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Considering divorce? There’s an app for that

  • Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
  • Published Monday, March 31, 2014, at 3:39 p.m.

Things you can do with a smartphone app: Play “Candy Crush.” Browse Facebook. Get counsel on your divorce.

That’s right, there are smartphone apps – hundreds, actually – to guide couples through the sticky process of untangling a union.

“We’re in an app era,” said Bill Doherty, director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota. “Nowadays, people want to empower themselves with information without having to go to a professional to get it.”

But just as some doctors bemoan patients turning to Google to diagnose aches and pains, relationship experts are dubious about people trying to prevent a potential divorce with an app.

“The Grass Is Greener,” launched by a family law attorney, is a quiz-like app that makes users think about common divorce questions. There’s another called “Sesame Street: Divorce,” with cameos by Grover and Abby Cadabby, which helps parents talk to kids about the dreaded topic. Other apps offer calculators for splitting assets or calendars for tackling parenting between households.

“Apps can only do so much in terms of offering information,” said Carol Bruess, professor of family communication at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn. “Relationships are so incredibly complex. Can an app really offer the complexity we need?”

Sometimes even family law attorneys – who make their living guiding others through divorce – want fighting couples to slow down.

Pamela Green launched “The Grass Is Greener” in January as a marketing tool and conversation starter, based on the queries she gets from potential clients and input from other professionals who deal with the fallout of divorce. The result is an app styled as a 39-question, multiple-choice quiz on topics that someone thinking about divorce should ponder: For instance, “Do you have all the support you need to go it alone?” or “Who besides you would this decision impact?”

But there are no concrete answers at the end.

“We don’t give results. It’s not like a Cosmo quiz. It’s designed to help people think,” Green said. “People have to come to that decision on their own.”

Instead, it ends with a list of referrals. For serious issues there’s contact information for Green and her collaborators – a financial adviser, a career counselor and a psychologist who all met through the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis.

“It’s providing an opportunity to reflect and say, ‘Who are the experts in this space who I might reach out to?’” said app collaborator Patricia Berg, CEO of Career Partners International.

On a lighter note, if it’s an unfinished remodeling job that’s wreaking havoc on relations, the app also links to a local handyman service. Need a quick pick-me-up? Try the recommended manicurist.

Despite the proliferation of divorce apps, it’s hard to say how often people actually use them. Few apps have enough reviews to merit credible ratings from users. And sharing opinions on divorce apps, it seems, isn’t as much fun as proclaiming the five-star greatness of “Angry Birds.”

As with health-related apps – some helpful, many little more than digital snake oil – seeking divorce information by app requires caution.

“We have to ask critical questions about the source of information,” Bruess said. “In the pre-app world we might seek out a book written by experts and it was really clear who wrote that book because you could read about the credentials of that person. How many people really dig for the author of an app?”

She pointed to “Sesame Street: Divorce” as an exemplary resource – crafted by experts working with a nonprofit, no sales pitch. Kids can illustrate their feelings by changing the expression on a Muppet. Scripts and videos offer tips for parents fielding common kid questions.

Still, experts caution that self-reflection might require more help than an app provides.

“When people are considering divorce, they are often in a very emotional state,” Doherty said.

But apps that help with the logistics of ending a marriage can also be helpful, experts say, because they lessen stress. For instance, a shared calendar app for children’s schedules at two different households can spare families confusion.

Michelle Crosby, CEO of online divorce service WeVorce, said people have become so accustomed to turning to technology for answers that they want that efficiency when trying to navigate a divorce’s confusing legal and emotional entanglements.

The California-based startup uses online assessments and video conferencing to help couples seeking an amicable divorce.

“Let the predictable pieces be handled by technology,” Crosby said. “That’s where the future is heading. We look to our phones to answer these things for us.”

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