This article has been taken from the spring 2015 edition of “Apple” magazine, published by Alberta Health Services.

Avoiding the breakup earthquake of divorce

Ending a marriage is never easy for a couple, and it can be downright damaging for their children when a breakup turns into a battle. Mike Fisher looks at how families can reduce the shockwaves of the breakup earthquake.

When a couple breaks up, it sends shockwaves through a family. Depending on the seismic force of this breakup, anger, sadness, confusion and conflict reverberate through the family.

These feelings can tear apart family relationships in the same way an earthquake tears apart buildings, bridges and other structures. When the breakup earthquake goes on and on, it can generate toxic stress. Toxic stress is never good, but it’s especially harmful to children because it can block or weaken brain development.

“The shockwaves of the breakup earthquake can start early with children very aware of the underlying conflicts,” says Janis Pritchard, a collaborative practice lawyer and mediator with Pritchard & Co. Law Firm in Medicine Hat.

But families can avoid the damage of the breakup earthquake with legal options different from traditional divorce and separation methods.

Avoid conflict in divorce

One is collaborative practice, a relatively new way that divorcing or separating couples can resolve disputes respectfully and equitably and without going to court.

Collaborative practice helps couples focus on their most important goals, especially their children, as they end their marriage, be it legal or common law. It also keeps spouses in control of the process—not lawyers or judges.

Collaborative divorce and mediation are problem-solving rather than adversarial procedures. They are ways for parents to avoid or lessen the shockwaves of a breakup for themselves and their children, Pritchard says. “Engaging the right professionals and organizations can help to calm the shock.”

The right help can calm the aftershocks of divorce

In comparison, the traditional divorce system is adversarial, pitting parents against each other and often increasing and prolonging the conflict. A couple’s breakup does not have to lead to a nasty divorce battle in court, although many Albertans are unaware of the more peaceful options for divorce and separation, says Beryl McNeill, a registered collaborative practice lawyer and mediator with McNeill Family Law in Calgary. She is also past president of the Canadian Bar Association, Family Section (Alberta-South).

Collaborative practice is based on giving families ways to work together and communicate. Lawyers, family counsellors, and financial specialists help and advise a divorcing couple and their family.

Pritchard and McNeill are part of a team of lawyers and family counsellors working to help Albertans understand their legal options to divorce. Almost half of marriages in Alberta will end before a couple’s 30th anniversary.

“The more people hear about this model of practice, the more they choose it and the more other lawyers come on board to be trained,” McNeill says.


Breaking up can be easier to do

These resources offer divorcing or separating couples options to the traditional divorce system.

  • CollaborativePractice.ca: This website from the Collaborative Divorce Alberta Association includes frequently asked questions about the practice and lists registered and trained professionals in your area, as well as family counsellors and financial experts.
  • Newways4families.com: A respected and effective program in Medicine Hat, the New Ways for Families Program helps separating couples with children build their parenting skills and reduce the effects of high-conflict divorce and separation on children. “It teaches flexible thinking, learning how to manage emotions, moderate behaviours and checking yourself, among other skills,” says Pritchard.
  • afms.ca: Visit the Alberta Family Mediation Society website to find registered family mediators and parenting coordinators.
  • justice.alberta.ca: Families can find a range of resources from Alberta Justice and Solicitor General Mediation and Counselling Services, including mediation services to resolve parenting issues. Subsidies available.

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