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It's like Christmas for divorce lawyers. Now that the holidays are over and done with, the professionals who make a living helping families split up are gearing up for the most acrimonious time of the year.
The New Year is divorce season -- parents who toughed it out together so the kids could have a nice Christmas are finally throwing in the towel, and those who've endured miserable marriages are making New Year's resolutions they won't suffer through another year of unhappiness.
In Britain, Jan. 8 is actually known as "Divorce Day" -- which is why CBC chose that date to air their new documentary, How to Divorce and Not Wreck the Kids.
The documentary offers a gut-wrenching glimpse into the lives of three couples in the midst of separating, complete with a torrent of tears -- especially from Sally, a part-time teacher whose husband Lionel is ending their 17-year marriage, leaving her and their three young sons to live in the family home while he pursues a promising career in textbook publishing. She's devastated and keeps breaking down on camera as they hammer out the details of dividing the family assets.
There is anguish and angry words. Carolye, a young graduate student, says rather dramatically, "I didn't think that I was going to survive if I stayed married." It's not that her husband, Roland, is a bad person, she's quick to add. And he's a good father to their two children, aged 6 and 9. But, she says, "For me, the relationship forced me to compromise so much that I felt I was going to die." (What exactly those compromises involved we're never told).
There are also plenty of power struggles. Mel, in the process of completing an MBA, became desperately unhappy after the birth of her twins and chose to leave her husband, Mike. But although she was the one who wanted to leave, she's also the one pushing to have things her way after the split, demanding permission to drop in to see the kids even when it's Mike's turn to have them.
Yet the film doesn't only document pain, bitterness and loss. It's also a manifesto of sorts, advocating a more collaborative approach to divorce -- one that puts children first despite the conflict between their parents.
In old-style adversarial divorces, couples fought each other in court, using the kids as collateral and racking up massive lawyer's fees while devastating each other and their offspring. As divorce lawyer Danny Zack explains in the documentary, "if your client congratulated you at the end of the day on annihilating their spouse, your job was well done."
But there's a grassroots divorce revolution underway in Canada, according to the filmmakers. There were only 75 lawyers practising collaborative law in 2000. But by 2008, that number soared to 2,800, with lawyers like Zack switching to what they feel is a more positive way of resolving problems.
Whether couples do it on the cheap via a do-it-yourself divorce kit (like Roland and Carolye), through a mediator (as Mel and Mike did), or in a full-blown collaborative divorce in which both parties hire their own lawyers but agree not to fight it out in court (Sally and Lionel's route) -- the idea is to minimize conflict and try to make the family work even if the marriage has fallen apart.
The stakes are high. According to Joan Kelly, an expert on kids and divorce who appears in the film, children of unhappy divorces can experience depression, anxiety, problems with authority and are more likely to drop out of school. On the other hand, kids whose parents put aside their differences and manage to work together grow up to be just as well adjusted as children of intact families.
The film's Vancouver-based director, Maureen Palmer, has had firsthand experience with this type of approach, having lived through her own amicable split about 12 years ago when it was practically unheard of. For the first six months after they separated, she and her husband rented a house kitty corner from the family home in Edmonton so they could take turns staying with their daughters, then aged 15 and 11.
When she got a job in Vancouver but her husband was unable to move, they decided he would be the main caregiver for their daughters in the family home, and she would come and sleep on his couch every other weekend. (Eventually she got a room in the basement).
"We stumbled sometimes," she says, adding that they would both occasionally get petty or give in to self-pity. But they managed to rise above for the sake of the kids. It's a matter of Òleading with your better self," says Palmer, explaining she tried to do things in a way she would feel good about when she was 60 and looking back at the impact their decisions had on their daughters.
Apparently it worked, because as adults her daughters told her and her husband they should write a book called How to Divorce and Not Wreck the Kids -- hence the film's title.
But she is not without regrets. She wishes she had been able to spend more time with her girls when they were growing up: "I can't get those years back."
There is no simple happy ending for the couples featured in the documentary, either. As in Palmer's case, it's a question of making the best of a bad situation.
Each couple comes to an understanding, but there's still plenty of pain.
Roland and Carolye -- a model of an amicable split -- can't quite put their nine-year-old son's anxieties to rest. Despite their friendly relations and Roland's assurances that he still loves Carolye as a friend, Max worries that his parents may stop being friends one day.
And even though Sally and Lionel come to an agreement in a way that works for their sons, Sally's eyes are still filled with tears when she says, "I'm proud of Lionel and me."