'There are good divorces': Calgary lawyers say ending marriage doesn't have to be messy

Even litigation lawyers think litigation is the worst way to get divorced.

Mediation, arbitration and collaboration all beat litigation, say two Alberta family lawyers

Two Alberta lawyers say it's possible to get a good divorce, through alternative methods such as arbitration, mediation and collaboration, rather than litigation. (Shutterstock)

Is there such a thing as a good divorce?

That was the question as a pair of Alberta lawyers addressed the question from Alberta@Noon host Judy Aldous about whether or not a good divorce is possible.

"There are good divorces," said Edmonton family lawyer Marie Gordon.

"Sometimes I think we're drowning in horror stories and bad stories," she said, "but I guess as a family lawyer, I've had the privilege of seeing people do it well — [some] people do it right."

What a good divorce looks like

"A couple of things that would characterize a good divorce," Gordon said, "is people being able to adapt to their new lives, people being able to achieve some emotional closure, people being able to leave their spousal relationship behind, but maintain and sometimes even strengthen their parenting relationship.

"A good divorce involves people honouring their kids' needs over their own," she added, "and really being aware and alert of how their actions, their conduct, their issues, their sets of personal trauma can affect children for a lifetime — and affect even the physiological development of their children's brains.

"A good divorce allows the parties to maintain some control over the process," she said, "and not allow the systemic adversarial narrative that is on TV and pop culture and in magazines to overtake it — because there are so many people doing good divorces. They are like poster children."

Four methods

Essentially, both guests stressed that there are four ways to get divorced, each with a different price point — and pain point, too, perhaps.

Calgary lawyer John-Paul Boyd is the executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family. The organization surveyed 166 family lawyers in B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Nova Scotia to determine their preferred method for obtaining a divorce for their clients.

"What was interesting," said Boyd, "is that although more than four-fifths of the people who answered our survey litigate, they also do extensive work in all these other non-adversarial processes [such as arbitration, mediation and collaborative negotiation].

"From the point of view of the lawyers themselves," he said, "litigate is what they like to do the least."

Boyd said that litigation is too stressful — even for the litigators, let alone for the divorcing parties.

"As a lawyer myself, I can tell you it's anxiety provoking, a lot of work, a lot of sleepless nights as you worry about what's going to unfold the next day," he said.

"Lawyers also said that collaboration and mediation were far faster, far more cost efficient and far more effective than litigation," he said. "In fact, the length of time required to resolve both low- and high-conflict family disputes was twice as long when you litigate than when you use any other kind of process."

Gordon acknowledged that while many couples go into the process hoping for a good divorce, the whole thing frequently goes off the rails.

"Everybody wants to do it right," she said. "Everybody says, to a person, I'm interested in my children's outcomes most of all."

'It takes a village'

The problems tend to start because of fear. 

"There are little crevasses people fall into," she said.

Gordon says friends or family are often so fearful of the outcome that they push people into a more adversarial situation.

"Sometimes people behave quite badly at the beginning, frequently fuelled by fear," she said. "Bad behaviour is wanting to get the upper hand or the advantage on things, and that just defaults into a domino effect of building up the adversarial — and it's really hard to catch. It's hard to pull out of that.

"It takes a village to do a good divorce," she said, "and what it takes is sometimes is the outside angels being supportive and not transferring their own terrible divorces on [to the divorces of] their friends or family."

With files from Alberta@Noon.


Stephen Hunt

Digital Writer

Stephen Hunt is a digital writer at the CBC in Calgary. Email: