“What Happened to You?”, Looking at the Whole Picture During Divorce

I read a book recently, “What Happened to You,” written by Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Scott Perry. The book is about childhood trauma. As I read the stories contained in the book, I was reminded of the many clients I’ve seen who have been traumatized themselves or who are trying to protect their child. In the last few years, it’s become clear to me that helping clients with their legal problems is merely the tip of the iceberg. Family law situations are fraught with complex issues dealing with issues of trauma, depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and how to manage them. I realized, if I wanted to genuinely help my clients get to a better place, I would need to understand what they are going through. Some may argue the law is black and white, why would all of this be important?

Because all clients are different. It’s not one size fits all. Each person comes in my office with a unique background and a specific set of circumstances. To effectively represent my clients, I need to know what motivates them and what their most desired outcome. I also need to dissect their weaknesses so I can help prepare them for what’s ahead. It’s easier to explain with a few stories.

I’ve got two clients that are the same age, have the same career background and are both going through a divorce. In one case, the man has PTSD and anxiety from his military service. His wife is manipulating him through fear. He has sent me their correspondence and her constant barrage of demands. He was sending me email after email trying to combat the stress he was feeling over her relentless nagging. I advised him to move out if he could afford it and get away from her. His anxiety was out the roof from her telling him what would happen. She knows how to wind him up and she was doing a great job. It didn’t take long for me to read her and as soon as he stopped the conversation and told him we were going to file contested she started asking him to reconsider. If I hadn’t been attuned to my client’s state of mind, he would have entered into an agreement far, far too generous based on his limited income.

The second soldier is not suffering from anxiety, but he’s become accustomed to giving his wife whatever she wants to keep the peace. He’s been paying out thousands of dollars to her instead of taking care of his own needs. When he told me what he was paying I was aghast. I told him that just because she wants more money doesn’t mean he has to fork it over. We talked about his sense of responsibility and how she was playing on his emotions with guilt. I asked him if it was true that she needed money from him, considering how much he was paying and considering her own salary. He had been doling out money for so long at her request he had become the human equivalent of an ATM. After we worked out the budget, he saw her demands more realistically. I sent him away urging him to take care of himself and let her learn to manage her own money for a change.Gavel and wedding rings representing divorce processGavel and wedding rings representing divorce process

The law didn’t change, but the motivations driving the two clients were vastly different. Effectively representing them meant understanding the reasoning behind their actions and addressing those hidden drivers. Both men would’ve continued to make grave financial mistakes had I not intervened. But neither of these conversations were solely based on the law. The dynamics forged during a long-term marriage are hard to navigate differently without guidance. Simply explaining the black letter law wouldn’t have assuaged either client’s concerns. We had to go deeper. Often, my clients need me to guide them out of the emotional manipulation they’ve become stuck in.

If you are going through a divorce, it’s important to look at the whole picture. Yes, it’s the law but it’s far more than that. To obtain the best outcome, it’s vital to know what the best outcome means to you. After all, the decisions you make are going to be the ones you live with the rest of your life. Doesn’t that merit looking at it from the totality of circumstances?