“I Just Need to Win”…How Collaborative Professionals Can Help Shift the Paradigm

By Paula J. Swensen, Esq.

Those of us of a certain age remember the immortal words of a successful football coach after whom the Super Bowl trophy was long ago named.

Vince Lombardi famously opined, “Winning isn’t everything…it’s the only thing.”  That’s a pithy and fitting philosophy for a coach to use to inspire his or her team to attain greater and greater success on the football field, but we collaborative divorce professionals know that it is not so useful when it is applied in the context of a divorcing couple.

It goes without saying that everybody wants to win. No one wants to lose, regardless of the undertaking or the endeavor in which one is engaged. We know intuitively from a very young age that winning is “good,” and that losing is “bad”. We all want our team to win, and we become frustrated and sometimes angry, when our team loses. We all know from following sports that when there is a winner, there is also a corresponding loser.

This concept of “winning” is ingrained in our being from an early age, and it has now saturated our culture. We want winners, not losers when we choose employees, spouses, friends and professionals such as doctors and lawyers.

As a certified family law specialist who has litigated, and also mediated many divorces, it never ceases to amaze me when a spouse will say, “I just need to win. You have to help me WIN!”

At such times I am compelled to ask, “What do you mean by “win” your divorce?” “What is a win?”What does a win look like to you?”

Those of us who have dedicated our practice to helping couples finalize their divorces in a more peaceful manner, know that we can bring a much-needed paradigm shift at the beginning of their divorce process to better assist a family transitioning from one household into two separate households.

Our first challenge is often to help spouses understand at the outset that a divorce is not a zero-sum game in which there is one “winner” and one “loser”.  Given the near-automatic reflex to think in those terms, it can take some work to dispel that ill-fitting notion.  Yet, helping to shift the focus from that initial mindset of needing to “win” to one where a spouse can appreciate the benefit of achieving an outcome that is, instead, in the best interest of the family as a whole, cannot be overstated.

As we are well-trained to do, focusing on concerns that each may have rather than focusing on positions is likely to obtain a better outcome for the divorcing couple and their family. We, as collaborative professionals can assist spouses to think slightly differently about this whole concept of “winning,” and to broaden their outlook to include the well-being of their entire family.

How do we help a couple create a “win/win” mindset based on a balanced outcome?

What if a “win” meant using the funds that would have been spent on contentious litigation to instead put toward the children’s education?

What if a “win” meant the ability to stay in the marital home for a period of time so that the children would not be displaced from their school and their friends?

What if a “win” meant that both parents could attend a child’s milestone events: recital, birthday, holidays, special occasion party, graduation or wedding without the child being forced to choose one parent’s attendance over the other?

What if a “win” meant that each spouse was able to move beyond the divorce with a positive outlook for his or her future?

The collaborative professionals have a unique opportunity to assist the transitioning couple to discard the mindset of divorce as a zero-sum game, and to embrace the concept of finding resolutions that are in the best interest of the whole family.

Mr. Lombardi’s familiar adage should rightfully be relegated to the football field, as it serves no useful purpose in helping couples to achieve a peaceful divorce that best meets the needs of their family.