In family law, as in other legal disciplines, the use of alternative dispute resolution has dramatically increased. In a process called collaborative divorce, separating spouses hire attorneys who agree to work together—almost entirely outside of the court system—to reach a settlement ending the marriage. A team of experts, including mental health professionals, financial neutrals, and parenting coordinators, helps the parties resolve conflicts and settle property, support, and custody disputes. For divorcing couples, the collaborative process promises emotional healing and avoidance of contentious litigation. Advocates for collaborative divorce describe the transformational effects of the process in an evangelical tone.
But collaborative divorce has costs. Collaboration can include considerations of marital fault that feminists helped eliminate from divorce laws. By focusing on conflict resolution, even for the purpose of building post-divorce relationships, collaborative negotiations introduce judgments of “good” and “bad” marital conduct, potentially reinforcing stereotyped gender roles, such as the blameless wife and the guilty husband. These heteronormative paradigms are out of date: gender roles have evolved, the population of married people has changed, and marriage rights have extended to couples of the same sex.
Collaborative processes also have distributive consequences. Collaboration privileges wealthy parties who may understate their bargaining power. At the same time, collaboration may not reach vulnerable spouses who could benefit from therapeutic interventions. Collaborative divorce can be blind to situational power and structural inequality.
The purpose of these critiques is not to undermine therapeutic approaches or to argue that law should ignore spousal misconduct. Rather, this Article suggests that advocates for collaborative divorce—including some feminist scholars who have theorized the shortcomings of no-fault divorce laws—might understand better how parties negotiate, and what they may sacrifice, within a collaborative framework.
76 Md. L. Rev. 547 (2017)