Family Matters with Reese Law Podcasts
Episode 8: The Emotions of a Family Divided
Working with individuals and couples going through life changes, including medical issues, is Phyllis Palombi's specialty. She has dedicated her career helping people make their relationships, marriage, healthier and happier learning about themselves and communicating needs and goals more effectively. Couples also come to her when they have already made a decision to separate and want to do it in healthy ways. She is part of the Collaborative Divorce Community in Northern Virginia where she team's up with attorneys and financial experts to help people find a more amicable way to divorce with more mental health support for the whole family.
Catherine Reese: Good morning, I'm Kate Reese with Reese Law, we are a law firm, so of course there is a disclaimer, the material in this podcast is not offered this legal advice and is for informational purposes only. You should not act or rely upon information contained in these materials without specifically seeking professional advice. I welcome you to Family Matters with Reese Law. We are a family law firm based in Fairfax with an office in Prince William and we serve Northern Virginia.
In Episode eight of our podcast, we will be speaking with Phyllis Palombi. She is a marriage and family therapist who works with individuals and couples from teens through adults. Phyllis focuses her practice on people going through transitions and overcoming life's hurdles. She is very involved in the collaborative law practice and serves as a coach in that practice and works also with individuals who may be in the practice where she may not be a coach or serving, but is support for an individual who has been encouraged or has chosen to join into the collaborative practice. So we'll talk about that more.
Today, we're going to be discussing aspects of how the ending of a relationship, whether it's between two parents that are married or not married or a family, in which case it is likely a divorce or any sort of separation between the members of a household or family structure, legal or formalized or not. In large part, what happens when these relations terminate and how do you help people in those circumstances? Thank you for joining us. Good morning.
Phyllis Palombi: Good morning, thank you for inviting me. This is such an important service that you do Kate, and what we have found when we have been talking in the community, that people feel very alone when they go through this process and they don't realize the stages and the things that are about to happen. And they feel it's only happening to them. And as a therapist, I think I know I've devoted my career in the early years. It was just to help people who were going through separation and death as well, but transition in life cycles to go through it in healthier ways because the feelings that you experience, it just really knocks you totally off your game and functioning becomes very difficult.
So over the years, a lot of us have found collaborative divorce to be a wonderful aid to help families because divorce can be a very contentious experience. And it really is a process that can divide people even with more difficulty than they would ordinarily. The Collaborative Process Group got together and decided that two attorneys need to talk to each other. And the mental health people have a huge role, as well as the financial people to help couples go through this. And it's not just the couple, it's the family. And that's what we're here to talk about today.
Catherine Reese: Yeah, I've said to many a client, the only system that exists where you're going to have the support of a mental health professional in the process is collaborative law. And this means the court won't put a therapist in a case where one's needed. No, they actually have limited authority in that regard. So collaborative is called the kinder, gentler divorce because we actually see people leaving and walking together instead of staying behind, waiting for the other one to clear the building because they're realizing they're going to be grandparents together and they're going to be at important functions. And should the bride have to decide, do I invite my dad or do I invite my mom? The hostilities so high, can I please have a pleasant day? So tell us about how you work with these folks and how you help them?
Phyllis Palombi: Well, again, it depends on how the couple comes to us. And what happens in collaborative, if I as a therapist and working with somebody and there's a divorce that's imminent or they're going through something, certainly we triage and we see who's involved in the family. And we're finding today that again, little kids, one thinks that when kids are little, that that is the most traumatic experience for a child.
But the literature really talks about the fact that if a couple goes through, a family goes through a situation of divorce with less conflict, that those kids do better than the parents stay together in an unhealthy situation and fight and have conflict. And those kids in the end don't do well at all. So this is what we try to target. And also the other area is the graying marriage, what we call the marriage that breaks after 25 or 30 years. And that's really difficult because sometimes you have kids in college who are starting to date. You have adults who are just starting their own families. And it's terrifying. All the images, it's the death of a fantasy of a dream. It's a dream of what your family was going to look like and just the maneuvering of the family, the nuclear family and the extended family. Who's going to talk to who? Who’s going to be where? How are we going to have Christmas or Hanukkah? How are the traditions going to be upheld that we've held so close for so many years, these traditions? So finding that there's more trauma in a way, in the families that have teenage and older children at this point.
Catherine Reese: The children are more expressive at that point. But also we're starting to see their own futures. And gosh, if mom and dad can't make this happen, should I even venture into this into this water?
Phyllis Palombi: You find that kids, the different ages need different things from their parents. And when the teenager is starting to date or the person, like I have a son who just got married and about to start a family, and they need their parents in different ways and more. So the fact that they have to navigate the waters and if it's a contentious situation, that they then have to choose who they're going to tell what to or who they're going to want to talk to, that becomes an even more difficult situation.
Catherine Reese: And especially with the contentious, which do end up coming into collaborative, we've had many cases where it was fire and they got into the collaborative process and it worked out. But we've certainly seen cases where extended family were affected because maybe a spouse said, “”If you talk to my other spouse, my wife, my husband, then you're on their side, not mine, grandmothers, stop sending Christmas presents, stop sending birthday presents.” They're abandoning their grandchild to support their child. The child doesn't understand that, they understand that they used to have a grandma and now they don't seem to have a grandma anymore.
Phyllis Palombi: You could see it as we're talking, the exponential panic, fear, anger just ripples through a family, and that's the one thing. We've been doing a wonderful program called Divorce Options in the Community. And we really should do some more research on the result of this. But we're finding that people who are contemplating divorce are coming to the seminar to learn the full ways of divorcing, the benefits and the cons of each process, kitchen table divorce, collaborative divorce, litigation and then this mediation. And Kate, I think you made a very important point that the role of the mental health person really is the main stream of collaborative. And that makes a difference, it's a trained process, but you have two attorneys who don't want to litigate, who will work with each other and work with the mental health person. And there's a team. And the second role of the mental health person is to help that team negotiate the process.
Catherine Reese: And the mental health professional also serves as a translator of feelings a lot of the times. And what I mean by that is that the denial of the dissolution of the marriage from the person who does not want to be divorced or the difficulty when the other party doesn't seem to be on board with the concept of ending the marriage can come across as anger and it can come across very strongly as anger. And the coach can be very useful in explaining, what you're actually seeing is hurt. You're seeing pain and hurt;
Not a desire to hurt you more, but they just don't know what to do with that feeling. And so the coaches have been instrumental in helping people understand what's going on and how they feel and the fact that there will be life after the process, there will be life after the divorce. But it's tough when somebody that you love is suddenly being very angry with you. And if you want A that they absolutely don't want A, is that really what their goal is? Or are they cutting their nose to spite their face because they're angry? So the coaches help us break through on the anger issue and that lets a more open minded person come to the table and collaborative. At least that's what we have found.
Phyllis Palombi: Well, if it lowers the anxiety, the fear and the anger, which is a product of those two feelings and also, we're all human. I think therapists are trained to deal with intense feelings and we know how to look through it. But you have other people on a team who are not trained in mental health and you develop biases whether people admit it or not, and they bring that bias to the process, trying to resolve and come to a durable agreement. So the person will also help the team to deal, especially if it's a very contentious case or somebody is so obviously off the wall with anger and trying to get revenge. And, instead of taking sides or feeling that there's a not a bipartisan, if I could use that word, atmosphere, they help people to understand in the team what those feelings are. And it's disgust. And actually, it becomes a sort of process if you're utilizing a healthy process as well as less time consuming. Not in the beginning. People always say, “Well, you have to schedule four or five colleagues in a room.” That doesn't happen that way. Maybe the first meeting is that way. But then there are individual meetings after that.
Catherine Reese: Yeah, as we often explain to collaborative clients or people looking at the collaborative process, even though there is a financial neutral and one or two coaches involved and maybe a parenting coordinator, if there's children that require discussion, even if they're 22, it doesn't matter. They might be figuring out how to support that child through college. The overall cost isn't necessarily anymore because usually the most expensive people in the room are the attorneys and the attorneys are in the team meetings while the parties are meeting with the coaches separately, the financial neutrals separately, the parenting coordinator separately from the attorneys. And so the blend of expertize I mean, do you want an orthopedist fixing your broken leg or an orthodontist? So you have to have to make some decisions. But it's really been quite transforming in some cases where I want it all, he or she gets nothing. Do you really think that'll settle it? No, and they know better, but we're busy being angry and it's real anger. It's a real fear, it’s fear on their part, their financial position. How are they going to end up? But they have a hard time translating that into words.
Phyllis Palombi: There’s a difference between Kate the here and now. And I often say to people, I want to hear from you and five years from now, and I want to know that this process has really transformed the bitterness and the anger and things that you're doing now will help to smooth the way, because you also have to go on and make other relationships in your life. You have to repair and know how to repair the relationship with your in-laws for the sake of their children. Grow a little. There’s a lot of learning how to put anger. At first there's shock, there’s denial. I mean, it's very much similar to what Kubler Ross writes in the stages of grief, but they're actually even seven stages of grief. I mean, she talked about five. I was at Mount Sinai, I ran a clinic and Kubler Ross was there. And we learnt even on the medical floors, I mean, so much about her work.
And it's really been expanded on in terms of her theories, which are wonderful. So the team also benefits from the coach, the mental health person who was the coach to talk about and educate attorneys and financials about the stages that people go through, because you can have a couple who is totally dysfunctional, because when you're in shock like that, your work falls apart. You can't concentrate. There are physiological stresses that one goes through that I'm sure you've all seen on the team. How can we get this moving? She can't even function or he’s having chest pains. And how do we get through all this in a healthy way? And I think that's why paying attention to the mind body is really critical here too. And I am just so pleased with this process because it really creates healthier and more durable resolutions.
Catherine Reese: And the goal is to have your clients come out in the best possible way. Litigation isn't that, litigation is handing your case over to somebody you don't know to make decisions about your life in approximately five to six hours a day of a trial day for however many days that you're scheduled. And you don't get to have the flow of information in a trial that you can in a collaborative process because of the rules of the court and rules of evidence. So this is all about the people being all in and committing to complete the process where they're open, they're open to sharing information, they're open to figuring out concepts. Sometimes the end result is totally different from what they think on the way going in.
I definitely want to keep the house turns into let's sell the house. I definitely get to move to New York City. And you're going to have to figure out a way to get the kids to me at least every other week to my kids need me and I'm going to stay here. So it's been very interesting to see how people deal with the different choices. But usually in the beginning, their choices are not made in an informed way. They're made while they're in these various stages of grief, the worst being the denial when they really are not interested in participating. And then the anger is an issue. But that can also be worked through because eventually we get to trying to figure out how to make things work. And we do.
Phyllis Palombi: Well, there's so much pain. If there's just two aspects of this, I mean, just pick yourself, God forbid, you're sitting in a courtroom and you had all these hopes and dreams and you love this person and you may still love the person, but you can't live with them. And you're as a stranger sitting up there. Imagine sitting there and he's talking numbers. This person is just saying with anger, “This is my life you're talking about. This is how I'm going to function. This is how I'm going to figure everything out and feeling terribly alone in that process.” So I think that handholding and listening is certainly a critical part in helping somebody come out the other side in healthier ways and it's crucial.
And then you also have guilt, which is another stage that Kubler Ross doesn't really go into that much, but we have found that even the person who wants out, who's thrilled this is happening feels they're getting what they need. There is a rebound effect on that. At some point it is, look what I've done. Have I done the right thing? There are doubts. And I think being able to really work through that process really helps in the long run for the health of that person as well. And the ability for that person to come back to that spouse, the other spouse and say, “Look, I may have wanted this, but you know in your heart of hearts, this was the best thing for us. But let's try to work together.” I mean, people can get to a point to say, “Look, I don't hate you. I'm not trying to do this to be that vindictive.” So I think that in any breakup, I have found the couples who completely shut off.
Now, here if you have a court situation or mediation, you have these dates and you have agendas and you have to get through this. In collaborative, there is some space in between that you then can really talk to the team or your coach and there's advice, there’s feelings that get handled and it is such a better resolve in the end.
Catherine Reese: It is. And I think it's usually a more fair result because guilt goes in the other direction as well. They can just have everything. I don't need anything. It's not a true statement when we are asked, “Well, how are you going to live? How are you going to get by with not enough income, et cetera, et cetera?” But they are just thinking this is the easy, quick way out, when in fact it's going to be financially harmful for them in the long term. So in the collaborative process, when we say, “Okay, well, let's look and see what a person needs.” We are usually able to have a more complete conversation that relates to what would be a fair outcome where nobody has lost their shirt. Both parties have a fair amount of cushion should assets provide for it, but certainly enough to live on. And the results usually don't have to be balanced. This is not, okay, collaborative equals 50/50, but they will be balanced in relation to the interests and needs. And that's how people end up coming to agreement, when they feel their interest in their needs are met, they have a comfort level and there's an audible sigh of relief when they know that they're going to be okay.
Phyllis Palombi: You’re breaking up some important things, because one of the other stages that hit people is depression. If you go through the anger and the denial, the reality of the sadness really comes through. And it's very hard to negotiate, as you mentioned, somebody giving away the store because they feel they just can't go on. And I think that this is where the mental health part of the team really helps that person to negotiate in a healthy way for themselves to agree that, “Yes, you're not functioning now. This is normal. Your feelings are normal. But let's look to the future together. Let's look at the reality of what the numbers say you do need or what you have been living on. There's no reason why you can't continue that. Every situation is different.” To understand those stages and what people go through is really critical to the future of the person and the family.
Catherine Reese: It is because actually they don't even know what's happening to them. And that's often easily seen when they are being extremely angry, but it's really hard. That's one of the first times that we can start to see how impacted the person might be emotionally by what's happening to them.
Phyllis Palombi: Also, the reconstruction phase, the acceptance phase, how many times have we heard down the road? I've gotten calls from people, it was a horrible process that we went through when we didn't when we did the collaborative. Of course, it helped. But that I'm looking at it now. And you know something? I'm really happy or now than I was. And I am ready to move on. And you can't go back to a judge and say, “By the way Judge, this is how I feel.” But you can go back to your team in the sense of having another conversation and resolution and say, “I felt that way then and I'm starting to feel differently.” And yes, somebody can go into individual therapy, but they're not involved in the actual process.
Catherine Reese: Phyllis, thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate you participating in this. Can you give out your phone number or how you'd like to have people contact you?
Phyllis Palombi: My office number 703-435-7686. And the collaborative professionals of Northern Virginia has a wonderful website where these diverse options workshops. Usually, we used to do two a month, I think, with the pandemic, we're doing Zoom and we do it once a month now. I posted one last month and this one coming up.
That’s a wonderful workshop as well. But if anyone has any questions, of course, I'd be happy to talk to them.
Catherine Reese: Great. Well, I am Kate Reese of Reese Law and we are at 703-279-5140, ReeseLawoffice.com is our website where you can also find our podcast. But there's also a podcast channel. So plenty of ways to reach us. And we're happy to discuss all of the options for processing. And sometimes collaborative isn't the fit, but we're finding that it is more often than not, once people understand what the process is and what it has to offer because the benefits are long term. That’s not necessarily the case any of the other processes. So it's kind of one and done and that's it. So with collaborative, your team actually stays in place after the agreement signed if an issue comes up and that is again a much easier way to handle it than having to go back and emotion, reopen a case, etcetera.