It is your responsibility to encourage emotional stability for educated legal decisions.
By Mark Banschick, Psychiatrist
As a lawyer representing a client going through divorce, it can be difficult to deal effectively with your client’s personality changes. One day he or she may be angry, the next day sad, and the next seemingly apathetic. Now, you’re a lawyer, not a therapist, and it’s not your responsibility to become too deeply involved in your client’s psychological state. That job is for psychiatrists, psychologists or social workers.
However, it is your responsibility to encourage some emotional stability so that your client can make educated legal decisions. In order to properly carry out this responsibility, it is important to educate yourself on the basic psychology of divorce. Forewarned is forearmed.
What your client is likely to be going though is grief, which is a natural part of divorce. Even the healthiest of people will inevitably be upset by the divorce process. Even if your client is excited about moving on with his life, he has still lost something very important to him. It is human for him to mourn the losses of divorce, whether he is grieving for himself, for the loss of his wife, or for his children. Yet it’s important to remember that while grief hurts, it is ultimately a positive part of healing.
When you bang your toe and it bruises or bleeds, your physiological reaction is part of the recovery process. The pain you feel is a signal to be tender with your toe. Swelling tells you that your immune system is taking charge, and bruising reminds you that the wound will take time to recover. But if you treat your injury properly and allow nature to run its course, you will eventually heal.
A similar process is at work for the emotional grief caused by divorce. Grief is our psychological immune system at work; it allows our spirit to nurse itself back to life. From an outside perspective, it’s possible to become frustrated by your client’s behavior when she is under the influence of grief. At times you may be tempted to confront your client, and tell her to just get a hold of herself. But the truth is, you cannot just make the pain disappear, no matter how reassuring you may be.
What you can do, however, is educate yourself on what your clients may be going through, and then gently help them make realistic legal choices that are based on the facts. Dealing constructively with the legal issues of divorce is part of a healthy recovery process. As an astute attorney, you can anticipate and accommodate your client’s grief, and in doing so guide both of you smoothly through the divorce process.
There is an established model for mourning a loss that is valuable to know. After careful observation, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross documented five stages of grief that unfold in a natural progression. Your client may not feel all of them, and she may not experience them in the given order. The stages are not a fixed prescription for handling grief, but they are an anatomy of the process and a tool for better understanding.
The first stage of grief is denial. The human mind is designed to combat tough situations, and denial can be effective in the short-term because while functioning under stress, you sometimes have to believe that things are not as serious as they really are. While your client “understands” that she is going through divorce, she may simultaneously, on some level, deny that truth. She can tell herself that the divorce is not really happening or that it will not be that difficult. While this can be temporarily useful, the most functional way to deal with change and hurt is realistically. As you well know, if your client ignores their legal situation for too long, it will only make matters worse.
When denial no longer works, your client will probably experience anger. Often this anger is directed at his ex-spouse, or even at his kids (and sometimes at his attorney). When used intelligently, anger can be useful. It can mobilize your client to protect himself and his children—legally and emotionally. Like a siren making a call to action, anger gets your client up, alert, and doing something. When your client overreacts to this anger, though, he can make divorce harder for everyone involved, including you.
Although anger can lend your client strength, that strength is often fragile and temporary. When your client is feeling weak, she may experience grief’s next stage: bargaining. Divorce demands such drastic changes that your client may at some point feel an overwhelming urge to work it all out with her ex. She may hope beyond hope that her relationship will be okay after all, or that the relationship was never as bad she thought it was. While feeling this way, she may start bargaining in a way that is conducive to a settlement. However, if she’s dealing with a manipulative ex, bargaining may lead to unfair concessions and actually be counterproductive. Bargaining, at its core, embraces hope that things can work out. While hope is important, indeed crucial, it too needs to be applied realistically.
When bargaining proves unsuccessful, it tends to be followed by depression. When your client accepts that his life is going to change irrevocably, the heaviness of the loss may hit him hard, causing him to sink into a depressed state. While there, he may find himself feeling lethargic, negative, and withdrawn. Such behavior does not make your job as a lawyer any easier, but this stage of grief actually contains a powerful healing quality. The depression found in the midst of mourning (as opposed to a relentless clinical depression) is a process by which the mind—sometimes painfully slowly—lets go of its loss and holds on to the good. After all, positive memories endure, and a future awaits. In order to appreciate these positives, your client has to unload the feelings of hurt that come from the loss. It is often good to have a counselor available for this process.
This brings us to the final stage of grief: acceptance. This stage is about your client accepting the loss in her life and resolving her grief. But it’s also about self-growth and assuming her fate with honor; she is forced to remember that what truly defines the character of a person are not the cards that they’re dealt, but how a person responds to one’s situation – no matter how unfair it may be. The truth is, no matter how hurt, your client doesn’t want to still be feeling angry or depressed years after her divorce. Her marriage didn’t work out; it hurt, and maybe she’ll never be able to stand her ex. But in the end it doesn’t really matter because she has a life to live, children to raise, and she is going to make the best of it. That’s acceptance.
So, where do you as a lawyer come in to this process? Well, the terrible irony of divorce is that the moment your client feels most pressured and least able to act rationally is the very moment he will have to step up, see the big picture, and make sound choices for himself and his kids. It’s hard to think clearly when he’s grieving—and that’s where you come in.
Thinking clearly can be harder than it sounds, and lawyers—like all professionals— are prone to some common mistakes. For instance, some attorneys over identify with their client’s anger, only to get criticized later on for being too litigious. Some lawyers get unconsciously annoyed by their client’s neediness and subtly try to avoid them, only to have the client move on to another lawyer. Others fall into the role of savior and psychologist, only to get enmeshed in a case and lose their objectivity (with many negative consequences – think about who still owes you money). And, some lawyers become overly taken with a client (think of wealthy, attractive or famous clients) and do everything they can to not upset them, even when this means less than honest advice.
However, if you are knowledgeable about the psychology of divorce, and take a healthy approach to dealing with clients, you can avoid these mistakes and many others. You now have a basic idea of what your client is going through emotionally, and you can use this knowledge to your benefit.
Of course, each case is different, but there is a general mission that you carry into each case. This mission consists of bringing your client back to his emotional center, again and again, with kindness and with the bigger picture in mind. No matter what stage of grief he or she is in, you have to always be in the position of acceptance, and you have to use this advantage to guide your client towards good decisions without intruding too much into what is really, a natural process.
Again, you are not a therapist. You don’t have to become too deeply involved in your client’s psychological state. You needn’t obsess over what’s going on in her head. However, if you are at least considerate of this basic emotional framework, you will be able to avoid problems that plague many attorneys.
The emotional roller coaster of divorce is complicated because your client will rarely be direct with you about what she is feeling. She will not likely say, “Listen, I’m going through denial right now, so I need you to help me approach the situation more realistically.” Often, there really are no words to express just how wounded your client is, so instead of words she will use actions, which demand compassion, coupled with a constructive critique. If you provide this compassion and accompany it with a solid, centered, and professional relationship, you should be able to successfully navigate your client’s unstable emotional state and make the divorce process smoother and more productive for everyone involved.
Mark Banschick, MD is a child/adolescent psychiatrist, expert witness and author of “The Intelligent Divorce: Because Your Kids Come First.” He has been quoted in the New York Times, The Huffington Post and has appeared on The CBS Early Show. Dr. Banschick is developing an online parenting course for divorcing couples which will soon be found at www.FamilyStabilizationCourse.com. Or, for more information about an intelligent divorce, visit www.TheIntelligentDivorce.com.