Assisting clients through the legal process of divorce and child custody disputes involves managing their emotional reactions at all stages of the process.

By Julie A. Auerbach, Family Lawyer, and Lauren Napolitano, Psy. D.

285_2953773Navigating the psychological responses of clients to divorce and child custody disputes can be one of the most difficult aspects of practicing family law. Clients cannot easily compartmentalize their emotions from the division of assets and support and custody issues. Family law attorneys must assist clients in managing their emotional expectations along with their financial expectations. Without any formal training in the psychological aspects of divorce and custody disputes, family law lawyers often shoot from the hip in managing these emotional expectations, relying on common sense and reason to counsel their clients. Understanding these psychological aspects and how to best manage them will sensitize family law lawyers to and better serve the needs of their clients.

Julie A. Auerbach, Esquire, a Pennsylvania family law attorney, asks Lauren Napolitano, Psy.D., to explain and advise attorneys as to these issues.

Auerbach: One would expect that individuals going through a divorce and/or child custody dispute would experience a range of emotions, such as anger, depression, confusion, and fear – but individuals do not always express their emotions in a clear way. What emotional responses can family law lawyers expect their clients to experience? In what ways can lawyers expect to see these emotions exhibited when they are not clearly expressed?

Napolitano: Frequent ways that clients express their emotions include stonewalling the divorce, wanting to legally retaliate against the other spouse, and expressing a wish to ‘crucify’ or ‘punish’ the other spouse. Clients who are overwhelmed by the divorce or in denial about the divorce may avoid their family law lawyer’s attempts at communication. They may ‘forget’ about phone calls that are set up or meetings that have been scheduled.

How can family law lawyers help their clients through these emotional responses?

Lawyers should educate their clients about the emotional rollercoaster that is divorce. They should advise clients that they might experience a lot of strong emotions during the divorce process, and let clients know that it is normal to feel overwhelmed, ambivalent, or confused during the divorce process. By normalizing their emotional reaction, it may make it easier for clients to acknowledge their strong emotions. Referring clients to speak to other divorced individuals can be very helpful as well.

Divorce is often accompanied by other issues, such as addiction (alcohol, drugs, gambling, etc.) or mental health issues (bipolar disorders, depression, personality disorders, etc.). What recommendations do you have for lawyers representing an individual with these issues?

The family law lawyer should maintain firm boundaries with regard to these issues, preferably by putting in writing how the legal relationship between lawyer and client should progress. If the client’s mental illness or addiction interferes with the relationship or the work being done, there needs to be a clear understanding of the consequences of this behavior. Additionally, it is best to clearly identify them as serious issues and refer the client for proper treatment. If the client refuses to get treatment and the individual’s behavior or mental illness is interfering with the legal process, it may be necessary for the lawyer to halt the divorce process until the client is ready. For example, if your client is an alcoholic and shows up to court inebriated, it’s best to pause the divorce proceedings until that client can take responsibility for his or her health.

What recommendations do you have for the lawyer representing the spouse of an individual with addiction or mental health issues?

In this situation, it is incredibly helpful to refer your client to support groups like Al-Anon or Nar-Anon, which are groups that support the loved ones of individuals with addiction or mental health issues. It is also helpful to refer your client for psychotherapy, as he or she will likely need support during the divorce process.

What are some of the psychological responses individuals experience in child custody disputes and in sharing custody with their spouses? What are some of the indirect ways clients might express these emotions that may not be readily discernable?

mother_daughterCommon reactions include depressive symptoms, anxiety, insomnia, and grief. In some cases, the client may fantasize about reconciling with the other spouse or, to the other extreme, may seek sole custody. Indirect ways of expressing anxiety about custody disputes include disrupting the custody schedule, undermining the other spouse’s authority with the kids, and talking ill of the other spouse in front of the kids.

What are some techniques lawyers can use to help their client with these responses?

Again, the best tool for family law lawyers is to normalize the emotional rollercoaster that is divorce. The family law lawyer can educate his or her client about the emotions that will likely arise during divorce. Much like an obstetrician educates his or her patients about the emotions associated with pregnancy and childbirth, a family lawyer can give his or her clients information about how they will likely feel during the various stages of divorce. It is normal for a parent to have profound anxiety about losing time with their children; it is normal to feel like your life will never be the same again or that the holidays will never be happy again. Encourage your clients to join a support group for divorcing individuals and encourage them to read books about divorce.

What are the psychological responses of children to divorce and how can we help educate and advise our clients to handle the impact of divorce on their children?

A child’s response to their parents’ divorce varies based on their age, the level of hostility involved in the divorce, and how much support that child has during the divorce. Young children might express anxiety through regressing to behavior that was appropriate at a younger age (e.g., bedwetting, tantrums, night terrors), while older kids may adopt a stance of refusing to talk about the divorce. The most important thing that parents can do is to refer their child for outside support. Giving their child access to a therapist during the divorce gives the child a place where they can get support during a very difficult transition in their life.

How can family law lawyers incorporate the needs of children in drafting child custody schedules?

Family law lawyers can look to the parents to learn as much as they can about the needs of the children. Learning about the child’s routine (school, daycare, extracurricular activities, and health issues) will help the lawyer to determine a schedule that will best benefit the child.

What can family law lawyers do to help give the client some emotional satisfaction in their divorce?

A family law lawyer can continually remind the client that the divorce process will have a beginning, middle, and end. Remind the client that the goal of divorce is to end an unsatisfying relationship in order to build a happier, more satisfying life post-divorce. I think many clients feel dissatisfied immediately following their divorce. Divorce is a challenging and bittersweet process. Lawyers may want to consider taking a moment to send a note or call a few months after the divorce is over. This contact can feel meaningful to a client. Sometimes the client needs time to process the change in his or her life. By maintaining a supportive and amiable relationship with the client after the divorce is finalized, the client is more likely to feel emotionally satisfied with their lawyer and with the divorce.

What are some of the impacts of divorce on extended family and friends, and how do these affect the divorcing client?

Acrimonious divorces tend to polarize families and friends, who may feel they need to side with one client. Some clients find that their parents wish to get over-involved with their divorce. Other clients may find that they struggle to find support during the divorce. The change in the level of involvement of family and friends can be very stressful for the client.

What are some reactions that we might not anticipate or expect when one spouse has an affair during the marriage?

After an affair, we expect the ‘wronged’ spouse to feel hurt, betrayed, or angry. What we might find, however, is that the ‘wronged’ spouse may feel guilty or ashamed. They may wish to reconcile with the cheating spouse or pretend that the cheating has not occurred. Some unexpected reactions of the cheating spouse include denial of the affair, remorse and a wish to reconcile, or a compulsion to eradicate guilt by giving the spouse additional money or assets during the divorce.


Julie A. Auerbach, Esquire, is a family law attorney at Astor Weiss Kaplan & Mandel, LLC. She has practiced family law in Pennsylvania for more than 23 years and has written and lectured extensively on family law matters. To learn more about her, please visit her firm’s website: www.astorweiss.com.

Lauren Napolitano, Psy. D., counsels individuals going through divorce and custody disputes. Dr. Napolitano is on staff at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Bryn Mawr, PA. She writes frequently on the topics of divorce and parenting. To learn more about her practice, please visit www.laurennapolitanopsyd.com.


More from Family Lawyer Magazine

Can Difficult Clients Learn Decision-Making Skills?

Representing the Emotionally-Abused Client in High-Conflict Divorce

Caring or Our Clients’ Other Needs