Divorce and Clients' Emotional Needs: What Every Divorce Attorney Should Know

Dr. Deborah Hecker explains your transition from being apart of a relationship to a single person, and how to best cope with the conflicts. This article also speaks to divorce attorneys and teaches them how to help their client's emotional turmoil during

By Deborah Hecker
Updated: February 24, 2015

Divorce and the Client's Emotional Needs: What Every Divorce Attorney Should Know

While a divorce can be one of the most traumatic events of an adult's life, the keys to dealing with divorce can be found in the behavioral patterns of early childhood. Dr. Deb Hecker explores the similarities between developing oneself as a human being and redeveloping oneself as a newly single person. Understanding these similarities will aid divorce attorneys in both dealing with and understanding their clients' emotional needs and state of mind.


Aiding your clients in the transition from being part of a couple to being successfully divorced has as much to do with exercising emotional intelligence as legal intelligence. Some of the most difficult impasses in divorce are based on unresolved emotional issues, not concerns over division of property or even custody issues. At these times, a lawyer focusing solely on the facts or content of the case simply cannot help the client move beyond the emotional stalemate.

Most of the literature on the psychology of divorce treats divorce as the death of a relationship and focuses on the necessity of grieving that death in order to move forward as a no-longer-married person. The end of a marriage can be as traumatic as the actual death of a loved one in its capacity to wrench life apart and carve out a piece of the soul. All domestic attorneys have witnessed their clients' emotional chaos -- an emotional state that Abigail Trafford in her book "Crazy Time, Surviving Divorce and Building a New Life" refers to as "temporary insanity".

In order to more fully understand why divorce is such a devastating transition and why otherwise nice people behave so badly during divorce -- badly enough to inadvertently interfere in the process -- it is vital for divorce attorneys to have a grasp of the psychology of separation. A concerned and sensitive divorce attorney should understand how transitioning from being part of a couple complete with the emotional, social, and financial security that comes from being a part of a team to being single and self-reliant can create such emotional upheaval for their clients.

The metamorphosis from being part of a marital couple to becoming a single, unattached person is a series of developmental stages paralleling the early years of the mother-child bond, as described by pioneering researcher, Dr. Margaret Mahler. In her groundbreaking book The Psychological Birth of the Human Infant: Symbiosis and Individuation, Mahler outlines her model of child development, which one can directly apply to the interactive characteristics of a couple's relationship.

The following brief description of Mahler's theory on separation-individuation provides the framework for understanding the process through which a child must transition in order to achieve a separate identity from its mother. After exploring the mother-child dyad, we will look at how it serves as the foundation for the marital relationship and what happens when that relationship dissolves.

Child Developmental Stages

Mahler saw the infant as being born into a normal autistic phase whose primary task is to establish equilibrium outside the womb. At around two months old, the infant's sensitivity to external stimulation increases, and he moves into the symbiotic phase. The term "symbiosis" in this context is a metaphor describing the "undifferentiation" -- a fusion with the mother in which the "I" is not yet differentiated from the "not-I". According to Mahler, it is the symbiotic phase that becomes the template for all gratification as well as empathy and love in future relationships.

At about five or six months, the differentiation phase begins, and the infant becomes more alert to his external surroundings -- exploring both the mother and the environment. Using his body, the baby learns his outer physical boundaries, thereby experiencing greater differentiation from the mother. Soon thereafter, the practicing phase begins in which the child, according to Mahler, develops a "love affair" with the world, learning to crawl and walk away from the mother. Assuming she is comfortable with this leap of autonomy, the child will successfully enter the rapprochement phase, a difficult time when the child is more ambivalent about his growing independence and begins to manifest a lot of push-pull behavior. Finally, consolidation of individuality begins to take place, and all previous mother-child interactions become internalized and begin to form the basis of the child's feelings of well being and capacity for healthy future relationships.

The Marital Couple's Developmental Stages

Using Mahler's early childhood developmental stages as a springboard, we can explore the evolution of a couple's relationship.

One can liken the first stage of couplehood, that of being "madly in love", to Mahler's second stage of infant growth -- symbiosis. The purpose of this stage is attachment. In this stage, singles begin merging lives and personalities and go through a period of intense bonding. If each person receives nurture from the other during this stage and the agreement to form a couple is clear, the relationship will begin with a solid foundation. The partners conceptualize their relationship in terms of a fusion model: together, we shall be one. They look to each other for completion and fulfillment.

During the subsequent differentiation stage, individual differences emerge, and each partner is taken down from the pedestal and viewed more objectively. Greater boundaries are established. Disillusion and disappointment are inevitable.

Continuing the parallel with Mahler's model, the couple enters a normal period of practicing in which each participates in activities and relationships away from the other. Separateness, autonomy, and self become more important than developing the relationship. Conflicts intensify, and a healthy process for conflict resolution becomes necessary in order for the couple to maintain an emotional connection while developing themselves in the world. After each has developed a well-defined, competent identity, the couple alternates between periods of increased intimacy and efforts to reestablish independence. This rapprochement stage achieves a balance between "me" and "we". Finally, the couple reaches a stage of mutual interdependence in which, ideally, two well-integrated people are individually and mutually satisfied.

Loss of Mate: The Psychology of Divorce

Inevitably, the early mother-child bond will fall short of perfectly meeting all of the child's needs and desires. Looking to one's spouse to meet these unfulfilled needs often becomes a convenient way to fill the gap in adulthood. Unconsciously, dependency is shifted from the parent to the mate, who becomes the recipient of these unmet needs.

While this may appear on the surface to be a reasonable solution, it is, in fact, fraught with real problems. Left unattended, these problems can lead the couple to serious conflict, even divorce.

Let's look at a common marital dynamic. The typical couple starts off their partnership in the symbiotic phase, the fusion model, where they are both working toward oneness. What happens if one partner transitions into the differentiation or practicing phase and begins seeking greater independence, while the other remains in the symbiotic phase still yearning for the security of the marriage and locked in the maternal fantasy role? The result is likely to be a bumpy ride with one partner seeking closeness and the other distance, creating a kind of seesaw effect. With the help of a marriage counselor, some couples can remedy this imbalance. For others, the disparity is too difficult to change, and divorce becomes the only solution.

The depth with which marital partners touch each other in their intimate lives, striving to achieve a balance between closeness and distance, must be understood in order to grasp the severity of the loss through divorce. Losing a spouse who is perceived as a protector and savior, much the same way that a parent is perceived, can be a devastating and frightening blow. When attorneys understand divorce in the context of uprooting a deep psychological anchor from its mooring, the dramas that they see daily in their office are much easier to comprehend.


Most divorce attorneys understand that much of the time spent with clients centers on the clients' emotional needs and personal problems resulting from their loss. Understanding how the separation process provides ample triggers for hurt, sadness, anger, and fear enables an attorney to prevent those emotions from throwing up roadblocks to progress and successful legal resolution.

In some respects, matrimonial lawyers face many of the same challenges that trained psychotherapists do, but without the benefit of training in how to manage these emotions. Although divorce lawyers do not need to be trained psychotherapists to represent their clients successfully, they need to do what they can to reduce conflict and promote a divorce environment that helps their client remain focused, calm, and goal-directed. An empathetic divorce attorney can see through the anger, greed, and grief and not allow it to impede a successful legal resolution.

A person beginning the divorce process often looks at issues through childish eyes, repeating the early behavior patterns described by Mahler and subconsciously subverting the divorce process. A divorce attorney who understands the psychological stages the client is experiencing can better promote adult behavior and provide quality legal resolution.

Since many, if not most, individuals in the midst of divorce will feel alone and frightened at some point, it can be difficult and sometimes nearly impossible for them to make rational decisions that are in their own best interests. Clients in this vulnerable state often become dependent on their divorce attorneys -- looking for someone to "take care of everything". It is vital that the divorce attorney resist the client's misplaced dependency needs and feelings of helplessness. By involving them in the decision-making process, they will instead foster their independence.

Sound legal judgment, uncomplicated by the client's emotions, will help minimize costly post-divorce conflicts. Armed with the knowledge that the client's behavior is based in deeper emotional issues, a savvy divorce attorney can reduce exposure to ethical complaints as well as reduce his own stress levels.

Finally, if the pressure of dealing with the client's emotional problems becomes too stressful, referring a client to a competent divorce counselor will benefit both the client and attorney. Coordinating the emotional divorce with the legal divorce is an excellent way of easing and shortening the divorce process.

Dr. Hecker welcomes calls from both attorneys and clients to help resolve impasses during the divorce process as well as help the client with the post divorce adjustment. 

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May 07, 2008

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Physical/Emotional Abuse
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