When break­ing up is hard to do, she steps in

The Washington Post Sunday - - ONLOVE - BY ELLEN MCCARTHY mc­carthye@wash­post.com

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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