Practice Profile

With divorce one of life’s biggest stressors, it’s no surprise that divorce proceedings often reflect a couple’s emotional distress. Between a quarter and a half of all communication between divorce lawyers and their clients involves sorting through clients’ psychological and emotional issues as they arise during the divorce process, according to studies reported in the American Journal of Community Psychology (Vol. 9, No. 5) and the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry (Vol. 55, No. 2).

Lawyers don’t generally have the training to handle those discussions as well as they could, says Massachusetts psychologist and divorce expert Sanford Portnoy, PhD. And that means psychologists have an important role to play in improving divorce proceedings. Portnoy has spent the last 20 years counseling couples thinking of divorcing, educating lawyers on the psychological aspects of divorce, and training psychology graduate students to work in the area.

In the last 12 years, he has also entered an arena he thinks has great potential for psychologists’ involvement: collaborative divorce. The approach brings psychologists together with lawyers to help divorcing clients reach agreements that foster their own, and their children’s, healthy adjustment. Psychologists in this setting can educate clients on what the research says can protect children, such as creating and sticking to shared parenting plans. They can also teach the divorcing couple communication skills to help them negotiate more successfully, help clients and their lawyers keep meetings focused and productive, help lawyers stay collaborative rather than contentious and educate the couple on how to co-parent effectively once the divorce is completed.

“For psychologists, collaborative divorce has a couple of ingredients that make it the best of all possible worlds,” Portnoy says. “When I finish a collaborative case that has been successful, it feels like the most valuable type of service I’ve ever delivered. It’s also lucrative. And that’s an unbeatable combination.”

Teaming up to help clients

The collaborative divorce model was launched in 1990, when Minnesota family attorney Stuart Webb, JD, sought to replace the adversarial process with one that left families feeling less bruised. His framework uses a cooperative, team-based approach that typically involves five people: the couple, one attorney per individual, and a neutral facilitator or coach, who is often a mental health professional. Sometimes a neutral financial adviser plays a role, as well.

Those involved agree up front to keep the process out of court. While the attorneys do represent and protect their clients, they also work together to facilitate the healthiest outcomes for both clients and their children, for example by encouraging open, transparent communication.

“There is no legal discovery process like there is in a litigated divorce case,” Portnoy says. “We expect people to voluntarily produce the financial materials they need to produce” — bank statements or retirement-fund holdings, for example — and they do.

While the attorneys focus mainly on the legal and financial aspects of the divorce, Portnoy oversees the team’s process and the clients’ emotions. Before any formal meetings take place, he meets with the clients to help them define and clarify their goals. These can include spelling out ways to maintain positive relations, protect the children, and create a post-divorce family that works for everyone, for instance, by agreeing to communicate regularly about the children, attend their children’s events together and even create parameters for introducing new partners into the children’s lives. Collaborative teams also see divorcing couples who don’t have children, in which case they focus on facilitating the discussion so it leads to a agreeable settlement, Portnoy adds.

He also encourages his clients to think about the parts of the process they feel will be most upsetting. Common inflammatory scenarios include those where spouses protest what they perceive as insufficient alimony — which they may equate emotionally with abandonment — and disagreements over which party should leave the marital home, often triggered by a wish to avoid the actual physical separation.

“We do a lot of anticipating — it helps them get ready for any hot buttons that may arise,” he says.

Portnoy facilitates the meetings themselves, keeping the couple and legal team focused on the goals they articulated in the beginning. He also helps couples write detailed parenting plans. And he shares research findings on the best ways to mitigate the negative effects of divorce on children, for example by trying to maintain as much consistency in the children’s daily lives as possible, and keeping children in mind when arriving at a financial settlement, since financial hardship can harm the ability to provide good parenting.

“Providing this kind of psychoeducation gives me some authority in clients’ eyes,” he says. “And that in turn gives me some power to move the process forward.”

Handling hot emotions

Besides the more structured aspects of his role, Portnoy performs on-the-spot interventions when emotions run high. In one case, a woman who didn’t want to leave her husband simply avoided talking about topics the team was attempting to move forward on, such as developing a co-parenting schedule and preparing the house for sale. Instead, she brought up past proposals that had already been decided against, raised entirely new topics and repeated the same thoughts over and over again.

In private discussions with the woman and her attorney, Portnoy suggested that during those moments she was likely feeling particularly distressed that the relationship was coming to an end.

“As we put a finger on that, she was able to stop the perseveration and come back to the discussion,” he says.

In another case, a woman had decided to leave her husband for another woman. The married couple was very close, and both felt great sadness about the divorce. They cooperated well until the end, when they started to argue over whether alimony should be time-limited or permanent. Portnoy asked if their inability to agree on this point might be linked to their uncertainty over how to deal with their emotional connection. He asked the husband if he might need an end date to the payments so that he could gain a sense of closure. He then asked the wife if she wanted permanent alimony so she could stay connected to her husband.

His comments hit the mark, and the two began to cry.

“The issue just dissolved, and they quickly agreed on a settlement,” Portnoy says.

Besides its emotional rewards, serving as divorce coach can pay well, since it is not linked to third-party reimbursement. At the same time, the process tends to save clients money: Fully litigated divorce cases cost an average of $155,000, cases that involve negotiation and litigation cost an average of $53,000 and collaborative divorces cases cost an average of $39,000, according to a 2008 article in the University of Missouri School of Law’s Journal of Dispute Resolution (No. 1).

Boston-area attorney Doris Tennant, JD, who has worked with Portnoy on a number of collaborative cases, says she always uses a coach because it makes the process go more smoothly.

“By addressing what’s going on under the surface, coaches can help to move the process along in a more productive and efficient manner,” she says. “Sandy can see things that attorneys aren’t necessarily trained to see. He’s extremely skillful about knowing when to step in and act, and when to listen.”

Getting more psychologists on board

Besides his clinical and consulting work, Portnoy is involved in a number of educational endeavors involving psychology and divorce. He founded and directs the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology’s Center for the Study of Psychology and Divorce, where he trains doctoral students in the psychology of divorce. Key areas include communication skills and a knowledge base in child development, family and couple dynamics, grief processes and the effects of divorce on children and adults, he notes.

He also consults in traditional divorce cases and trains attorneys, psychologists and other professionals on psychological applications to the divorce process—everything from effectively managing highly emotional clients so they stay on track to using differing communication styles depending on the client’s emotional state.

At present, the highest level of training for professionals who want to get involved in collaborative divorce are three-day workshops sponsored by local collaborative law groups. Portnoy, who does some of that training, wants to expand it to a 30-hour certificate program for psychologists. (To find training, visit the website of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals, which lists all of the collaborative law groups in the United States. Or Google your state or local collaborative law organization.)

He also has written a good deal for lawyers about the psychological aspects of divorce, including articles in legal journals and the 2000 book “The Family Lawyer’s Guide to Building Successful Client Relationships,” published by the American Bar Association.

Gina Arons, PsyD, a private practitioner in Lincoln, Mass., who also coaches in collaborative cases, says that Portnoy’s work in collaborative divorce has helped define a new niche for the field.

“Collaborative law is a very interesting side venue that most psychologists and psychologists-in-training haven’t heard about yet,” Arons comments. “Sandy is one of the pioneers who has helped to integrate psychology into this important arena.”

For his part, Portnoy is so sold on its benefits that he’d like to practice collaborative divorce coaching full-time.

“When I give input in a way that takes divorce from being a potentially terrible experience and swings it around to become a more positive experience for children and adults,” he says, “then I feel I have done something truly useful.”


Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.

To watch Dr. Sanford Portnoy discuss other areas in which psychologists’ expertise could be useful, go to YouTube.