The Divorce Wars - Emotional, Psychological and Legal

Learn the differences between the emotional, psychological, and legal wars we fight throughout divorce proceedings with expert Stacy Phillips. It is important to learn when it is worth the fight.

By Stacy D. Phillips
Updated: October 03, 2014
Divorce War

The following is an excerpt from the book, Divorce: It’s All About Control-How To Win the Emotional, Psychological and Legal Wars (ExecuProv Press), by renowned family law specialist and managing partner of Phillips Lerner, A Law Corporation in Los Angeles, CA, Stacy D. Phillips. In Chapter Three, "The Control Wars: The Typical Three," Phillips helps the reader to understand the differences between the three major wars, what characteristics differentiate the three, and whether they are worth fighting. See where you stand. In this three-part series, Ms. Phillips explains the Emotional War. She writes:


Playing upon one’s insecurities, frailties and vulnerabilities is at the heart of an emotional attack. I have yet to handle a divorce where an emotional war was not involved, and I doubt I ever will. You may think that is because I handle celebrity clients, but not so. I also handle others who have no notoriety and who cannot seem to resist the need to start an emotional battle. Emotional wars are often fought to gain an advantage in court (which usually backfires), and if there are children involved, they are fought to gain allegiance toward one parent over the other. This, too, is a very dangerous war because it has severe repercussions.

Emotional wars are awfully tempting.

Emotional wars are the most common of all divorce wars.

Emotional wars are those marital-type conflicts geared to hurt another’s feelings. They are the divorce war "variety" designed to penetrate one’s feelings at a very deep and painful level.

An example might be the former husband who shows up at the Little League game flaunting his new significant other or the wife who sends her daughter off for visitation with her ex and stuffs the necklace her husband once gave her in her daughter's bag of toys.

What most people who inflict emotional damage do not bargain for is that the other party will return the emotional "fire" at some point and quite possibly in a bigger and grander way. When people feel they are losing a grip on control in emotional wars, they will up the ante. They will find ways to make the counterattack that much more dramatic and hurtful. For every one salvo in an emotional war, the perpetrator can expect one or more in return.


Psychological warfare can be one of the cruelest forms of combat since it is sinister and deviant. Unlike many emotional wars, which I will discuss soon, psychological wars take plotting, planning and time. Those who choose this path often do so by carefully calculating how to effectively hurt their soon-to-be or ex spouse, in a deep and often vicious way, by disturbing their mental equilibrium. Indeed, most people who choose to use weapons of "mind destruction" play out a chess game of sorts in their heads beforehand, strategizing and even carefully plotting eventual counterattacks. They can play out a scenario anticipating a response, then offer another attack, aimed at further maiming one’s mental well-being, or destroying it altogether

In brief, it is when one person (or both) tries to make the other question his or her sanity, or when one or the other attempts to persuade others that his or her opponent is not mentally fit. Psychological Warfare extends beyond these boundaries to include any attack that plays havoc with one’s peace of mind and mental well being or focuses on the object of ruin. In the Psychological War, "mind games" are the order or the day!


The third most common war in this trilogy is the legal war. Sometimes a legal war is legitimate; other times it’s fought simply as a way to escalate the psychological and emotional wars and jockey for a stronger hold on control.

Whether or not the case ever goes the distance, a legal war is one that is fought when legal papers are drafted and/or filed for the purpose of resolving issues inside the courtroom. A legal war can be costly in both emotional and psychological terms, but then add to that dollars and cents, and this type of war is the most difficult and costly of all—albeit in dollars. The psychological and emotional wars can indeed be more costly, but not to the wallet. A legal war is one where neither side has much control because they relinquish it to the discretion of a judge or in some states, to a jury.

When a war over assets, real property, a prenuptial agreement, child custody, spousal or child support is necessary, a legal battle may be the only remedy, and that is where I certainly come in—and for good reason. But what I tell all my clients is this: Legal battles—the ones that wind up in the courtroom before a judge—can be extremely costly. And even if a case is settled before trial, what is involved and what it can cost can be mind-boggling. The mental and physical tab is draining enough in a legal war, but add to that the price tag of financial drain!

The toll associated with this type of war cannot be measured or budgeted for in advance.

Most legal wars, nearly 90 percent of them I would say, are settled on the courtroom steps, or shortly before a trial is due to begin. But those that are waged on the courtroom floor can be brutal, because no matter how well someone is prepared, no matter how good one’s attorney, no matter how solid they feel their case is, no matter how much money they spend funding it, the outcome is still in the hands of a judge, and one never knows how she or he will rule.

My advice, always: Work it out. Settle your case if you can.

If you launch a preemptive legal strike against your spouse you had better be ready for heavy artillery, because most courtroom battles are fought between attorneys representing those who have declared the war.

Attorneys—generally—know what they are doing!

War is their occupation.

So, if you stand up and scream, "We're going to court!" get ready for a big battle! Be prepared, I tell my clients, for a difficult time. Also be prepared for delays and frustrations, for they are the norm. And if you were certain the case would go your way, well, it may turn out exactly the opposite! I have seen judges switch physical custody arrangements. I have seen one party ordered to pay the other far more than they had anticipated in a modification of child support. I have also seen others made to relinquish assets and holdings they were certain would be awarded to them.

The legal war is often an ugly war. No one on either side walks off the battlefield unscathed.

Everyone usually suffers in war. Ask yourself right now:

  • Is a war necessary?
  • Will it get you what you want?
  • Is it productive?
  • Can you handle losing?
  • Will you think less of yourself if you walk away from one?
  • And most importantly, must you really fight a war to maintain a healthy sense of control?

The art of control comes in the ability to find equitable solutions and to make peace, both with your ex and yourself.

Stacy D. Phillips is a co-founder of Phillips Lerner, A Law Corporation, which specializes in high-profile family law matters. She is co-chair of the Women's Political Committee and a member of Divorce Magazine's North American Advisory Board. She can be reached at (310) 277-7117. View her firm's Divorce Magazine profile here.

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September 17, 2007

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