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Divorce Lawyers

Thyden Gross and Callahan LLPCounselors and Attorneys at Law




Does your divorce or separation make you sad, angry, vengeful, depressed, confused or hateful? Emotions are the powerful drivers of many divorce decisions. This blog by a lawyer and psychotherapist will help you cope with divorce emotions.

Integrative Law Movement

June 30th, 2012

            There is a new movement in the law called “integrative law.”  One of the institutions dearest to my heart, Commonweal, in Bolinas, California, has just initiated a program called the Integrative Law Institute.  What does this mean, for lawyers and consumers of legal services?

            Let me quote a paragraph from the Commonweal newsletter of June, 2012:  “Our adversarial ‘winner take all’ legal system, rooted in medieval trial-by-combat and 18th century rationalism, frequently harms the physical and emotional health of those involved in it, prolonging conflict rather than achieving durable resolution. The services lawyers and judges are taught to provide often work at cross purposes to biological and psychological facts about how people experience conflict and make decisions.  This poor fit between human needs and professional services wreaks particular destruction in families, where protracted divorce proceedings often destroy ex-spouses’ ability to cooperate in parenting their children. . .

            The new Commonweal program will offer an integrative law curriculum for law professors, so they can teach law students how better to understand and serve their clients’ needs.  It will also provide continuing legal education programs for judges, mediators, and lawyers in integrative law skills.  And there will be weekend residential workshops for lawyers who are burned out and disillusioned. 

            For at least 20 years, I’ve advocated for such programs and have usually been met with a shake of the head and the remark, “You can’t seriously expect me to worry about burned out lawyers.”  But this response overlooks the impact that lawyers and judges have on the way justice works for all of us—as well as the tragedy of an individual’s life of passion and potential eroding over time into disillusionment and burnout.

            The integrative law movement means that greater numbers of lawyers will be learning more about sensitivity to the emotional and psychological issues their clients are dealing with, while also learning about their own need for self-care.  If lawyers and judges can allow themselves to be fully human, not merely rational cogs in the system, this can change the legal system profoundly, to the benefit of everyone.

Helping a Friend Through a Divorce

June 19th, 2012

When people close to you are divorcing, what can you do to help?  There are some very simple rules for what to say or do, as well as some ideas about what you should not do.

 First, no matter how much you want to agree with your friend in describing his soon-to-be ex as a horrible, terrible person, don’t do it.  (You don’t have to disagree, just don’t jump in and agree.)  Don’t be the one who says, “I always wondered what you were doing with such an #*#**!”  Your friend chose this person.  If there are children, your friend’s children are genetically half of that person.  An attack on the ex is an attack on your friend’s judgment and on half of what makes their children who they are. 

This is a hard one to resist, since your friend may be filled with words much stronger than “horrible” and “terrible” in describing his or her ex.  But listening sympathetically is better than chiming in.  (Also, as you may know from painful experience, the angriest partners sometimes do reconcile and then you become the person your friend rejects.)  Your safest thing to say is something like, “I can see how you’d feel that way,” or something that acknowledges your friend’s pain. 

On the other hand, saying something like, “I feel for you but I feel for him/her, too.  I just want to extend my caring to both of you” is a waste of your energy.  Your friend will feel undermined and adrift.  You can only say something like that if you’re primarily friends with the other spouse; then it’s a positive thing to do.

It is also not helpful to tell other people’s tragic divorce stories.  Your friend is too wrapped up in his or her own suffering to want to hear about other people’s misery, and certainly won’t be helped by hearing about bad outcomes.  Similarly, it is not helpful to share how much the children of divorce suffer, or how finances can deteriorate during divorce.  Don’t bring more bad news.  It will become evident soon enough, and even though you may be accurate, it isn’t helpful.

That said, if you have positive suggestions, do share them.  For example, not everyone knows good financial advisors or good lawyers.  These are professionals that people won’t seek out until they really need them.   And, if you feel your friend is over the top distressed or confused, do recommend counseling.  It’s no shame to get counseling in any circumstances, and particularly under the kind of stress that comes with divorce.  And, of course, many people still choose the traditional adversarial system for getting a divorce, because they don’t know, in time, about mediation, collaborative law, and other non-adversarial processes.  If you can provide information about less heated, less stressful, less expensive ways of going through the process, by all means, offer that information.

Finally, don’t get in the soup with your friend.  That means don’t get attached to your friend accepting your suggestions and don’t take up your friend’s cause as your own.  Don’t get wrought up about how your friend decides to proceed, or whether your friend reconciles or doesn’t, or whether your friend’s ex gets what comin’ to him or her.  You can only be supportive if you maintain your own life and priorities.  Your greatest value to your friend is your own stability, in the midst of your friend’s upheaval.  Unless your friend is threatened or in such denial that you fear for him or her, you need to be an island of calm. 

I once saw a greeting card that said something like “A friend is someone who remembers your song when you’ve forgotten the tune.”  That’s your main role: remind your friend of his or her own history and of your belief in overcoming these hard times.  Remind them of their song.

Short Book Review

March 7th, 2012

Joint Custody with a Jerk: Raising a Child with an Uncooperative Ex: A Hands-on, Practical Guide to Communicating with a Difficult Ex-Spouse, by Julie Ross and Judy Corcoran.
A friend came across this book at the library and dropped it off for my review. This is a fine book, with a number of excellent tips for working with your own emotions and communication style to improve things with your former spouse.

One concept that resonates with me is the idea of thinking not in “shoulds” but in “coulds.” The authors point out that “should” makes people feel forced and then they resist the force. But thinking in terms of “could” opens up the possibilities and creates a feeling of relief and openness. You can try it on yourself. Just think, “I should work on my taxes this weekend,” and notice whether your heart sinks, as opposed to “I could work on my taxes this weekend,” which allows you some space.
Only the title of the book is unfortunate. Even if you feel your former spouse is a jerk, you accomplish nothing by advertising that perception. So you can’t leave the book lying around—despite the excellent info—for the kids or visitors to see. A great book, and an accurate title, but you’ve got to hide it.

Believing the Myth

March 7th, 2012

          A friend recently offered me a stack of children’s book that her family was finished with. As a grandmother, I welcomed the opportunity to review some classics before I sent them on to my oldest grandchild. When I chose Swiss Family Robinson, I remembered it as something like the fairly recent Tom Hank’s movie—was it Lost? People who are smart, determined, and know a lot, who turn a shipwreck experience into a profound adventure. But Swiss Family Robinson turned out to be a surprise. Even the little guys had guns, and these folks shot first and asked questions later. They may have been swept ashore from their sinking ship to a kind of Eden, but they didn’t exactly co-exist in peace with the animal inhabitants. They either killed them or tamed them.
          This is a long description to explain that I realized that my memory of that book was not a true recollection but a myth. I mean myth in the negative sense of the word, a story that bears little relationship to the truth. As you might guess, I will not be sending this book to my little granddaughter.
          Sometimes in divorce, we also have myths about what the relationship was like. One of my clients struggles with a myth that says, “He was supposed to take care of me!” My perception of her husband is that he’s never taken care of anyone but number one; he’s a user, not a caring provider. But she continues to engage with him as if he will suddenly become the man she meant him to be.

          The spouse you argued with for years about paying his share of the bills isn’t likely to step up to the plate during the divorce, at least not voluntarily. The spouse who refused to get a job during the marriage may just not go back to school, even though you’re paying her alimony to get back on her feet.
          How accurate is your perception of your spouse, or former spouse? Can you assess his or her strengths and weaknesses correctly and anticipate outcomes consistent with what you know? Reality isn’t always pretty, but it will serve you better than holding onto a myth.

Announcing Your Divorce

June 17th, 2011

At dinner the other night, I met a delightful woman who told me a little about her divorce. Eight years ago, she said, she and her husband had separated, and they were both worried about the impact of their separation on their young daughter. Their friends and families began to rally ‘round, but much of their support involved denigrating the other spouse, for example, suggesting ways of “taking him to the cleaner” or “showing her who’s boss.”

Both she and her husband were distressed at the impulse of their families and friends to take sides. They realized that their daughter needed them both, and that she couldn’t flourish if she felt that her dad’s family disliked her mom, or if she heard her mom’s family disparaging her dad.
So they created a “We’re Getting a Divorce” announcement, a card with a big photograph of their daughter on the front. Inside the card, their message was something like, “You supported us on the day we got married. Please continue to support us both, for the sake of our beautiful daughter, as we’re getting a divorce. We want to go through this process without bitterness and hostility, and we appreciate your help in reminding us that we married in love and hope, that we love our daughter dearly, and that we can end our marriage in kindness and respect.”

This has to be a rare event, one in which people actually ask their support people for help in managing the negativity of divorce for the sake of their child. But it must have worked. Both of them are in happy relationships, they communicate well with each other and each other’s new partners, and their daughter is thriving.

When to Say “No”

May 4th, 2011

            Scientific research these days is turning some old concepts on their heads.  For those of us who have believed that humans are aggressive, competitive, and always looking out for number one, current research says, “Wait a minute.  That isn’t necessarily so, and may never have been so.”  The gist of the research is that humans have succeeded more through cooperation than competition, in part because our brains and nervous systems are soft-wired to feel what others feel.  Mirror neurons in the brain allow us to feel the experiences of others.  So if someone who is deliriously happy is nearby, we actually pick up on joy.  Similarly, if someone is suffering, we literally feel their pain.  We may not feel at with the intensity that they experience it, but we feel it nevertheless.  This is empathy.

            In general, empathy connects us to others.  It can be hazardous, however, in divorce.  Sometimes clients feel so worried about the spouses they are leaving that they fail to consider their own needs.  A client recently told me that her husband wanted to celebrate certain holidays with her family, even though they are separated and will shortly be divorced.  She was conflicted, she said, because he has no family, and she felt so sad for him.  But the truth was that she felt he would be intruding on her family at a time when she craved the support of her parents and siblings.

            It was time to say no.  But not easy.

            When boundaries are shifting, when a relationship is in the process of being restructured, things can get murky.  It’s very important to test out your own feelings first.  Do you want to say yes?  It may be hard to say no, but saying no, setting new limits, is part of altering your relationship.  If you fall into empathy, feeling for your spouse, who’s taking care of you? 

            Empathy is a marvelous phenomenon; we can truly feel what others are feeling.  But we need to be wary of empathy that becomes self-sacrifice.  In a divorce, empathy for yourself—self-care—comes first.

Divorce and Yoga

April 27th, 2011

            Does it seem like an improbable connection?  Apparently people are finding that yoga is helpful in dealing with the emotions that come up during divorce.  I’ve been pondering why that might be.

            First, yoga gets you out of your head and into your body.  The first stage of yoga practice involves asanas, physical postures.  When you are trying to stretch, relax, breathe, and maintain good form, it is nearly impossible to worry about anything else.  This has to be good for you.

            Second, the physical activity stimulates serotonin and other hormones that generate a sense of well-being. 

            Third, the focus on breathing—pranayamas–helps you to center and focus.  Instead of having that sense of scattered, frantic uncertainty, you can settle into the here and now—this moment, this breath.

            And, finally, the closing meditation facilitates deeper relaxation and another way for the thinking mind to rest.  As you let your thoughts go by, as you note your feelings without judging them, you can better accept yourself and your situation.  You can find some ease in the midst of stress, and you can build your capacity for expanding that ease.

            Yoga isn’t exactly an antidote to the stress of divorce, but it can support you in minimizing some of the painful and negative emotions that come up.  As a bonus, you’ll also  feel healthier and more fit.

Pain and Suffering in Divorce

April 20th, 2011

            Sometimes, as a lawyer, I don’t want to realize how much my clients are suffering in the divorce process.  For me, to realize it means allowing myself to feel it, and, like all human beings, I prefer to avoid pain and pursue pleasure.  So I emphasize how much better a cooperative or collaborative process is than an adversarial process, and I remind my clients how well they’re doing and how much better things are going to be once this transition is over. 

            And all this is true.  At the same time, what’s also true is that divorce has moments of excruciating pain.  There is immense pain when people who have lived together and loved each other are reduced to sitting across a table from each other, trying to figure out a schedule for child care, or arguing about entitlement to money, or accusing each other of lying.  There is a different kind of pain when somebody apologizes or shares an insight, a pain that is filled with regret and sorrow.

            The pain and suffering of divorce comes in so many flavors.  Anger, frustration, snarkiness, sarcasm, demonization, disconnection, misunderstanding, distrust, all of those feelings.  And then there’s just sadness.  The loss of the marriage is the loss of a dream, and dreams don’t die easily.  Sometimes the loss of the dream evokes more pain than the loss of the actual relationship.

            If my clients are going through all this, do I best serve them by staying rational, beyond the reach of their pain?  That rationality, of course, is what they’ve hired me for.  Or is it?  Do they just want a lawyer who can focus on the facts, or would they like a lawyer who knows what they feel?  Not a lawyer who jumps into the soup of emotion with them—that is clearly not helpful—but someone who at least is open to that moment of suffering.  Do you want your lawyer to feel with you, or just think?


Money and Emotions

February 3rd, 2011

From a lawyer’s point of view, it’s difficult to understand why people won’t settle a case when they’re only a few hundred dollars apart on a matter, for instance, short-term support. It is so clear to the lawyer that the parties are going to spend far more than that fighting about it. It’s a good opportunity to suggest that they split the difference, or (in speaking privately to your own client) to suggest just conceding, to get it done.

When that doesn’t happen, the lawyers are baffled, sometimes frustrated. Their tools are limited, however. They can’t make people be reasonable, so all they can do is to offer to fight it out in court.

Even the husband and wife often have no idea what’s going on, they just know they can’t give in. Both of them refer to their “principles” as the driving factors. It may feel like a principle, because it is as strong as a wall. It feels unshakeable, and it feels right. But it is probably not that lofty.

We all have emotional histories written in our deep memories, in the very cells of our bodies. Our histories, which we usually are unconscious of, are sometimes like smoke alarms. They go off with a very intense warning that something threatening—no, dangerous—is about to happen, something that poses a risk to our survival. And we react. But, we often react out of proportion to the actual risk and without reference to logical outcomes.

When that happens, it’s a really good idea to take a step back, and to take a break. We may never know just what triggered the alarm, but we can’t think clearly until it’s turned off, the modest amount of smoke is cleared, and we can begin to relax.

These illogical responses have their origins way in our past. They probably helped us at one time. They are impulses, or feelings, or “principles,” that deserve respect, if only because they are intended to help us. But we need to take another look, to see if they’re really serving us well now. Or by fighting for our principles, are we going to lose more than we gain?

We Need to Touch

January 29th, 2011

In this touch-averse culture, we often don’t experience much physical contact with other people when we are not in an intimate relationship.  Yes, there’s cuddling the children, but sometimes we long just to be touched.

So friends may recommend massage, as a therapeutic, safe, professional way of experiencing touch.  The massage therapist, if well-trained, will avoid sharing his problems with you, will listen, and will ease the tension in your muscles at the same time.  Touch stimulates the production of the hormone oxytocin, known as the “bonding” hormone.  You can feel comfortable, connected, and relaxed.

Yet sometimes you go home and feel worse.  Your muscles ache out of all proportion to the pressure exerted by the massage therapist.  What’s happening?

Contemporary neuroscience says that we store memories not only in our brains but in the cells of our bodies as well.  Although there isn’t, to my knowledge, a map of where certain kinds of memories are stored, it isn’t unusual to have chronic stress stored in the shoulders or in the back.  While the stress is stored, the muscle tissue is more or less solid, more or less numbed.  When the muscles begin to relax, the feeling comes back, and the feeling is sometimes uncomfortable—that is, painful.  In addition, with the softening of the tension, the memories that have been stored away also come back.  In the interest of your long-term emotional health, this can be a very good thing, healing for both body and mind.

But in the interest of your short-term well-being, it might be too much.  Ida Rolf, whose name became synonymous with very deep tissue massage (“Rolfing”) used to say something like, “Don’t Rolf defense lawyers or football players.  They need all the defenses they’ve got.”

If you’re feeling vulnerable and as if you need all the defenses you’ve got, you might want to discuss with a psychotherapist or an experienced massage therapist whether massage is right for you.  You might be better off—just for now–sitting, cuddling the kids or petting your dog, for as long as they let you.

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