Because our clients depend on us during their divorce crisis, we are the “go-to” people they will lean on for support, direction, and protection. Optimal functioning will occur when the clients feel safe enough to take in the information and support we offer. To accomplish a climate of physiological and psychological safety, we create a BASIC framework combined of different but interrelated constructs, in which the Collaborative Team works together to:
Our collaborative work begins with befriending—this does not mean we become besties with our clients. Instead, to befriend refers to our ability to be a co-regulating resource for our clients’ nervous systems—a process described by Deb Dana as “befriending the nervous system” (Dana, 2018). Befriending starts with our own ability to remain regulated—even when our client is extremely upset. Because we know that addiction and mental health disorders often stem from missed experiences of safe and predictable connection, often stemming from early childhood, we can help these clients shift from dorsal vagal danger to ventral vagal stability by offering frequent opportunities to co-regulate. Doing so forces attention away from the individual’s disorder to the individual within context (i.e., the already vulnerable client in the middle of getting a scary divorce!). Befriending creates a climate of safety that improves the odds of our clients remaining in their prefrontal cortex which leads to improved communication, clearer thinking, and better problem-solving abilities.
Whereas befriending involves the unconscious process of making friends with our client’s nervous system, attunement is about our ability to consciously comprehend their autonomic state shifts. It is a cognitive process that begins with an attempt to deeply understand how our clients might be feeling and continue as we accurately reflect our understanding back to them—in the clinical world we call this “empathy.” However, attunement requires far more than just validating our client’s upset feelings—it also requires us to act. We accomplish this by making thoughtful adjustments in response to nearly invisible shifts in our client’s emotions, intonation, and body language. A well-attuned professional is adept at reading their clients and responding in accordance with their current needs. In the context of a Collaborative meeting, it’s about the crucial decisions we must make—when we remain silent or when we move to offer comfort—when we take a break, or when we redirect the client to the task at hand. How we answer these moment-to-moment questions is at the heart of attunement.
While the clients will ultimately determine what we discuss in our meetings, it is our job to create the professional structure that determines how those discussions take place. The structure represents the psychological assumption of reliability and dependability throughout the time of the divorce crisis. It has basic, observable, components. At the macro level, it is the collaborative protocols, policies, and procedures that provide the guidelines for any given case. It is comprised of clearly defined professional roles, consistent fee policies, and regular meeting times in a warm and welcoming space. Adhering to structure requires us to follow through on our commitments and enforce boundaries to create appropriate professional distance—although, at the same time, doing good work may require a Friday evening phone call or a Saturday morning email. At the micro level, it is the focused attention and one-on-one support we provide although it can also include supportive relationships between members of the team. Structure at the micro and macro levels is psychologically stabilizing and allows the client to do the difficult work of divorce at their highest level of cognitive ability.
Integration refers to the combination of interdisciplinary approaches, techniques, and interventions from different schools of thought and training that form a coherent and effective Collaborative Process. It is how we combine our individual knowledge and strengths into a customized approach that best meets the needs of not only each client but their larger family system as well. Thus, integration allows us to tackle complex issues that require a broad range of expertise. Some of the benefits include diverse perspectives, increased creativity, improved communication, and problem-solving, all of which lead to better outcomes for the families we serve.
To contain is to allow the client’s painful experiences to impact you in such a way that allows you to help them without being consumed by them—we are with them, but not in it with them (i.e., we refuse to drink the Kool-Aid!). Containment can be difficult because it requires us to simply be with our clients in their moments of deep distress. It represents an emotional boundary we set for ourselves that allows us to manage our clients’ dysregulated autonomic states and overwhelming feelings without also becoming autonomically dysregulated and emotionally overwhelmed. We avoid taking their upset feelings personally—even when they criticize us or speak to us aggressively. Instead, we take a client-focused approach in which we hold space for curiosity, reflection, and understanding. Containment is one of the most powerful tools in our professional toolbox.
Helping our clients manage their fear in the Collaborative Divorce Process requires empathy, active listening, and constructive communication techniques. Unless a sense of safety can be achieved, the fearful client is likely to remain stuck in disregulated states that impede the client’s ability to problem-solve and make decisions. Remember that everyone’s experiences and fears are unique, so it is important to be adaptable and responsive to individual needs. The Collaborative Process requires patience, understanding, and a willingness to support the clients through a difficult emotional journey.