In this week's Expert Insight, we catch up with Emma Heptonstall, aka The Divorce Coach. Emma helps clients navigate their way through, what can be, one of the most stressful and emotional experiences we can face. If you are looking for some clarity at such a difficult time, then read on.
What exactly does a divorce coach do? How does it differ from legal
representation? And, at what stage do you get involved?
Divorce coaching is not like counselling, nor is it legal representation. It is not a substitute for psychotherapy. It isn’t about ‘fixing you’ - you don’t need fixing!
There are different types of divorce coach - some are coaches who have been through
divorce themselves, they use their coaching skills with their personal experience to support those going through divorce. Others like me, use their coaching skills combined with their legal background in family law to support.
I’m not divorced. I see this an advantage as my coaching comes purely from my objective experience. Each divorce is unique even though they have similarities - each divorcing couple has a different history, value base and financial situation which means that asking your mates in the pub for advice isn’t a smart idea.
It’s my personal belief as a former lawyer that running to a solicitor isn’t the first thing you
should do either! Unlike divorce coaches who don’t come from a legal background, my
coaching helps you prepare practically as well as emotionally. That support can start
before you even leave your marriage.
It’s crucial that you are clear about why you want to divorce. You see, you will take yourself with you when you leave, and by this I mean that if the unhappiness is within you and not in your marriage, you’ll only take it with you.
Most lawyers are not trained to support your emotional decision. Lawyers like it when you can give clear, concise and firm instructions about what you want and need. They like it when you are proactive, follow their guidance and do as they ask. It’s simpler and quicker for you that way too and it will save you a ton of money.
A divorce coach can get involved at any stage, but as with any coaching relationship, it
takes time to build trust. A great coach will keep you focused on what’s important to you
and ensure that you stay on track even when it gets tough.
Men rarely show their vulnerability and emotions openly. What are the differences you have experienced in terms of wants, requirements and behaviours between male and female clients?
In my experience, men come to divorce coaching when they just don’t know where to turn. They’ve Googled ‘divorce’ and read everything they can so most have some idea about process, but they do struggle to admit that they’re scared. By the time they reach me, they can be overwhelmed by emotion and tears do flow.
Men worry about their children and the impact that divorce will have on them. They fear
that they will see less of their children because it’s often (not always), men who leave the
family home without their children. Sadly, many men do see less of their children and this
is damaging to both children and their fathers.
I often experience that men, just as women oscillate between being overwhelmed by
emotion - sadness, anger and frustration and the desire to feel in control of themselves
and the situation by wanting to take practical action. Men are less likely to get caught up and stuck in inertia when they are the main provider financially and they have been the
main money manager in the relationship.
Status is often threatened on divorce. Many divorcing couples see a fall in their standard of living and men particularly find this hard. Living in a smaller property and having less
disposable income can cause feelings of shame and anxiety. Being able to keep up with
peers is important and this can make men anxious when dealing with the financial aspects of divorce.
What mindset and emotions does a client possess when they first see you? And, how does this change when they leave you?
When clients first meet with me whether they are men or women they are often confused, overwhelmed and scared. Divorce is a big deal and I’m yet to meet anyone who has entered into it lightly.
Clients who are leavers often feel guilt, shame and fear of taking the wrong path. Clients
who have been left are often distressed and feel worthless.
Coaching isn’t counselling however, and this means that the work I do focuses on where
the client is now (whether by choice or not), and where they want to be at the end.
Divorce is a rollercoaster for men and women. It’s my job to support them to balance their emotional needs with the practicalities of the divorce process. This takes time and as emotions are worked through and they are held accountable for working towards a divorce that works for the whole family, they can move forward letting go of anger, sadness and frustration to a place where they can accept and move forward into their future lives.
What are the objectives of a typical client when they come to see you?
This is an interesting question! On the face of it, men and women do come to divorce
coaching for with different objectives. Women will come openly looking for emotional
support and information about children, money and process. Men will tell me they want to use a coach before they go to a solicitor because they want to save money!
In my experience however, there’s always more to it than that. Men find it harder to admit
they don’t know what they don’t know, so they come to me to learn what they need to
know so they can have a meaningful conversation with a solicitor. This is actually a very
smart move! It means that they can make better decisions in the long run.
As I build a relationship with my clients, they share more with me about their relationship
history and how they feel about themselves and their divorce. Men will do this as much as women and I have total respect for that as I know it isn’t easy for them. Many men share only with me and carry on ‘business as usual’ with their friends and colleagues.
Issues that men raise are children and money. Again, fears about not being able to
maintain a good relationship with their children and worries that they won’t be able to manage financially are common. Often, an income that supported one household now as to support two and that is a huge pressure for many men.
What advice could you give a father to best prepare themselves for a custody application?
The concept of ‘custody’ left English Family Law a long time ago. I don’t like the term as
it’s very emotive. We now talk about Child Arrangements. The arrangements that a
separating couple make for their children should always be guided by the ‘best interests’ of their children.
The law looks at the child’s right to spend time with each parent, not the other way round. This means that father’s need to be child focused. It’s easy to fall into trap of looking at what works best for you, your work schedule and social life.
The courts expect that couples should work out the child arrangements themselves, and
will only make a court order (Child Arrangements Order) if making the order is better for
the children than not. Courts do not like interfering with family arrangements and you will
be expected to mediate before going to court.
You must be realistic.
Do not say that you will pick the children up from school at 3pm every Thursday if that isn’t realistic. That doesn’t make you a bad father. Bad fathers are those who promise and fail to deliver. Children love certainty. They want to know that you’ll do whatever it is you say you’ll do.
It’s better to under promise and over deliver. To be able to do that, you need a good co-
parenting relationship with your children’s mother. One of the biggest frustrations women
have is that the children’s father lets them down by not doing what he promised.
Don’t be that dad.
Make sure that the time you spend with your children is quality time. Your children do not
need to meet your new girlfriend 3 weeks after you met her - however great she is! Your
children need you.
If you are planning to apply for the children to live with you, ensure that you think about the children’s needs to spend time with their mother. Give her the quality time that you’d wish to be afforded to you.
Don’t use money as a weapon.
Sadly many men feel the only thing they can control in the divorce process is the flow of
money, so they withhold it. They focus on ‘punishing’ the mother totally forgetting that in
doing so, they punish their own children. I have female clients who can’t afford to buy their children clothes whilst their children’s father takes his new girlfriend on holiday. Don’t. Just don’t.
Are you seeing a change in terms of equality for men during divorce? As it’s historically been the woman/mum who is looked on favourably by the courts. Or do you not believe this to be so true in reality?
There has been much in the press recently about the courts beginning to look less
favourable on women. In truth, this has been the position for a long time and I blogged
about this back in 2015.
The average woman can no longer expect to be kept forever by her ex-husband and in all honesty, I have yet to meet a woman who is comfortable with that idea. I have older clients and clients with ill health who are looking at that as a possibility but that is the exception rather than the norm.
It is important however, that men accept that in the eyes of the law, money earned during
marriage is seen as joint money irrespective of who actually earned it. Those men who are at home looking after their children whilst their wife is at work will agree that raising a
family and managing a home is just as tough, tiring and rewarding as leaving the house for an office 12 hours a day.
In respect of children, whilst there isn’t a formal principle of ‘shared care’ in English law,
courts encourage parents to be as open and as flexible as possible with the child care so
that children get to enjoy time with both parents. If fathers are physically able to share
more care of the children, they are encouraged to do so.
There is however, still inequality in the courts where one party has behavioural issues. It
can be either a husband or wife. Manipulation of children, hiding of money, lying and
abuse are still common and the judicial system isn’t designed to deal with these issues.
Are there any tips you would share to people who are in unhappy marriages that makes the divorce process less traumatic?
If you are unhappy, say something. Invite discussion or counselling. Remember that if your marriage is unhappy, your children already know. They feel it before they can verbalise it. Communication is the key to a successful marriage and it’s also the key to a successful divorce.
Be open, honest and put the needs of your children first. Be clear about what you have
financially and what you might need going forward. Be realistic about child care and the
needs of your children.
Think long term. One day your divorce will be over. One day your children will copy the
behaviours they have seen in you and their mother. Be a good role model. You cannot
control they way in which your wife behaves, but you can always act with integrity.
Emma Heptonstall is a former lawyer turned divorce coach and family mediator. She is the author of How to be a Lady Who Leaves - the Ultimate Guide to Getting Divorce
Ready. Whilst She specialises in working with women who want a divorce, her clients
include both men and women who want to leave or who have been left.
I became a divorce coach having seen first hand the emotional and practical impact
divorce has on families, much of which I believe is unnecessary. It is possible to have a good divorce if both parties approach it in an open, honest and respectful way.
I work in various different ways 1:1 coaching, group programmes and I have an online
training portal. As well as How to be a Lady Who Leaves, I’m the author of
Understanding Divorce 30 Daily Lessons - a pack of cards outlining action steps
you can take towards divorce.
Visit her website here
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