It’s a curious job, being a family lawyer. Yes, you need to be a technical expert, meticulous drafter, font of legal knowledge, tenacious advocate. But the demands of the job go way beyond the legal. You’re also required to act as therapist, life coach, parent and best friend all rolled into one (and to think some say family law is just about adding everything up and dividing by two…)
It’s these (in the absence of a better word…) more ‘touchy feely’ elements that make the job so fascinating as well as frustrating. And emotional pressure comes with the territory when you work with clients who routinely become overly dependent on you, may act illogically and go against your advice.
Can therapists help?
Given that family lawyers often do become pseudo-counsellors for their clients, what’s the point of getting an actual therapist involved in the family law process?
Clients usually don’t want an array of people involved – they like having one person that they can trust and pour all their feelings into. That’s why they develop such an intense bond with their lawyer.
But there are some good reasons to involve therapists. And not necessarily the ones you might expect…
Lawyers need to spend time with people from professions with such a different culture.
People are porous. We’re massively affected by our environment. We pick up on others’ ways of doing things if we’re around them for long enough.
And working alongside therapists can really help lawyers temper the focus on logic and become more feelings-orientated.
Family lawyers are a pretty empathetic bunch generally. But the legal profession still fails to give feelings and emotions the credence it should. Emotions come into every case you work on. But they’re barely mentioned (if at all) in lawyers’ training. And it’s too often seen as good practice to squash your own feelings as a lawyer in order to appear ‘robust’ or as having ‘broad shoulders’ (whatever that means…).
Handing back responsibility
Lawyers are often Mr and Mrs Fix Its. It’s inbuilt in lawyers to want to solve problems for others. Therapists on the other hand tend to take a more reflective approach. That’s useful in cases with complicated and delicate psychological and practical issues (as family matters do). Sometimes there isn’t an immediate solution to a problem. Therapists find it easier to be OK with that than lawyers.
Lawyers are excellent at getting to the heart of issues while therapists tend to be a bit ponderous and not so quick to get to the point. Although this can be impractical, the therapeutic approach does demonstrate an appreciation that feelings are not a linear A to B matter. Emotions need space to breathe for us to have a hope of making sense of them. In contrast, the legal process doesn’t really do ‘space’. Hence why amicable divorces often turn nasty, casualties of a system that funnels them in and churns them out like the machine in the Pink Floyd video ‘Another Brick in the Wall’.
Horses to water…
When bumps in the road appear, lawyers tend to appeal to reason and logic to persuade their clients or counterparts to come round to their way of thinking. Contrast that with your typical therapist. Day 1 at therapy school teaches you that we all sometimes behave in self-defeating ways. it’s part of our make up as humans. So therapists understand that appealing to someone’s logic usually doesn’t work. Effortful or directive efforts to cajole or persuade clients that they should or should not do something often backfire. You can lead a horse to water and all that…
Therapists try to shine a light for clients on such self-defeating or destructive tendencies, rather than seeking to persuade them one way or another. There’s an element of trusting that the client will take the right road. This approach liberates therapists from the frustrations that lawyers get caught up in. Lawyers might benefit from picking up a little of the spirit of this approach.
‘Do Not Cross’
Boundaries run through therapeutic work like the words on a stick of Blackpool Rock. Like the implicit rule that clients should rarely contact you between sessions. This shows respect for the therapist’s time. Contrast that with the average lawyer who is expected to be available and responsive most of the time.
We therapists are also supported in managing our own feelings with clients, through clinical supervision and our own therapy, making sure that feelings of anger, frustration and annoyance with clients get discharged.
When can therapists help in family law matters?
Ideally well before the start of the legal process. Most couples benefit from attending therapy together, whether separating or not. Those who do so tend to be more communicative and more nuanced in their views about their relationship; less likely to indulge in the ‘blame game’.
There’s also no reason why a suitably experienced couples therapist can’t be involved with aspects of the legal process. Therapy can be a great setting for couples to start to disentangle thorny issues around, say, personal belongings, unreasonable behaviour particulars in a divorce petition, decisions around schooling, holidays, what’s in the best interests of the children.
This is not about taking the place of mediators or lawyers. It’s about the fact that many of these conversations are not actually legal, nor do they require legal knowledge.
The therapist can then encourage the clients to speak to their lawyers and can provide a written summary of discussions of the discussions to the lawyers, with the clients’ consent.
Therapists can also take a supporting role in mediations, collaborative meetings or negotiations. When I think back to round table meetings I attended as a lawyer which disintegrated into defensiveness and acrimony before breaking down and one person storming out, I wonder how many could have been ‘saved’ with some therapeutic support. Having a therapist present makes clients feel safer – they know they can take time out when needed. This makes them less likely to retreat into defensiveness or lash out and are more likely to stay in the process.
We all know the reality: that family law is a melange of psychology and law.
By therapists and lawyers working in a more integrated way we ensure that our practice fits with that reality. We two professions have complementary skills to share and learn from each other. We do clients a disservice if we fail to reflect that in the way we work.
For couples everywhere, spending so much more time together during lockdown is a gift as well as a challenge. Forced proximity = new opportunities. We’ve all found different ways to be together in this Covid-19, safety-first time. However, in the hope that this might help, I’ve drawn together some ideas that will help make things better.
To let some sunlight in. To make life more kind.
1) Ask open questions when disagreements arise, rather than using statements or even accusations. Gentleness in asking those question is key: “How can I help?” is better than “Why are you banging on about that again?” Obviously.
2) Check out your own emotions and write them down. Are you feeling frustrated? Scared? Irritated? Jittery? Try to find quiet time for you to lean into your feelings. Write them down: naming feelings is a powerful way to take away their sting and let them go. Feelings are transitory. They will pass and they don’t own you.
3) Trying to relax into the present, putting aside worries about the future and things outside your control. Time to yourself for a few minutes, using breathing exercises, can be a balm. If you haven’t tried mindfulness yet, do. It’s brilliant.
4) Find opportunities to do kind things for your partner (even if you don’t feel like it!). We can get caught up in our own worries; it lightens the heart when you think of something to say that makes your partner happy, or when you do something unexpected to please them. Find a poem to read them in the evening, surprise them with some flowers.
5) Consider sharing the way you feel before the temperature rises between you. It can be helpful just to let your partner know you are feeling tense or unsettled today. It gives them the chance to do something kind for you. And maybe tell you how they’re feeling too.
6) Listen calmly and non-judgmentally. Difficult when things are stressful, yet it’s a wonderful skill. Communication problems are made worse if the other person jumps to conclusions, or butts in on what you’re saying, maybe with a hostile or quizzical expression. Be brave and bold. Go first. You can set an example.
7) Speak calmly so as not to ratchet up the tension. Sarcasm doesn’t help. The aim is to reduce the antagonism, not heighten it. You probably know what doesn’t work with your partner, what riles them. Equally, you may well know what will make things better.
8) Use physical touch. When it’s the right time, reaching out to touch your partner’s hand can be the most soothing thing in the world: that’s a scientifically proven fact! A hug can make tensions dissolve. You can be the brave one to make the first move.
9) Call a “time out” if the temperature is rising too high. First find a word or phrase that you can both agree on that acts as a red light, a stop sign. Then if you feel things are about to escalate into a fully-fledged row, one of you has to say the time-out word, which is sacrosanct. You must both agree to stop and move away to a pre-arranged place for an agreed length of time. It’s a chance to reflect, take some deep breaths and resolve to approach things differently.
10) Lighten the mood by playing music, or being playful. It’s amazing how music can raise the spirits – and dancing can be even better. A joke lightens the atmosphere. A genuine smile is wonderful currency.
11) Remember needs: we all have needs, including (especially) a need for connection. “What do you need from me?” is a generous question that offers your partner a chance to open up.
12) Other tips for personal wellbeing: connect with other people where possible and safe, learn new things, donate, give a present or a helping hand to someone. All these are proven to help wellbeing generally. They will take you out of yourself and put you in a more positive frame of mind. And that helps both of you.
Please note that the above guidance is provided for couples who feel and are safe with each other. If you believe that your safety, or your family’s, is at risk, contact: 0808 2000 247 (Refuge, women); 0808 800 5000 (NSPCC, children); 01823 334244 (ManKind, men) or 0808 8010327 (Respect, men).