We all feel pain and loss when a marriage ends and we could all use some professional help to come out the other side. The CEO of a major corporation and her administrative assistant are on equal footing when it comes to the emotional fallout from a divorce. It’s how you handle that challenge that makes the difference.
Executives hire a professional coach to help achieve personal and professional growth. Building a new life from the ashes of a divorce is even more challenging, but there are similar steps in the process.
When we think of the word “coach”, we imagine someone who is vibrant, inspiring and able to provide us with the practical tools to make positive change in our lives. That’s Deborah Mecklinger LL.B., M.S.W.
Deborah is a Professional Coach, Mediator and Therapist with over 20 years of experience working with individuals, couples and families who are focused on navigating the process of divorce in a healthy and positive way.
She is passionate about helping people realize their goals and build on their strengths. Deborah is compassionate and down to earth. She developed her “Walk the Talk” coaching practice using a multidisciplinary approach to life’s challenges based on her experience and education in conflict resolution and mediation. She is also an accomplished lawyer with a Masters in Social Work.
Deborah has taught mediation at the University of Toronto and at Seneca College. She attended The Adler School of Professional Coaching, University of Toronto Graduate School, Osgoode Hall Law School and Oxford University. Her practice is located in Toronto, Ontario.
First Wives World had the pleasure of speaking with Deborah about overcoming the challenges of the divorce process.
You have such an accomplished background as a lawyer, mediator, therapist and coach. What was your original goal and how did you manage to achieve all of that?
Deborah: In terms of the law, I didn’t practice law for too long of a time. I would say I owe law a thank you card for helping me know that I didn’t want to practice early on, so I started to pursue other things. I became aware of mediation at an early stage when I was articling. I decided that I wanted to start practicing mediation and I became certified as a mediator.
Not much was happening in Ontario at the time, so I applied for an internship in two states that were more progressive. At that time, California was one of the leaders in mediation in matters of custody and access and the State of Florida was well on its way.
I applied and received an internship in the Fort Lauderdale courts in the Family Mediation and Conciliation program in Broward County where they ultimately offered me a full-time job as a divorce mediator. I continued to take classes at a well-known dispute resolution center: CDR Associates, formerly known as The Center for Dispute Resolution (now operating as CDR Associates in Boulder, Colorado).
They offered me an opportunity to mediate and to teach and train others, so I moved there for a period of time. I came back to Toronto as I had deferred my bar exams. Upon graduation, I took a job as a litigation lawyer for the Catholic Children’s Aid Society. Of course it was interesting and challenging, but it wasn’t what I truly wanted to be doing. I did that for about a year and then decided I really wanted to pursue my passion in mediation .
I spent a period of time working as a conflict resolver at the Sutton Place Hotel where I did employer/employee dispute resolution. It was also the time when the United Steelworkers of America were taking over the hotel and it was becoming unionized. It was a really interesting time, but while I was there I was offered an opportunity to work with and then oversee a colleague’s mediation practice while they were going on sabbatical. That was really what I wanted to be doing all along. I decided that I wanted to go back to Graduate School and do my Masters in Social Work, in order to add a therapy and clinical component to my practice and ultimately have my own practice.
I worked in clinical settings while I built my practice and that’s now twenty something odd years later that I’ve been doing divorce mediation. About seven or eight years ago, I decided that I wanted to give a name to what I was doing in a different part of my practice, which was strategic work to help people define very clear goals in the divorce process and providing them with practical solutions and tools. I attended The Adler School of Professional Coaching and did the coaching program and then continued to offer more of that piece to clients – the divorce coaching piece.
A couple of years later, I went to New York and did a Master Certification in stepfamily coaching. My goal is to be able to offer an opportunity to approach divorce in a more mindful, practical way from the point of entry to the end of the process where one might be reinventing themselves and/or dealing with stepfamily issues and all the things that happen throughout the process.
There are thousands of nuances that become complicated choices around behavior and practices, to coming out of that journey and being in a good place. That’s a lot of what I do in addition to the divorce mediation. I always say that it was because of my clients that I developed this piece of my practice. Clients would invariably say, “You helped me with the divorce process, now I’m dealing with this issue at work and I could use some of that practical guidance.” Perhaps they were thinking of building a business or they had a child who needed help. That led to the other facets of my coaching practice; same wine in different bottles.
I imagine that a lot of women who have been divorced need to make changes such as re-entering the workforce after being a stay at home mother. They need guidance with a number of things, like how to fit into the workplace or get a better job to support a family.
Deborah: Absolutely. I have a woman I am working with right now who is bright and articulate and mindful, but she has no confidence and she doesn’t see any of that. Every step of the way is a challenge because she doubts herself. It’s a bit different for this woman because it’s been quite some time since her divorce and she’s in a healthy relationship. For the woman who’s just had a divorce – it’s a beat oneself up kind of process even at the best of times. You are full of doubt and shame and second guessing and questioning, even if there isn’t somebody who has helped to bring you down. To try and show the world your best self and tell a potential employee that you are worthy is hard if you don’t feeling worthy and confident.
They are now calling this trend for older couples getting divorced after many years, the “grey divorce” Are there older women who have maybe lived a different lifestyle and never worked outside the home and need help to readjust? I’m sure it still happens.
Deborah: It happens because it has to happen, depending on the resources of the people separating. It can be very frightening. Many women are being forced to go back to work because they can’t afford not to. It depends on what’s in the joint pot. It takes a certain amount of money for two families to live off the fat of the land of one, as they make their way into retirement . It’s a really scary thing for older women entering the workforce. It’s certainly very complicated. Young women should never stop working!
The Grey Marriage Photo by Abdulsalam Haykal flickr.com/photos/transtek/ (Some Rights Reserved)
You wrote an article about another form of “grey marriage” – the kind where there isn’t abuse or real nastiness, but it is an unfulfilling union. You are the first person I’ve heard talk about this, most people focus on the really bad marriages. Grey marriages are probably more common.
Deborah: The decision to divorce is a really tough one and when I hear people say divorce is too easy or happens so easily, I don’t agree. I’ve yet to see somebody divorce easily or fly out of a relationship. Someone on the outside of the relationship isn’t seeing the anguish or living through the years of thinking about something before someone does something about it.
In what I call the grey marriage, it is possible to live a life where you stay in the marriage; it’s not that it is impossible. The choice to have perhaps a more meaningful life, a more fulfilling life – it’s hard for people to take care of themselves that way or honor themselves in that way.
It isn’t that the marriage is toxic or abusive or has what one may call a “non-negotiable” like infidelity, addiction, or some other intense betrayal that people would, in popular culture believe justify divorce. If you don’t have the requisite criteria that falls into the “divorce-worthy bucket”, it can be even harder for people to make the decision to divorce. It doesn’t mean that making the decision to leave isn’t the right decision, but it may be harder to be sure – because staying is viable. Moreover, it’s hard for people to believe that they are going to get emotional support from their circle of friends, family and their world at large.
Is the whole culture around divorce changing and becoming more positive and less adversarial? There seems to be more access to mediation and coaching to make the process better by working with people like you.
Deborah: I think that there is definitely more awareness and commitment to a more peaceful and healthier process. I’d say that there is more of an emphasis on a peaceful process when kids are involved. It’s a trend that has taken over in matters or custody and access, which is very important. I work with a lot of experienced lawyers in Toronto and I would say that the more sophisticated the lawyer, the more committed they are to a healthier process. An experienced and mindful lawyer knows when to use an aggressive forum and when not to.
I’ll meet a client who will say, my spouse hired so and so and I hear that they are a barracuda. Now I need a killer shark. I’ll say, so and so is not a barracuda, they are a mindful and sophisticated practitioner. I don’t find that things are thrown to the wolves just for the sake of it, by a skilled practitioner. Sophisticated practitioners are good negotiators, they know when issues should be in a mediation, arbitration, or litigated. Not as much gets “duked out” with healthy people. There is still plenty of “crazy time” and anger, that’s for sure, but I just think there is more happening in alternative arenas.
A lot of people don’t know whether they need coaching, therapy or mediation. Can you explain the processes?
Deborah: Mediation is a process where a neutral third party in a divorce helps the spouses negotiate agreements in a peaceful way so that both parties are part of the solution. The mediator doesn’t tell people what to do; the mediator is a neutral guide who helps facilitate the decision making process. In an ideal world, the two parties are both satisfied because they have been part of the process. It’s a very practical problem solving process with clear goals that are concrete. The outcome is typically an agreement of sorts, depending on what the outstanding issues are. In matters involving custody and access, it may be a parenting plan, a timesharing arrangement, day-to-day guidelines, as well as arrangements regarding all the practical pieces that impact people who are separating.
Divorce mediation can also result in agreements regarding child support, spousal support (alimony) and property division. The goal is to reach an agreement that helps people avoid an alternative process that is more conflictual.
It’s hard to “bucket” therapy because there are so many different kinds of therapy. Typically, therapy involves dealing with the emotional world and how one feels. In divorce, therapy is a process to help people cope with the emotional journey. It’s about understanding what happened – who am I in this, how have I contributed and what’s going on in the emotional world. As well, it is about the wounds, healing and recovery.
Coaching from my perspective kind of fits into the black hole that I don’t think either process deals with specifically – I’m navigating my way through divorce, there are many challenges and I need tools and strategies to help me cope. While I am trying to feel better, I need to behave better. What should I do?
The thing that I find about divorce is that it can take a really long time to understand. Sometimes people still don’t understand years later what their piece was, what actually happened, or they may have a version or a theory. While understanding and healing occurs people still have to cope, manage and tend to children, business and important matters. I help people to develop practical tools, coping strategies, intentional behaviors, mindful approaches to challenging situations, and adaptive practices that can be employed day-to-day as they navigate the landmines of divorce.
I deal with goals versus wishes. A goal must be achievable and it must be something you can do on your own. I try and encourage people to clearly delineate the difference between wishes and goals. The coaching process in divorce helps people to harness the pieces they can take control of in a time and a world where they feel very out of control.
It seems like more people are seeking out a professional coach for everything from life coaching to executive coaching, and all of life’s challenges.
Deborah: It is a luxury, but if we can afford it, why not have somebody to help us get clear about what our choices are, help us to be more intentional and to develop outcomes that serve us? On the other hand, how can we afford not to use a coach? The divorce process is overwhelming and confusing and people often don’t see how they can “self-direct”. It is particularly interesting helping people during this time of tumult. Clients need to have a template for what they need to do. How do I talk to my children? When my spouse and I are separating and we are still sharing space together, what are the rules of engagement? Every minute of every day is an opportunity for them to make practical choices and to develop tools to cope in areas that are brand new and challenging because the ways to go wrong are so plentiful.
Do you work with the entire family?
Deborah: When I am mediating, I work with both parties. As a coach, I see a lot of people on their own. I have many co-parents who I have worked with from beginning to end. They come to talk about their kids and to develop parenting strategies and plans. They may come to ask for help to plan an event – it is our son’s Bar Mitzvah/baptism/christening/wedding/birthday and we need to figure out how to put the event together in a very respectful and elegant way and what’s that going to look like? We have a child who is dealing with a school/ learning issue and we need to figure out how to support his/her dyslexia or we have a child who is ill and need a plan of care. There are so many different issues. I often deal with three generations - grandparents, parents and children.
I can see that, especially in a divorce, the grandparents can feel left out. That must be a major issue.
Deborah: Parent’s most often carve out the role for grandparents in intact families and in separated families. If grandparent’s are excluded they may wish to exercise rights and to use their voice in a process like mediation to resolve issues and or relationships. A grandparent may have a different view of what their role should be. Oftentimes a grandparent is directing a parent and that can be a different challenge. Working with grandparents can offer a holistic approach in many situations and this can also involve education, boundary setting and communication coaching.
These things are very challenging for the people who really want to try and do it right. It’s a great process to get everybody on board and develop healthy tools so that they are all speaking the same language. I try and help my clients develop a new vocabulary and come up with healthier language. However it is a much healthier language if all family members are using it.
How do you break the news of a divorce to children? Even adult children have a difficult time accepting their parents’ divorce, sometimes it is even more difficult for them.
Deborah: I think in the best of situations, the mom and the dad would sit down with the kids together after they have developed a joint message, or a script of what they agree to share with the children. It depends on the age and stage of the children, but having said that, I do think that whether you are forty hearing about your parents’ divorce, or you are four, I don’t know that the forty-year-old needs a lot more information than the four-year-old, or wants a lot more information than the four-year-old.
I really believe that if parents were to talk to their forty-year-old kids like they would a four-year-old, they would do a whole lot better. For the most part, when they talk to the older person, they share a whole lot of information that is not appropriate.
I think components about telling children about divorce, if it is a healthy child that is developmentally on task, if they are narcissistic and thinks about how this impacts them – I think they are best served by understanding it’s a hard decision that the parents haven’t arrived at easily and that the parents still care for one another but are not able to be happy together in a way that is important to each of them.
They have to let the children know that they have decided they would both be happier to be leading lives on their own but they love the children deeply and will be there for them, separate and together. It’s important to let them know that nothing that has happened is the children’s fault and that though it’s going to be challenging, they are both going to be there to help them through it.
In terms of content around why this is happening; the inner workings of the relationship and the dynamics, I don’t think that any kid needs to be a part of that nor do they want to be a part of that. I think that is stuff that should be shared with a therapist or their best friend over a cocktail or a cup of coffee and not their children.
The most important part of the conversation with their kids is, what’s life going to look like? So the conversation is best had when parents are clear about what the next steps are and what the kid’s life is going to look like and having a plan in place. That is what gives the kids confidence, security and stability – those important pieces that will keep them grounded comforted and an anchored.
It isn’t really divorce that destroys children, it’s the way that people do it that rocks their world. It can be earth shattering at first because their world is rocked and changed. Parents need to go through the process respectfully, decently and in a mindful way where there isn’t conflict. There really can’t be a lot of conflict because the kids are privy to undercurrents. Kids know what is going on with their parents. It is HOW parents navigate their way through the process that affects kids most dramatically.
It’s really not about that “onetime” speech. That conversation is going to happen in a hundred and one ways, on a million and one different occasions. It is going to be revisited in so many different situations and it is an ongoing conversation that has to be respectful and congruent with the opening conversation. Most importantly, it has to be congruent with the parents’ behavior. If the behavior is different than the conversation, then the conversation is moot.
Which brings me to ‘walk the talk’. That is my number one thing – congruence. It doesn’t matter what you say, it’s what you do. You have to act the part, you have to behave in kind and if you are saying one thing and showing them something else, it’s just not going to work. That’s why I try to help people develop behaviours that are congruent with the message. I will tell people long before they are ready to be the part; they have to act the part.
What does it look like to behave like a respectful person in divorce? What does that mean when I want to say “asshole”? What should I say instead? Well why don’t you say, Bob? How about using his name? So let’s start with language. Let’s develop different habits so “asshole” doesn’t slip out. Instead of saying “slut”, why don’t you call her Bridgette, so that doesn’t slip out when the kids are there? Literally, that’s how I drill it down.
It sounds positive and it might work in a different narrative. Ultimately this becomes a habit. I guess you could say I try and help people develop better divorce habits.
Talking it out – Photo by Bailey Rae Weaver flickr.com/photos/baileysjunk/(Some Rights Reserved)
What if you try on your side, but the other person isn’t cooperative? You can only work on yourself. Can therapy or coaching help when the other person is being really negative and awful?
Deborah: It depends. The answer varies, depending on which of those processes you are talking about. If you are in mediation and there aren’t two parties that want to be a part of a cooperative dispute resolution process, one person can’t be in mediation by themselves. I don’t want to deal with people who are coming to mediation to check off a box, they both have to be committed or it just becomes a forum for beating each other up and I don’t want to be a part of that.
I think there are lots of benefits and there are lots of positive outcomes that one can receive from being in therapy regardless of whether somebody else wants to participate in the process. You can’t be in marital therapy by yourself, and you can’t be in family therapy alone, but you can work on personal change that can potentially impact any of those situations on your own.
Coaching as well; you can benefit from individual coaching whether or not someone else wants to be part of the process. In fact, if you are dealing with a challenging person, coaching can be extremely beneficial. I deal with a lot of individuals in my practice who have tried everything to make changes in their situation through negotiation, mediation or litigation. Then they get to the place where they are saying so now what? Now I actually have to cope. A lot of that happens in divorce – once they are finished with the lawyers, it’s kind of like: the patient survived the surgery but died in recovery. Now coaching can begin!
I help people come out of that recovery so that they are not limping, so that they have healthy tools to walk and to manage their world, given their idiosyncratic situations. So if they have an alienating parent, an abusive situation or toxic elements, there are ways that they can deal with challenging situations –financially, practically or with their children. You can think of a thousand and one situations – how do they build their lives, how they make positive productive choices that will serve them given the predicament they have to shake hand with.
Most of us seem to get into these patterns and we never think of new ways to cope or interact. A lot of us alienate our friends and family by constantly talking about our divorce problems. Is that something you help people with?
Deborah: I think people develop habits that don’t serve them. If you think of it more as a habit instead of a pattern, it’s less daunting to change because you can really develop a different habit, a new divorce habit. I try and help people develop different practices, behaviors and habits that will result in better outcomes. It’s a new way of interacting with people: how to deal with the private and the public divorce and the different tiers – what to say to my family, to my first tier friends, to the second tier friends, my children’s friends parents, my employer, my colleagues , etc. It starts by developing a way of approaching divorce that creates a whole way of living with it and a completely different narrative. Your friends are like milk; they have a shelf life and like milk will go bad if you are constantly talking about your divorce. They don’t want to hear about it over and over again. They run out of tools and get depleted. The only person who is going to hear about it over and over again is the person you are paying by the hour. The only person who should hear about it is the one who can help bring about positive change. I try and help people to appreciate that they can make concrete changes and develop healthier divorce habits.
Thank you, Deborah, for sharing your expertise and insight with us.
How do you deal with the situations that divorce has brought to your life? Share your stories in the comment box below.