People enmeshed in divorce naturally feel an impulse to hire the most aggressive divorce attorney they can find - fear drives that impulse. Some lawyers market their family law practices to target such client vulnerability. They advertise themselves as being "aggressive advocates" or "aggressive divorce lawyers". If you look at their websites they often also describe themselves as offering "compassionate representation" or "charitable divorce help." Which is it? Having it both ways is unlikely. Hiring an attack dog is a recipe for disaster.
The idea of being compassionately devoted to tearing the other side's heart out is a form of 'divorce trance.' It is a masquerade. Maybe these lawyers are not to blame - legal professionals respond to the felt needs of their consumers like any other business.
The Family Court model of dispute resolution that we have been conditioned to expect is rooted in adversity and confrontation. It is a self-focused view, concerned only with short term outcomes - to ensure survival, our brains are hard-wired to adopt the immediacy of either fight or flight and this is equally true with our response to grief. It is also self validating when you or your divorcing spouse believe it to be so. The perception guarantees the experience becomes what you expect. Principles of fault and pathology pervade this thinking. With the process seen through this lens, divorce outcomes can only reflect these tensions and defects.
The law as applied to matrimonial disputes treats dissolution of marriage like the end of a business contract with a 'one size fits all' mentality. Our government sponsored legal system still omits consideration of the complex emotional interactions and consequences of relationship breakup. The therapist community is rarely invited in to assist, and even then may be hired with the hope they will support a position rather than to help parties to transition through breakup in healthier ways.
When lawyers act upon their clients' deepest hurts, when people are scripted to hire a junk yard dog to wrench from the other's hands what they think they deserve, it always becomes a lose, lose situation that escalates. It is a tsunami sweeping everything irresistibly before it. Later emotions, finances, relationships, and families are buried in ruin. We then scratch our heads as if to say "how did this happen?"
I contend that while the parties undergoing this maelstrom perhaps quite understandably lose their way, lacking the resources and the foreknowledge of a certain impending doom, the legal professionals who would serve them should know better.
You don't need an aggressive attorney in order to safeguard your valuable rights. Couples facing divorce need to bring attention to bear on what lies beneath their positions as early on in the process as is possible. What we think we want in family law conflicts typically derives from disorienting and traumatic relational circumstances. Both sides are feeling the same disappointment, dread, panic, and fear. Each tends to become stuck on only what each wants. We need to acknowledge this, equally.
The possibility of finding a middle ground by mining common interests is always sitting patiently somewhere in the room. After all, we all want the same things. We want to be treated fairly - to share equal dignity and respect. All beings wish to be happy. We want our children to grow up with a minimum of baggage and dysfunction, and most of us proclaim we prefer not to pass our divorce legacy on to the next generation. These interests can form the basis for discerning mutuality between the parties' needs that otherwise seem irreconcilable.
Feelings of hurt and worry in divorce are reasonable and natural. It is unnatural and even a cause for concern if people don't take action to protect themselves. It is just really important to consider that there may be a linkage between fear and what the destructive, ultimately self-defeating reactivity of fear causes.
Some simple suggestions:
Find a licensed therapist to ground you. We don't climb our way out of these boxes alone, and it is suicidal to believe we will.
Second, think about what your divorce should or could look like, and if you have continuing connections like kids what you would want your relationship with this person to be five or ten years from now for their sake as well as your own.
Third, consider embarking upon an investigation of forgiveness of the other person. Forgiveness is large enough to allow you to honor the reality that you were indeed harmed (and so not expose yourself to the risk of replay) while maintaining a sense of equanimity about yourself and your former partner.
Fourth, consider finding an experienced mediator, or a collaborative lawyer even if you don't have a collaborative case and are forced into Family Court. These professionals tend to be extensively trained in managing conflicts, and that can have a positive spill-over even into difficult contested cases. They are a highly committed group and they do what they do out of love and true compassion for the suffering of others.
Seek out a lawyer who not only understands the complex laws of property division, support, and custody but who also is interested in the human part of the equation and expresses a commitment to guiding you with the minimum of conflict. He or she can support your highest values, without sacrificing your financial or parenting safety.
Since family law professionals must adapt to the demands of those who pay them in order to stay in business - as with any other open market exchange - you as the client have the power of your purse and of your wallet to help bring about a paradigm shift for divorce lawyering. It matters what choice you make.
Court divorce, and those reflexively conditioned "aggressive" lawyers who historically were its gatekeepers, offer only a one-dimensional approach for solving what really amounts to the emotional fractals that make up the core of the human experience: Our essential individual qualities, the very functioning of our brains, and the success of our kind is predicated upon a web of interactions with others, and how we feel and respond to these. Adversarial divorce denies that these fractals exist or that they are important (indeed, the most important thing), or more kindly stated, just fails to appreciate that these complexities govern every aspect of our lives and so must be managed and addressed if we are to be healthy, free and happy and to move forward. Given that fractals are invisible until suddenly they become seen, it is no wonder we default to aggression as a means of overcoming our overcoming our ignorance, coping with our confusion, or in relieving our anxieties.
Today there is a paradigm shift afoot. For family law disputants, mediation and collaborative law offer a deep recognition of the fractals of human emotions within the context of this most gut-wrenching of circumstances. Leave the adversity warriors to insisting that the world is flat. Consider investigating the value of mediators and lawyers who are peacemakers instead.
Thurman W. Arnold, CFLS