The Unique Complexity of Working with Divorcing Clients: Emotions on the Edge
When clients seek out the help of the collaborative team, it is at a time of deep emotional trouble, a time when most feel they have lost their center of gravity. As such, working with divorcing people presents numerous challenges to the team. In a large part, these challenges are the result of the clients’ needs to spend significant amounts of total talking time centered on their personal problems. According to Doane and Cowan’s “Interpersonal Help-Giving of Family Practice Lawyers”, in the American Journal of Community Psychology, 1981, clients can spend nearly 40% of their time focusing only on their emotional needs. Learning to work effectively with clients’ heightened states of emotionality can be one of the most challenging lessons for the collaborative team.
How often do collaborative professionals find themselves, despite their best efforts, tripped up by their own reactions to their clients? It is not unusual for members of the collaborative team to find themselves feeling resentment, fear, guilt, or perhaps just strong feelings of identification and sympathy with their clients’ pain. Some of their clients’ childlike behaviors and the often inappropriate thought processes brought on by the crisis of divorce can even cause them to question whether or not they have the proper strategies to advocate effectively for them.
The open and often unconstrained nature of clients’ struggles during divorce leads to discernible and, to some extent predictable, reactions on the parts of both clients and collaborative professionals, often referred to in psychology as transference and counter-transference. In order to maintain a steady and beneficial working alliance with clients, it is necessary for the team to recognize the relationship between their clients’ behaviors and their reactions to them. To remain unaware is to risk mismanaging their professional role.
Clients’ emotional states during divorce
Impasses in the divorce process can arise from several psychological sources: clients’ unresolved emotional issues and clinical disorders. At such times, focusing only on the facts of the case will do little to help the client move forward. Collaborative professionals must recognize the inseparability of clients’ psychological states and legal tasks in order to successfully engage with the client.
Divorce is a minefield that can cause clients to regress and to behave in immature ways that are far from normal behavior patterns. In her book Crazy Time, Abigail Trafford concludes that the more the client understands the “crazy times”, the more likely they are to recover. The same can be said of the collaborative team; the greater their knowledge of their clients’ psychological states, both normal and pathological, the more competent they are to help the client make the shift from the emotional aspects to the legal aspects of divorce. It is important to be able to differentiate between the client’s needs for help and the common transference patterns seen in their childlike and unrealistic demands, inappropriate decisions, and overdependence.
In an earlier newsletter, I spoke of divorce as the death of a relationship and the necessity of mourning that loss in order to move forward as a single person. Throughout the divorce process, it is common for clients to express their raw feelings of grief, which are likely to include feelings of anger and depression. Collaborative team members frequently find themselves in the crosshairs as they become misguided targets of some of these feelings and displaced frustrations.
While each divorce is unique, there are some prevalent and identifiable themes that are likely to emerge on the clients’ emotional map. The first of these is failure. Most people experience their inability to succeed at sustaining a marriage as a form of failure. Next is rejection and abandonment. The client’s self-esteem is likely to take a major hit when left by a spouse or when they feel they are abandoning their parental responsibilities. Another pattern commonly encountered is helplessness; often, clients feel they have lost everything in the divorce, including control of their own lives. Finally, fear of aloneness is universal; clients cannot imagine life on their own or ever partnering again.
While divorce itself can cause psychiatric disorders, in some cases, psychiatric disorders may have existed prior to the divorce and perhaps even contributed to it. If these disorders become an obstacle to effective teamwork and successful outcomes, outside psychotherapeutic intervention may be necessary. Common clinical disorders that may cause complications during the legal divorce include depression, anxiety, substance abuse, physical abuse, and personality disorders. (The DSMIV, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, is the primary reference for learning about these disorders.)
Collaborative team members’ reactions to their clients’ emotional states
The pressing and intrinsic nature of problems and stresses that divorcing individuals face, coupled with their need to talk about them throughout the legal work, thrusts collaborative team members into a help-giving role. Most recognize the importance of listening to their clients’ stories and the need to be supportive and sympathetic. That does not mean, however, that they feel comfortable or effective managing their clients’ personal problems while effectively keeping their eyes on pressing legal tasks. After all, most collaborative professionals are neither diagnosticians nor mental-health providers.
In his article “Effectively Representing the Unreasonable Client’, in The American Journal of Family Law, 2001, S. Portnoy identified several characteristics of the “unreasonable” client. Portnoy defines such clients as those who lack the ability to engage in rational thought because they are caught up in their own intense emotions, as so often occurs during divorce. Portnoy maintains that clients’ out-of-control effect compromises cognition and leads to childish acting-out during divorce. If these behaviors are not handled properly, it is extremely difficult to keep the professional relationship on track.
The power of counter-transference in working with divorcing clients cannot be overemphasized. It is relatively easy for team members to develop personal perceptions and feelings about clients, which in turn can create blind spots in dealing objectively with them. These reactions can range from warm feelings and concern to harsh feelings of disapproval and distaste in response to the sometimes grossly inappropriate and immature behavior of the client.
Some of the more common feelings and reactions to clients include: a sense of grandiosity in response to the client who repeatedly tells the professional how wonderful they are; a need to go out of one’s way for a client due to feelings of guilt over the fees they are charging; the female professional who is uncomfortable confronting a client who is out of line; the male team member who encourages their clients’ dependency needs because of a sexual attraction. What about the client who adopts the role of the dependent child or the helpless victim? Or the one whose self interests and greed are played out when dividing the marital assets? The list goes on and on.
Strategies for dealing with clients’ appeals for interpersonal help
Like it or not, the collaborative team is involved in their clients’ personal problems. Indeed, the “chemistry” of the collaborative team/client relationship almost demands that it will happen. Therefore, it is vital that collaborative professionals learn techniques that can be used to:
The following suggestions are likely to promote successful legal outcomes and satisfied clients:
The collaborative team owes it to themselves and to their clients to be continually alert to both transference and counter-transference processes, to make use of them when they enhance understanding, and to respectfully set them aside when they threaten to interfere with good legal judgment.
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.