I am regularly asked in both the professional setting and often also on a social basis, what are the tips, or what I refer to as ‘simple ingredients’, to moving through the legal process in a relationship breakdown that maintains respect and dignity.
Having practised in family law for over seventeen years, I have had the opportunity to help people through what is often for them the most emotional and traumatic experience they have lived. A relationship breakdown does bring with it an enormous sense of loss on many levels, but also the opportunity for a new beginning. You do come out the other side, especially with the right support networks.
A Family Court Judge once famously described the period in which people are living through the legal process following a separation as like living in suspended animation.
There are what I consider to be four simple ingredients that give people the opportunity to maintain a sense of respect and dignity in the process that will also benefit them in their relationships moving forward, including with their former partner, particularly if they need to continue to communicate with one another for the benefit of their children.
The first ingredient is indeed a simple concept and that is “Don’t sweat the small stuff”. By focussing on small things or the minutiae in a financial settlement, my experience is that you lose sight of the big picture. It is evident that on many occasions, people do attach a sentimental value to particular items of their property but on other occasions, I see people want to pursue an item of property for the purpose of what I refer to as winning a “trophy”. Pick your battles, there is no benefit in getting into a costly legal argument over things such as a coffee table or the toaster and kettle. You will spend more money and energy on pursuing those issues than what you could often buy them for, and remember, they are just “things”. You are better off putting your resources into issues that actually mean something. The key is often to compromise and not have a battle over the small things. “Don’t sweat the small stuff”.
With your children, the second ingredient is not to encourage them to think they determine or control the parenting arrangements. I read a great post on that social forum that is Facebook the other day which said there are two rules about children and they are that you do not ask them to deal with adult issues and that you do not burden them with situations they cannot control.
Generally speaking, my experience is that children tell parents what they want to hear and often what they say has the underlying intent of getting the approval of their parents. There is no magic age in terms of when a child’s wishes, in effect, determine the parenting arrangements that are to be put in place, but obviously as they get older or enter their teenage years they are often able to articulate their views more clearly. It is important to remember, however, that there aren’t too many fourteen year olds that can run their own life and self-determine, meaningfully, what is in their best interest. There needs to be a balancing of what a child’s views are, and the context to those views being expressed, and the need for parents to parent their children and encourage the relationship with the other parent. Encouraging or forcing a child to make this decision creates a no-win scenario in that essentially one parent will be happy and the other parent will not be. In simple terms, parenting matters involve the parents taking responsibility for whatever the dispute might be and not delegating the decision-making power to the children. If you do, the reality is you will most likely cause psychological damage to your children and therapeutic support at some juncture will need to be undertaken. Simply, don’t ask your children to deal with adult issues and don’t burden them with situations they ultimately cannot control.
The third ingredient I consider to be even more important in our digital age and day to day sense of “immediacy” is to not engage in emotive, self-indulgent, inappropriate or dramatic correspondence. It is important to remember that every text message, email, Facebook post or voicemail may ultimately end up as evidence in your family law dispute.
Early in my career, a senior practitioner, now judge, taught me a valuable lesson in reviewing correspondence that I had drafted in telling me that you have to remember that every piece of correspondence that you sign off on may one day be read by a judge. He told me to remember that before pressing send or putting a letter in the post.
The best thing to do, though often difficult, is to ignore and not engage or respond to correspondence that was intended to invoke an emotional response. By engaging in communication of this nature, you are maintaining a relationship that an experienced mediator told me she refers to as “a negative intimacy”. Remember to think before you send, take a deep breath, or even sleep on your reply overnight. It’s amazing how many times the next morning your decision will be not to engage at all.
This leads into my fourth and final ingredient to maintain respect and dignity in a relationship breakdown.
Don’t defame or slander your former partner or minimise their contribution to their relationship or as a parent. It takes two people to function in a relationship and it takes two people to separate.
We consistently see documents that are filed in Court proceedings that contain irrelevant, defamatory, slanderous and inflammatory content that is not only largely inadmissible but does nothing to promote that person’s case or the issues that need to be determined by the Court. To the contrary, by failing to acknowledge the contribution made by your former spouse, the Court can, in fact, form a negative view of you and disregard other aspects of your evidence that might otherwise have been credible by focusing on these other issues.
A family law expert can guide you through this process and provide you with information as to a network of other support services to help you move through this significant change in your life, whether it be therapeutic support, financial planning advice, accountancy advice, etc.
If you remember these four simple ingredients, they will help you in that journey.