Marla Zipin, PhD

Collaborative Divorce

Marla Zipin, Ph. D., believes that using a collaborative process during divorce can give people a new chance at life. When a marriage relationship is ready to come apart, both parties benefit from a process that protects the remaining trust and establishes a foundation for a healthy future. The collaborative process maximizes the potential for a divorce process to protect and strengthen children, help parties retain their dignity, preserve financial security, and sustain cordial family relations in the future.

As a divorce coach, Marla is dedicated to assisting parents in crafting a parenting plan that ensures that the needs of the children are addressed and which enables amicable and effective co-parenting over a lifetime. For all her collaborative coaching clients, she is committed to helping people develop communication skills, cultivate resilience, and successfully navigate their emotional ups and downs through the divorce process.

Marla graduated from the University of Michigan, cum laude, and has M.A. and Ph. D. degrees in clinical psychology from Long Island University. Her background includes training in collaborative divorce and interest-based negotiation and mediation skills. Committed to her own life-long learning, Marla has received advanced training in family and couples therapy, healing trauma, chemical dependency recovery, mind-body modalities, positive psychology and is a certified professional coach. She has over 30 years of experience working with parents, families, couples, groups and individuals. She actively participates as a divorce coach on interdisciplinary teams in the collaborative divorce process.

State of the Art for Divorcing Couples

The following article, co-authored by Marla Zipin, PhD, and Andrea Hirsh, Esq., has appeared in Washington Woman. Zipin and Hirsh are collaborative divorce professionals practicing in Montgomery County, MD.

Consider a divorce where parties can sustain positive feelings so that over the lifetime of family events -- athletic games, graduations, weddings, births, deaths -- they interact in respectful, productive ways. Envision a divorce that protects children, helps the parties retain their dignity, preserves finances, and supports cordial relations into the future. A divorce that fosters amicability rather than exacerbating adversity—an oxymoron?

According to current research, how a couple behaves during the divorce has a far greater impact on their children than the divorce itself. For couples without children, it is equally important to preserve ties with extended family. This difficult life transition can be navigated without unnecessary pain and even with acceptance and good will.

Divorce, an end to a marriage undertaken with great hope and promise, is unavoidably stressful and difficult. However, collaborative divorce offers the opportunity for divorcing couples to achieve a long-lasting, durable agreement, one that plans for life after the divorce, taking into consideration the needs and interests of the entire family. Rather than filing inflammatory court papers and taking hard-line, emotionally-based positions that diminish self-esteem and draw children into what is often a nightmare of endless conflict, collaborative divorce enables divorcing partners and a team of professional advisors to commit to resolving issues justly and equitably outside the courtroom.

The Collaborative Divorce Model

Collaborative divorce, which was developed in 1990 by Stu Webb, a family lawyer in Minnesota, has spread throughout the legal world. A team of professional helpers from the legal, mental health and financial disciplines provides coordinated guidance and support to help divorcing couples make good choices based on their values and goals, work constructively planning for the future, and reach a lasting, mutually- satisfactory resolution. The team works together to help the parties have the “best divorce” possible. The focus is on hopes rather than fears and the desired future rather than recriminations, blame and the past.

In this multi-disciplinary model, each party retains an attorney and a mental health professional (a “divorce coach”) all of whom are trained in the collaborative law model. These professionals comprise the core of the collaborative team. At times, it is helpful to have a child specialist, who is also a licensed mental health professional, and/or a financial neutral as members of the team.

How is collaborative divorce different from mediation?

What differentiates the collaborative process from mediation, negotiation or litigation is that the parties and their attorneys sign an agreement at the outset of the process whereby both parties agree that will not take any matters to court, or even threaten to go to court, so long as the collaborative process is working for everyone. If the process should break down, the parties can go to court and have a judge resolve their issues, but they have to retain new lawyers and none of the other professionals can be involved. This commitment to keep the divorce out of court changes the entire dynamic of the divorce process. Everyone in the process is working in good faith to assist the parties in reaching an agreement that meets the needs of their restructured family.

All of the negotiations occur in a series of meetings. Some meetings will have all team members present, others -- such as meetings to develop a parenting plan -- may involve only the parties and the divorce coaches, and at times also include a child specialist. Meetings to address property issues may involve only the parties and attorneys, and a financial neutral, if needed.

Stage 1: Goals and Interests

Before the parties can begin to think about solutions, they first identify their own goals for the divorce process and life post-divorce. The team helps the parties explore their interests, not their positions. As an example, a common issue in a divorce is the disposition of the family home. In traditional negotiations, the parties take a position, e.g., “the home must be sold” or “the kids need to stay in the home.” In exploring interests, the question is “what does each party want and why.” The goal of the team is to find the solutions that best satisfy everyone’s needs.

Stage 2: Gathering Facts

The second stage of the process involves gathering facts. A successful collaborative process requires transparency, unlike other negotiations. The parties identify the information they may need to help them make decisions and the information is gathered and disseminated to all.

Stage 3: Develop Options

Now the team is ready to develop options. With the help of the professionals, the parties engage in “brainstorming,” a process that invites consideration of every conceivable way of resolving a particular problem. Then, those options are evaluated. Some options are not practical; others are simply not appealing to one or both parties and will be discarded. This process takes time, patience and skill. Whereas traditional negotiations involve parties exchanging offers and counteroffers and, if they cannot reach a compromise, ultimately ending up in court, collaborative divorce offers parties the opportunity to engage in creative problem solving and reach the best quality outcome for the family.

Challenges of a Collaborative Divorce

However, collaborative divorce poses a challenge. Each party will be asked to acknowledge that the other has interests and needs that may be different from their own, but that are equally important. The parties have to be willing to accept help from the professionals and focus on the future, not the past. And parties have to be prepared to work together, not necessarily as friends, but as two individuals who deserve to be treated with respect and civility.

Collaborative divorce approaches divorce as a multi-dimensional experience, requiring advice and counsel from various perspectives. It prepares people to deal with the emotional challenges and changes associated with divorce. It builds in protection for children by informing parents how children experience divorce and what they need to deal with the changes in the family dynamics. Both parties are informed fully--together, at the same time—about the financial realities of the marriage and the divorce to reduce conflict over economic issues. Collaborative divorce can end a marriage without destructive conflict and provide the parties with new ways to communicate, resolve differences, and problem solve for the future.

Building a Future

Perhaps thinking about the kind of divorce a person wants is not a familiar concept; however, the divorce process the parties choose greatly impacts the experience and outcome of the divorce. Divorce is rarely easy and even collaborative divorce can be painful and difficult. However, by considering the option of a collaborative divorce, there is the opportunity for a constructive, even positive and lasting approach to divorce for the entire family.

Choosing the collaborative approach over the traditional litigation divorce process is like hiring an expert construction team to build a new house, rather than demolition experts to tear down the existing one. It is an approach well worth considering.


Information about collaborative divorce and locating collaborative divorce professionals in the DC area:

International Academy of Collaborative Professionals:

Collaborative Dispute Resolution Professionals:

Collaborative Divorce Association:

D.C. Academy of Collaborative Professionals:

Maryland Collaborative Practice Council:

Northern Virginia Collaborative Professionals:

Andrea Hirsh, Esq., an attorney, and Marla Zipin, Ph. D., a divorce coach, are collaborative divorce professionals, who practice in Montgomery County, MD. They can be contacted at and, respectively.