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).
Annmarie: Well, Jo, things have got pretty weird since our last blog haven’t they? Over a month into lockdown now due to Covid 19 and I think we’re all feeling a constant low-level anxiety. How can we cope? There’ve been reports of some people drinking more alcohol in lockdown (reports suggest 1 in 5 people in the UK are drinking more) while others have cut it out completely.
What does this tell us about our relationship with alcohol?
Jo: Well it seems to be all or nothing! But that’s too simplistic because the relationship with alcohol can be a complicated one, especially now. Alcohol usually helps enhance a social situation and increases conviviality. But there’s not much justification for that in lockdown; in one’s own home, either alone or with immediate family or housemates. There are no parties or trips to the pub.
The reality is that any drinking is plain to see, all those bottles going to the recycling. People may not have been aware of how much they were drinking; when going out with others it is easy to lose count.
Alternatively, people may simply be allowing themselves to drink as they please; not limiting themselves as they usually might. And why not? Furloughed, or quiet or no commute or my goodness having look after and home-school children while working are all justifications. Everything is different, why not have a drink and maybe even more than usual? Twitter is littered with references as to what time it’s acceptable to drink.
What do you think?
Annmarie: As you say, everything is magnified due to the situation – people are more aware than ever how much they’re drinking. I’ve noticed that the tendency towards compulsive or habitual behaviour we all have (whether it’s in relation to booze, food, exercise, jigsaw puzzles whatever!) are a bit heightened by the current circumstances. It makes sense that that would happen given that we don’t have the usual distractions of the outside world to temper it. Given how scary and uncertain the world is at the moment, I think it’s also natural that we would turn to whatever gives us comfort and these things are usually a great source of comfort, even if they can also harm us.
Have you noticed any behaviour like this yourself since this started?
Jo: I have a tendency to overeat when anxious and be drawn to sweet things or carbs. Read pies and cakes and Cadbury’s Crème Eggs. In a weak moment, I ordered online 12 gluten free savoury pies and 12 gluten free donuts! I have decided to allow myself this for now. Wean myself off in time to lose some weight during lockdown or frankly I won’t have any clothes to wear! You?
Annmarie: Haha, yes, my sweet tooth has definitely come out in force. The other thing I’ve noticed is that my thinking has been a bit more compulsive. I start to hone in on things that I don’t like, whether it’s something about the way I look or something about my life and, without the distractions of day to day life, it’s harder to reverse myself out of the rabbit hole of thinking about it. I also bite my nails when I’m nervous but so far I’ve managed to resist that!
There’s no doubt we all have our coping mechanisms for life, and we need them now more than ever. It’s just a good idea to try and find ones that you can live with and that hopefully don’t harm you or other people! I understand people drinking more at the moment but, given what I remember the general fear is like with a hangover anyway, I wonder if that’s heightened at the moment for people? Alcohol used to suppress my anxiety but then it would come back with force the next morning. What do you reckon?
Jo: Yes, I agree. I am finding it harder to concentrate at the moment. I have a low level of anxiety pretty much all the time. If I go outside to walk the dogs it’s even worse because I’m worried about the distance people are keeping away from me and vice versa. So, I’ve taken to getting up very early in the morning, which I won’t be able to sustain for too much longer.
The truth is, deep down, I know that I can’t eat my way out of all of this. So much of it is out of my control. My powerlessness is plain for me to see. Acceptance is of course the key. What kinds of things do you do that help with accepting the current situation?
Annmarie: I find limiting news and social media intake really helps with acceptance. There’s so much noise out there and opinion about how the situation is being handled. What’s the point of me getting involved with all that when it’s outside of my control? I read an interesting article by a man who’d survived the Syrian War who advised that you focus on how you can live your values during a time of crisis. He described how, once the war broke out, he used his company bus to drive his competitor’s employees around as well as his own employees – doing the right thing rather than being a stickler for the rules. So acts of kindness, getting involved in community efforts, volunteering, thinking twice before cancelling services and subscriptions in an effort to help out other businesses are all good. Reading a lot of fiction helps too as does any form of escapism.
As horrible as this situation is, it is an opportunity to try and train your mind out of unhelpful habits. If you’re a bit of a worrier and a catastrophiser usually (as I am), you’re probably finding that that way of thinking is not good at the moment so you’re having to modify your attitudes in times of crisis. I’m having to do so and I think it’s a useful thing to learn…
Jo: The things that are good for us right now feel counterintuitive and may feel like yet MORE things to do.
Silence: sitting in silence even for 1 minute does wonders to calm the brain.
Meditate: this is sitting in silence and just being aware of your breathing. That’s it. We can all be good at it.
Paint, do a puzzle: anything that helps get you through.
These things help divert the mind long enough from the crisis, from the alcohol or the food or the online shopping or the online gambling to slow it down or stop it.
Actually, since admitting here (this has taken a few days for us to write) that I am waking up early to avoid people whilst walking the dogs I am waking up just a bit later each day! I think telling you about my anxiety has really helped. I need to try and remember to feel my feelings, acknowledge them and then I’ll be ok. No need to eat or drink on them. Any other top tips?
Annmarie: Well, one thing I’m trying is telling myself that, yes this is an exceptional situation but instead of worrying about how I’ll cope with whatever’s going to happen I try to think about the evidence of the past: i.e. I’ve always coped (more or less!) with what life’s thrown at me so far so I choose to believe that I will cope with what’s thrown at me in the future. One day at a time!
Good chatting to you about it. Speak soon.