As part of our core values, BWB has developed a list of behaviours we expect our staff to observe. One of those is to prioritise the emotional wellbeing of each of our clients. However, we acknowledge that we are not therapists and we will refer our clients to the appropriate counsellor, social worker or psychologist.
Whilst we cannot and should not wear a therapeutic hat, I think it is important as family lawyers, to be able to understand, at least in general terms, the emotional and psychological factors associated with the breakdown of a long term relationship (be it either matrimonial or de facto). We need to be able to recognise if each of our clients is in need of therapeutic support. And, ideally, we work to identify what stage of the grieving process each of our clients is at.
The very well-known and much cited Kübler-Ross model on the “five stages of grief” records a series of emotional stages experienced by survivors of an intimate partner’s death – the five stages are denial (and isolation), anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The model has been equally applied by social science to divorce/separation as it has to death.
In my view, the importance is fourfold:
- Firstly, each client’s instructions about their property and parenting matters can be of critical importance to their lives and may have far reaching and often irreversible implications for them, their former spouse and their children. As a result, those instructions have to be made with a clear head and not when they are emotionally distressed;
- Secondly, it is often the case that our clients seek no other professional advice or support prior to their initial attendance with us. The onus is on us therefore, to facilitate that therapeutic support that is, almost always, essential. Some need convincing. The narrative I like to give is that – so far as your financial matters are concerned, that is the easy part, leave it to us. The hard work for you is to ensure you work through the very difficult and confronting emotional and psychological issues. If you ignore these issues, the social science research tells us that you may be okay in the short-term but in longer term can lead to a breakdown and in some cases significant mental health issues;
- Thirdly, being brutally honest, sometimes family law clients can be impatient, terse, reactive or emotive – to borrow a phrase from one of the current Justices of The Family Court, “they are good people in difficult circumstances”. It is far easier to empathise with someone and not take any of his or her behaviour personally when you understand the grieving process and at what stage that client is at in the grieving process; and
Finally, and most importantly, some of our clients need to be given a little information and some direction to be able to learn to recognise the stages of grieving over their divorce so they can heal and begin to move on with their new life.
There is a very clever psychologist and leadership development specialist that works with BWB. He equates separation and divorce with a kind of living death. It is death with one huge exception: your former spouse, though dead to you is still living and interacting with all the people you love. Death has finality to it. In most instances, it is also accepted as having been unpreventable. With death there are rituals designed to help the grieving process – There is a funeral, a wake, time off work and a higher threshold for compassion from friends and family. There is widespread acknowledgment that it will take you some time to heal.
Divorce and separation have no real rituals. They have different societal expectations – separated spouses, and their children, are often expected just to continue working, attending school, acting the same. If there is an acknowledgement that you will take some time to heal following any separation, expectations about how long that will take, appear to be much shorter than that associated with divorce.
As a family lawyer, acting as our client’s therapist on the basis of a very small amount of knowledge about the grieving process that is associated with separation and divorce is dangerous. However, to me the balance is clear – get to really know your client, empathise with them, direct them to the appropriate therapeutic expert and focus on getting the best legal outcome for them as quickly as possible.