United States: The Divorce Client: So Tell Me How You Really Feel?

Divorce is naturally an emotional process – before, during and after the fact. As a family law attorney, probably half my time is spent dealing with clients' emotions than actually practicing law – a reality that prompts most attorneys (and clients) to ask me "how do you do what you do every day?"

While there are myriad emotions that can surface during a divorce, I have found that the three most prominent emotions experienced by divorcing clients are sadness, fear, and anger – generally in that order. Different clients will experience each of these emotions in varying degrees and for varying periods of time, but sooner or later most will have to deal with all three during the divorce process. Sadness over the end of a marriage is an obvious and natural response to a divorce (even by the party who wants it). Clients' sadness over divorce is not usually a problem as it eventually recedes as the divorce progresses and clients' attention is focused on moving forward with the process and their lives. However, if the client becomes chronically morose or depressed to the point where they cannot function, then professional intervention may be appropriate. Grief counseling early on is often a good method for helping clients avoid this pitfall and to learn to understand and cope with their emotions without being overwhelmed. Divorce often results in many "losses" besides just the marriage: the loss of the "home"; the loss of time with the children; the loss of friends and associates that are "linked" to the parties as a couple; the loss of loved pets; the loss of the client's employment choices; the loss of social status; the possible loss of self-worth, etc. These losses can be keenly felt. Despite what many clients believe, there is nothing wrong with getting counseling to cope with them.

Fear can become a problem for a client if it becomes so pervasive that it paralyzes the client's ability to make constructive decisions about the case and making important life decisions. While divorce presents clients with a daunting prospect that touches practically every aspect of their lives, the most common sources of clients' fear are (1) financial concerns ("I don't know how I can make this work financially and not be on food stamps") and (2) concerns over the children's welfare under a split parenting time schedule ("He's never taken care of the kids that long – how are they going to manage without me?"). It doesn't help that clients' fear is often stoked by a vindictive soon-to-be-ex who takes perverse pleasure in keeping the client in a state of constant anxiety. Each of these concerns, however, generally lessens as the divorce moves forward. Invariably, resolutions about financial issues allow for concrete planning to be made which greatly lessens anxiety about clients' financial futures. Similarly, once the kids survive a couple of parenting time exchanges without any medical emergencies or emotional crises, then parents' anxiety over their welfare fades and everyone adjusts to the "new normal".

Anger presents a different problem. Unlike sadness and fear, anger does not always decrease as the divorce process plays out. To the contrary, as clients' sadness and fear recede, they are often replaced by a growing anger in many divorce clients. While the ending of the divorce process usually sees a major lessening of anger and turmoil, for a distinct minority of clients, anger can increase after the divorce is final and everyone goes their separate way.

Anger is the most negative emotion. It is also the most damaging: not only with regard to clients' overall mental, emotional, and physical health, but directly to their divorce case:

  • Anger destroys credibility. I have seen many times a client end up on a judge's bad side by making angry or demeaning comments about the opposing party during testimony. Their substantive credibility at that point is totally gone.
  • Anger can endanger a client's custody of their children. Expressing constant anger at the other parent is a hallmark of an inability to co-parent, which may cost the angry parent the right to make legal decisions regarding their children. Similarly, constantly expressing anger at the other parent in front of children is deemed to be contrary to the children's best interests and can result in a restriction of parenting time. Being constantly angry with your ex is a good way to lose your kids.
  • Anger is caustic to relationships: no one wants to be around an angry person, even when their anger is justified. This includes judges, counselors, and kids. It is not uncommon for an angry parent to unintentionally drive his or her own children away from them (of course, it's always the other party's fault). It is also not uncommon for the angry client to drive away his or her own attorney!

Anger leads to bad decisions: actions are valued not by how much they benefit the client, but by how much they harm the other party. A common example of this is the client who compulsively needs to send nasty e-mails or text messages to his or her ex for no purpose whatsoever. These clients are amazed and outraged when they are served with an Order of Protection.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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