The divorce coach

When breaking up is hard to do, she steps in

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sitting in her butter-colored office outside Baltimore, therapist Wendy Iglehart could see from her clients what she knew to be true from her own life: Divorce ravages people.

"They're not satisfied and very angry," she says. "They stay in a power struggle, feeling helpless."

Iglehart had gone through her own divorce at 26 and had watched her parents split, experiences that both left her feeling depleted. She saw how the process could scar her patients but also thought that divorce was the best option for some couples.

So two years ago she signed up for training to become a divorce coach; now, Iglehart works to help guide people through an inevitably difficult process, believing it can be made easier with the right preparation and support system.

Iglehart works with couples who've agreed to a collaborative divorce, meaning they want to work out the terms of their separation without litigation. The process ends only when both spouses (and their lawyers) agree to the final contract that divides their assets and lays out custody arrangements (if children are involved).

Iglehart's role is to handle what the law does not: her clients' emotional needs.

Divorce coaching has been on the rise since the introduction of collaborative divorce in the early 1990s. There's no official license for the profession, though practitioners, who usually have a mental health or mediation background, are required to go through a multi-day training course that meets standards set by the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals.

Iglehart might work with either an individual or a couple and begins by listening to their story. Divorce can feel like "a black hole" for people, in which they have only a vague idea of what to expect, she says. As a coach, she tries to prepare them for the grief and fury that can emerge, imploring them to take up stress-reducing activities such as yoga and ask their friends and family members for extra support.

Often, one spouse has moved on and wants the divorce to wrap up quickly, but the other is still grappling with the unwelcome new reality. "My job is to educate each client about where the other person is in the process," she says. "It's about creating respect, empathy, somewhat of a business alliance, because they still have to co-parent."

Iglehart, the couple and their lawyers are all at the table while the terms of the separation are negotiated. If emotions run high, or the couple falls into a trope of reliving old arguments, she'll ask for a timeout to calm her clients down.

"Eventually they're able to realize that they're going to see each other at their daughter's wedding and graduation," she says. Ideally, she says, they reach an understanding in which "they're going to be okay being in the same room together. They're no longer going to be threatened and hurt."

Iglehart, 39, also works with couples to deal with other issues not covered by the legal proceedings, such as relationships with in-laws, new romantic relationships and what to do when a child misses one parent while staying with the other.

After an agreement is reached, she remains in touch with clients, available to step in if circumstances change (if one party needs to move for a job, for example, or if a custody arrangement isn't working out).

Even the best divorces are excruciating, Iglehart says, but she thinks couples who go through a collaborative process are more satisfied with the result and experience fewer emotional aftershocks.

"It is actually quite motivating and energizing for me," Iglehart says. "We're dealing with it now, in the moment, as opposed to five years later, after the trauma and the damage have been done."

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