There’s a line in the multi-award-winning 2019 film Marriage Story where Alan Alda's divorce lawyer says to his client, “Getting divorced with a kid is one of the hardest things to do. It's like a death without a body.”
Tell that to Kimberlee Sweeney and she’ll smile the smile of someone who’s probably said the same thing, or a variation of it, to many clients during the past five years.
Sweeney is New Zealand’s first divorce coach, which, as the title suggests, means she helps to shepherd people through the separation process. If it all sounds a bit American, that’s because the first person known to call herself a divorce coach was Dr. Kim Lurie, a New York lawyer, in the 1990s.
Fire up Google and the title “divorce coach” doesn’t really appear until the 2000s, when US attorneys, mediators, psychotherapists and others began reinventing themselves in that role.
Here’s what it is: a divorce coach supports clients through a separation or divorce by helping them decide what they want and creating goals and plans to get there. That includes overcoming emotional and financial barriers so they can move through the process with, hopefully, their dignity and confidence intact.
Here’s what it isn’t: a divorce coach doesn’t offer legal advice or serve as a substitute for a lawyer. Nor are they psychologists or therapists.
“It also isn’t about advocating divorce,” says Auckland-based Sweeney. “What I do is try to make it as easy as possible by providing a one-on-one service to someone who’s reached a point in their relationship where they think they want to separate. I call it the ‘should I stay or should I go’ phase, so I’ll talk to either one person or both, but separately, about what we can put in place to help them reconnect with their partner if they think there’s still something there. Or I’ll refer them to a relationship counsellor.
“But if they’re sure it’s over, I help them get ready for the divorce process with things such as what questions you need to ask your lawyer or how you can split assets and draw up a co-parenting agreement. Divorce can be difficult, especially if one party turns nasty, so it’s about keeping clients on track so they don’t throw in the towel and walk away without getting what they should.”
The aim, Sweeney says, is for the divorce to be as amicable as possible and for both partners to come to a reasonable settlement and co-parenting arrangement that allow them to get on with their lives.
The process also saves money, because ranting about your estranged partner to Sweeney is a lot cheaper than doing it to a lawyer. “Divorce lawyers can charge $400 to $500 an hour, whereas I charge $180 for the first 90-minute consultation. That means when clients do get to the lawyer, they’ve done a lot of crying to me, have worked out where to from here and can focus on the legal side of things without wasting the lawyer’s time. After that, we might speak in person or by Zoom every week or when they need help – for example, with drafting an email to their ex because the school holidays are coming up and they need to confirm childcare. It’s as much or as little as they need me.”
Sweeney cites the male client (around 40 percent of those she helps are men) who was “utterly broken” by his divorce from a wife who refused to communicate with him.
“I ended up working with him for 18 months and he was really upset and was never going to partner with another woman again and so on. He’s now worked through the divorce and has rebuilt his confidence, has another partner and is a totally different person from the guy who first came to see me.”
If anyone is a poster child for divorce, it’s Sweeney herself. She lived through her parents’ separation when she was 14, and her own 15-year marriage ended in 2011.
"We spent two years arguing over who should pay for what and who was doing a better job of parenting our daughter Alexi [now 12], which really took its toll on my health. Someone said to me, ‘Why don’t you put a parenting plan in place so it’s all outlined’, so we went to a counsellor and there were a lot of tears but eventually we walked away with a great plan and no more arguments."
It was Sweeney’s lightbulb moment. “I found an article online about divorce coaches and thought, I wish I’d had one to help me navigate my divorce.”
She found the CDC certified divorce coach programme, a Florida-based online course, spent a year saving the $7000 for it and, in 2015, became New Zealand’s first divorce coach (and currently one of only a handful, two of whom she’s helped usher into the profession).
While Kiwis may have been a little slow to catch up with the US trend, Sweeney has seen an uptick in demand, including receiving frequent client referrals from lawyers and counsellors.
“I usually see around 5-6 clients a week, but during and since lockdown, my business has quadrupled, in terms of people either going through, or thinking about going through, a separation,” she says. “It’s the busiest I’ve ever been.”
It’s probably a good idea not to stock up on the silver anniversary cards: while Stats NZ figures from 2018 (the latest available) show marriage and divorce are both less common than they were 25 years ago, divorce is still a reality for 8.4 out of every 1000 married couples in New Zealand.
In 2017, the median age at divorce was 47 years for men and 44 years for women, compared to 39 years for men and 36 years for women in 1992. Figures showed couples are also staying married for longer: in 2017, the median duration of marriages and civil unions ending in divorce was at its highest in the previous 25 years – 14 years, compared with 12 years in 1992.
The year 2015 didn’t turn out as Danielle Turnbull expected. Not only did the account manager move back to Auckland from Melbourne, but her marriage broke up and her mother was diagnosed with cancer.
Seeking help, the mother of Oscar (now 14) signed up for a workshop at the Auckland Women’s Centre in Grey Lynn called Building Your Life After Separation.
Not only did it “save her life”, it also provided Turnbull with a part-time career as a divorce coach, facilitating the same course she had signed up for.
“It’s a women-only course that lawyers refer clients to where I walk beside women as they navigate their way through a difficult time,” says Turnbull, who trained with NZ Life Coaching, completed a family law paper at the University of Auckland and is currently studying towards a master’s degree in legal studies, specialising in litigation and dispute resolution.
“Creating a new life after divorce can be daunting, especially at a later stage in life, so I provide a space where my clients feel comfortable to explore who they are now and who they want to be. My role is to support them with the legal process, to keep putting one foot in front of the other, because it can be challenging, especially when emotions are running high.”
Turnbull says practical tools, such as managing finances, can help women feel more in control of their lives. “It shows them they can do it and that there is life after divorce.”
Bridgette Jackson agrees. The former lawyer and entrepreneur dipped her toe into the divorce-coaching pool 18 months ago. Such has been the demand for her services, she’s now looking to employ other coaches at her company, Equal Exes.
“I’m incredibly busy, particularly with post-covid separations. A lawyer told me divorces were up around 25 percent in New Zealand, and in China it’s something like 38 percent. And I don’t think we’ll see the full impact for another two years.”
Jackson, who has four children, started the business after her own acrimonious divorce cost her around $500,000 in legal fees. “I thought, there has to be a better and cheaper way to do this.”
Although her clients come from all socio-economic groups, Jackson tends to specialise in high-conflict, high-net-worth couples (“often one partner has no idea of the finances and is being bled dry”) and has recently teamed up with a divorce accountant to help untangle complex financial arrangements. She also offers lower-cost online tools and mediation to couples.
“There’s been an increase in couples wanting an amicable separation who are willing to meet with me together, but there’s also been an increase in high-conflict, high-net-worth couples, who I tend to see individually.” (Around 70 percent of her clients are women.)
Jackson believes Kiwis are coming around to the virtues of a divorce coach.
“’We’re there to hold their hand through the process and provide clarity and mediation if they want it, plus help them access shared marital assets without spending too much money. It’s that simple.”