REDEFINING; divorce; FAMILY MATTERS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

OLD DEFINITION

(de-vors) noun. legal and formal dissolution of marriage. generally painful, humiliating and messy process. [see related: divorce lawyers, accusations, bitterness, acrimony, hefty fees]

NEW DEFINITION

(de-vors) noun. cooperative process where two parties reach agreement to dissolve a marriage with less red tape, hostility and harm to children. [see related: mediation, arbitration, collaborative divorce]

When David and Ilene Zeitzer of Columbia decided to divorce after 31 years of marriage, they found they could agree on at least three things: No lawyers. No warfare. No recriminations.

For the Zeitzers, contentiousness was out. They wanted to find another way to resolve their situation.

"We didn't want to hurt each other, and we particularly didn't want to hurt the children," recalls Ilene, 54, whose two daughters are now 24 and 26 years old. "We wanted to retain our respect for our relationship and what it had been."

Divorce is never easy -- just ask any of the nation's 19.4 million adults who have experienced the process. But lawyers, judges and other family-law experts say they are seeing more participants like the Zeitzers -- divorcing couples who are intent on reducing the level of conflict.

That groundswell has given rise to a profession virtually unknown two decades ago -- divorce mediation, where a third party helps couples reach a cooperative divorce agreement. And it has spawned experimental efforts like the Minnesota-based "collaborative divorce" movement, where lawyers pledge to handle a client's divorce only if they settle outside a courtroom: Reach an impasse in mediation, and both lawyers must drop their clients.

"I think the worm is turning," says Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education in Washington. "There's a lot of misinformation and ignorance about divorce. It wasn't that people were bad or determined to be adversarial, but we didn't know how to do it right."

When Stanley L. Rodbell opened his divorce mediation office in Columbia 18 years ago, "people were suspicious of it." In less than a decade, mediation gradually became accepted, even commonplace, in Maryland. By the late '90s, it had become mandatory for many divorcing couples.

The advantage of mediation is that the mediator represents neither the husband nor the wife, but merely tries to help the two parties negotiate their settlement. It is less formal, less intimidating and less confrontational than a trial.

"I don't get much argument from people when I ask, 'I guess you want to do this with your dignity intact and spend no more than you need to?' " says Rodbell, a lawyer with a degree in social work. "Most people don't want to go to war."

The price advantage

Richard Jacobs, a family-law attorney in Towson, says most of his clients opt for mediation or arbitration (a more formal process where lawyers are present) rather than seek a full trial -- if only because it is far less expensive.

Mediation may cost as little as a few hundred dollars compared with the thousands of dollars and sometimes tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills generated by a contested divorce.

"When people seek war rather than settlement, no one is happy at the end," says Jacobs. "Clients may say in the heat of the battle they'd rather give me the money than their spouse, but they don't really mean it."

Even when couples are ordered into mediation by the courts, the chances they'll negotiate a settlement are high -- 50 percent or more, according to some estimates.

"People come into the process, and they are not themselves," says Aza Howard Butler, director of custody and mediation for Baltimore County's Circuit Court. "They're angry. They're hurt. They're overwhelmed by their emotions at a time when they're being asked to be smart and think."

"But when people are introduced to the fact that being vicious to another person affects their children, some of them actually get it," she says. "You can get to them if they love their children more than they loathe the other parent."

Initially, mediators were seen primarily as a way to resolve custody and visitation disputes. More recently, they've been called upon to tackle the financial issues of divorce such as child support and alimony.

That's left the profession in a quandary: Should a mediator be a lawyer or a mental health practitioner? Lawyers argue that non-lawyers shouldn't be relied upon to settle financial disputes.

"On the other hand, the folks who are really equipped to handle custody and visitation issues are typically mental health professionals and not lawyers," says Thomas C. Ries, a Towson divorce lawyer.

In Minnesota, couples can opt for a collaborative divorce, where lawyers place a premium on settlement in a "dignified, nonadver- sarial manner," says James D. Gurovitsch, a director at the Collaborative Law Institute, a nonprofit center in suburban Minneapolis where lawyers are trained in the subject.

The requirement that both lawyers withdraw from the case if the clients fail to reach an out-of-court agreement makes a huge difference: Lawyers have no incentive to argue, while clients have an incentive not to argue, Gurovitsch says.

Developed in 1991 by lawyers dissatisfied by the adversarial process, the program now has more than 40 participating lawyers in Minnesota, and similar programs have popped up in Ohio, Massachusetts and northern California.

"It reduces the emotional agony," says Gurovitsch, who also practices law in Brooklyn Center, Minn. "It's very difficult when a family breaks up. It's even more difficult when they face each other in contested divorce proceedings."

Divorce education

But efforts to reduce conflict are not just about mediation or other forms of "alternative dispute resolution." Family law courts now commonly require divorcing parents to attend divorce education classes.

In Baltimore County that means parents are often ordered to attend two three-hour sessions that focus primarily on teaching them the effects of divorce on children and what they can do to lessen the harm.

"This is about how children react and how parents can work together when they don't live in the same house," Butler told about 100 parents on a recent Saturday morning class at the county courthouse in Towson.

Risa J. Garon, executive director of the nonprofit Children of Separation and Divorce Inc. in Columbia, which also conducts divorce education classes, says efforts to ratchet down conflict through education and mediation have "really picked up steam" in the last half-decade.

"Divorce doesn't have to destroy children," says Garon. "But it does when they're placed in the middle of a conflict."

Divorce lawyers, who are sometimes blamed for worsening the conflict, say they've made efforts to be less adversarial, too. Sometimes, that means sending a client to a therapist when he or she isn't capable of making rational decisions.

"A good lawyer educates a client on the law and what is reasonable in their case, then presses for settlement and mediation," says Miriam E. Mason, a Tampa, Fla., attorney and president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

For Jacobs, who has practiced family law for 25 years, it means clients are sometimes referred to Alice Dvoskin, a Baltimore psychologist who is experienced in child custody cases. With the client's permission, Dvoskin and Jacobs will even share their observations, making it easier for the lawyer to understand a client's emotionally charged issues.

"I usually get the call when a person is so hurt and angry, they really need counseling so they can put their issues second and look at the needs of the kids first," says Dvoskin.

Not for everyone

But not every divorcing parent is a good candidate for mediation or out-of-court settlement. Some lawyers say clients march into their office wanting to hire a pit-bull litigator to savage their mate and won't be satisfied with anything less.

"Everyone can place themselves on a continuum where they feel more comfortable being angry or being sad," said Rodbell. "Some people keep their sadness at bay by going to war."

Even proponents of low-conflict divorce can't prove many of its beneficial effects. Do children of low-conflict divorce fare better in life than the children of more litigious parents? Are parents with mediated settlements less likely to return to court to resolve future disputes?

Mediation's proponents believe the answer to both questions is yes, but admit that neither question has been answered satisfactorily by scientific research.

"Some people you can't reach by just counseling them to be nice or suggesting mediation," says John Crouch, an Arlington, Va., divorce lawyer and executive director of Americans for Divorce Reform. "If anything, low-conflict divorce is a small trend. It's just not going to work for everyone."

It worked for the Zeitzers, whose divorce was handled by Rodbell. Both say their divorce was painful -- and not without arguments. "It still got a little testy at times," says Ilene, a Social Security Administration employee now living in Washington. But they are satisfied with the outcome and the money they saved by not hiring outside attorneys.

Still, their divorce was easier because their children are grown. Had custody, child support and visitation become major issues, it might have been more difficult, they say.

"We worried we might blow up or get emotional or hit some hot-button issues, but we kept it on a high plane," says David, 57, a contract specialist for a Silver Spring business consultant. "Given the circumstances, I'd say it was noncontentious. We didn't go off the deep end."

Minimizing harm to children

It's not divorce that harms children nearly as much as how parents divorce that can hurt their kids, says Bethesda child psychiatrist Dr. Ted Beal.

Beal, a proponent of mediation, often tells divorcing parents that if they want to minimize the harm, they should first make a pact: Never fight in front of the children.

"Get divorced in a highly conflictual way, and the children will have problems," he says. "But when a divorce actually lowers the conflict between parents, it's often helpful to the children."

He says it's all right for parents to disagree, but not if the argument escalates to an angry, no-holds-barred, anxiety-producing battle.

"Once it's a personal attack, it's not helpful," he says.

How should you talk to your child about a divorce? For pre-schoolers, the message should include a reassurance about safety and continuity: "Tell them who is going to pick them up, change them, put them to bed," says Beal.

Children ages 4 through 6 may be prone to blaming themselves for a parental break-up and should be reminded frequently that it's not their fault, he says.

Grade-schoolers often feel embarrassed by divorce and should be taught that a lot of their peers have gone through the same thing. Peer support, says Beal, is particularly helpful for this 7 through 11 age range.

Beal says older children should be told what's happening in a straightforward manner -- even including the reasons for a divorce if that's appropriate (sex talk is definitely out of bounds). But take your cues from the teens, he says, because the "average kid doesn't care about the details."

"The more parents can do this together, the better," says Beal. "It's surprising how often a husband and wife who don't get along at all can still work as parents."

Resources on the Web

* www.divorcecentral.com

Divorce Central includes a bulletin board to post divorce-related questions, a chat room and even a personals link.

* www.divorcehelp.com

Divorce Helpline is aimed at helping couples reduce conflict and stay out of court and includes worksheets designed to minimize your need for a lawyer.

* www.divorceinfo.com

Divorce Info keeps state-by-state information on divorce.

* www.divorcenet.com

DivorceNet puts you in touch with fellow divorced men and women across the country through bulletin boards and chat rooms.

* www.divorce-online.com

Divorce Online is sponsored by the American Divorce Information Network, which supports an interdisciplinary approach to divorce.

* www.divorcesource.com

Divorce Source offers a wide variety of information and can help locate lawyers, mediators and other professionals in your area.

Source: "Divorce for Dummies" by John Ventura and Mary Reed (IDG Books Worldwide, 1998)

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