don’t want to live my life by shoulds. I want to live my life by what is important to me and my values and what is important to Doug and his values, not what some outside source says we should be doing.
And how, how does this improve your marriage? I know that’s such a soft serve question, but I’m just thinking, when we’re doing it by default, kind of by accident and we’re never intentional about it. Typically she’s the one who’s conceiving whatever it is that needs to get done. And then he’s left with his to-do list and feels like he’s being nagged all the time.And all that friction is building up. You and Doug had a great relationship before you found Fair Play, but how have you found that this has enhanced your relationship?
How has Fair Play enhanced your relationship?
It’s just been game changing because it allows us to have those conversations that all couples need to have in a way that is not difficult. I can literally say let’s look at our cards again because I feel like maybe re-dealing one of these might be beneficial. If one of us is hitting a wall or struggling or complaining about something, let’s look at it and see what we can do differently.
And the other thing is that it is hard to hold resentment and desire in the same heart. So if your marriage has that resentment, and all of us who have gotten a divorce surely know what that feels like, there is no desire. And so your marriage inevitably is going to die because I mean, without desire and intimacy, why are we married?
There’s a warding off all feelings of resentment that happens when you’re able to communicate fully about the stuff of life. I mean the hundred cards of life are no joke. When you look at the deck, 40 of those cards are just child-related. So if you’re a couple with children, your deck is stacked with cards. It’s so helpful to be able to have this conversation over and over again in a way that is not difficult.
I just took a class to become a Fair Play facilitator. There’s a check-in sheet on how you can check in appropriately, as you’re going through your deck of cards to be sure that you’re having the appropriate conversations at a good cadence for you. It just makes all the difference to be able to have that type of real equal partnership, that then allows desire in your marriage to flourish. Your marriage is just going to be so much better for the conversations that Fair Play brings to your home.
Just thinking of all the kerfuffles that happen in life, all the conflict that gets stirred up by not communicating and all the unspoken expectations and resentment and, you can see what a game changer Fair Play is. You spoke about using this with divorced families in co-parenting discussions and I’m curious about how that works.
What tips do you have for people who are going through the divorce in terms of using this amazing tool?
Fair Play is really game changing for parents who are splitting up and going into two homes, because one of the big struggles in the two home model is communication, and making sure that things are getting covered. I talk to my clients a lot, people who have a 50/50 plan, let’s say they’re doing a week on week off type schedule. To successfully do a 50/50 plan, you need to be more than a 50% parent. You need 200% parents. You need parents who understand the full deck of cards and who understand all the pieces that go into it.
So if you’re in that situation, sitting down with a parenting coordinator or a parent coach, your communication might be rockier to start with sitting down with a third party and helping you create your deck and then deal that deck and then come up with a cadence of how are you going to review it.
Because maybe there’s one parent who’s just phenomenal with the medical stuff. They never miss a follow-up, you know, there is no, oh my gosh, mom, I haven’t gone to the dentist in nine months! You want that person to hold that card.
instead of looking at co-parenting as a competitive sport where the parents are trying to outdo each other or find out how one person fails again, let’s deal that deck to our strengths and let’s look at what’s possible. What does each parent do? Well, what does each child need? And then divvy those cards up.
I think when you have those cards and you’ve discussed that minimum standard of care, so much of the conflict post-divorce is going to be eradicated because as you well know, running your own family law firm, conflict post-divorce can become pretty debilitating for some people.
I call it the organic broccoli versus mac’n’cheese conflict, where people literally are fighting over what they feeding their children. Really, this is what you’re going to damage your child’s psyche over? I think not! And so any structure that we as divorce professionals can bring to co-parents that can deescalate any and all conflict, helps the children and thus help the family.
I love that so much because so much good can come out of constructive conversations and clarifying expectations that really sets families up to succeed post-divorce, which the system itself doesn’t provide. These are not the conversations that the judge is able to have. There’s no time for that and that’s not their role.
It makes no sense that the court is involved at all in family law. Look at the law in every other legal arena, and disputes are solved outside the court. They go to ADR, arbitration, mediation, all kinds of different things. They have long summits discussing problems and solving them. Then with family law, we all just default to the courts so readily. It’s so damaging to families because it creates this win-lose model. And the reality is when you’re raising children, lots of opinions come into it and there is often not one right, and one wrong opinion. Being able to find nuggets of value and being able to work together to create a win-win should be the whole goal of family law. Let’s face i, divorce is here to stay. We should be focused on helping kids navigate divorce successfully so that we don’t have entire generations that are negatively impacted by the process.
It doesn’t matter what legal system you’re in, whether it’s in Texas, because it varies state by state. A lot of people don’t realize that when you get married a whole body of law wraps around your marriage and if you move states, it’s a whole different body of law. There are a lot of similarities state to state, but the legal system process itself is really not set up to help people acquire the skill sets that are necessary. And it’s not because it’s not well-meaning. So often our courts are well-meaning. We have excellent judges. We have excellent professionals in the system, but it’s just not set up. And that’s why working with professionals who come into divorce with that Fair Play or collaborative mindset is so incredibly important.
Do you have a message of hope to share with families who are facing divorce?
I feel like there’s so much hope in divorce, which I know sounds funny at times, but when you are able to look back and see what didn’t work or what failed in the prior marriage, and then turn that mirror on yourself and learn from it and take that opportunity to grow personally. And I mean, deeply grow personally, the results on the other end of the divorce is can be amazing.
The other day we did a video shoot for our firm and one of the things they wanted was past client testimonials. I had a client who had been at the very worst during her divorce. I mean, there were some days she just could not get dressed and even get to my office for a meeting.
So one time I literally grabbed Starbucks and showed up at her kitchen table. So she could just be at where she was, which was really in a bad spot, but that didn’t matter to me. I needed to be there for her right then and there. Well to see her last week and for her to tell me, “I’m a millionaire now. I’m dating somebody who’s amazing and I have an amazing job. My child is thriving and has an awesome relationship with his dad and I’m getting along with his girlfriend who was part of the breakup.”
To me, that’s life goals as a divorce attorney. I could not be more thrilled for somebody who’s been able to take what that traumatic experience and completely flip that pancake and make it a springboard for her success all around.
I love that you shared that and it brought to mind many clients that I’ve seen too, who come in at their absolute worst. It feels like the whole world is closing in on them. And then you see them after the divorce and they look unrecognizable. Physically, everything has changed. And you know, nobody gets married hoping to get a divorce someday. By all means, if you can, work on your marriage and build a healthy marriage. Get the Fair Play book and card game and use those tools. But if you can’t, it’s okay. And not only is it okay, it can be amazing post divorce. And that’s why I’m so thankful to you for sharing that story and the message and the work that you do in your own personal story.
I’m so glad I could be here with you today. And I love that you are doing some more work around positivity and divorce because there is so much positivity in divorce.
There really is. And for those who have found hope for a positive divorce experience in our discussion today, you can find more about Elise, her law firm and her book club, at the following links:
As well as exploring the collaborative divorce articles on our own site.