Monday, May 30, 2011

WHY FEAR & ANGER ARE YOUR WORST ENEMY IN FAMILY COURT

In my thirty-plus years as a Family Law attorney, I have found that the predominant and most destructive emotion among parties to a divorce or custody case is FEAR

Fear is a primal human emotion.  It comes into play when we feel threatened – and when a marriage is crumbling and people are considering divorce, there is plenty to feel threatened about:  “How am I going to survive without my spouse’s income?  Do I have to give her half of my money and property?”  “Will he be able to take proper care of the children when I am no longer there to supervise?”  “Who gets to stay in the house?”  “What will happen when my spousal support ends?” . . .   

It’s no wonder why people are fearful – when a marriage is unraveling, both the husband and wife face a scary and uncertain future, and so do the children.  Add to that the adversarial nature of a court proceeding, and you have a very combustible mix.  All it takes is one little spark to ignite a raging fire.

When people are feeling out of control and not communicating (as is the case with most divorcing couples), the fear that is building up inside them can easily morph into another human emotion – ANGER – and that anger can manifest itself in any number of ways:  Discussions can deteriorate into shouting matches; a spouse can “shut down” and become unwilling to talk; a person can become obstinate and unreasonable; or one spouse may seek to hurt or punish the other.  Anger can lead to territorial battles over money or property, or even time with the children. 

We are all human, and these responses to fear are certainly understandable, but they are unhealthy and can lead to contentiousness and long-term problems.  I’ve seen it a thousand times:  An angry spouse runs out and gets an attorney to use as a “hired-gun,” with the goal of inflicting maximum damage. -- The other spouse retaliates by bringing in their own “hired-gun.” -- And before they know it, the parties are waging an all-out litigation war, with money spilling to the ground like water from a barrel shot full of holes.  In a war like that, nobody wins.  Often, given the parties’ seething anger and lack of communication, the stage is set for a series of future battles, where the former husband and wife return to court over-and-over again, during the course of many years, to re-litigate issues involving custody of children, or parenting time, or support.  Hard-earned money that could have been used for retirement, or the kids’ college education, now goes to pay attorneys in an endless war of attrition.

A divorce may include very complicated issues, such as custody; parenting time; child support; alimony; division of property and debts; appraisal of real estate; or valuation of businesses, stock options, and retirement plans – just to name a few.  Working through these types of issues takes patience and emotional intelligence.  It takes a willingness to put aside fear and anger and address the needs of the parties and the children in a calm, business-like manner.

As I see it, the job of the attorneys in a divorce case is to help the parties carefully untangle the twisted web of issues involving custody, support, property division, and finances without ripping the fabric of "family" (the children will still have two parents, even after the divorce is finalized).  Where children are involved, the lawyers’ primary responsibility is to help the parents build a bridge so that when the divorce is over they will be able to communicate effectively for the benefit of the children.  If the divorce does not involve children, then our job is to find a way to divide assets and debts in a manner that leaves both parties as financially intact as possible.  Obviously, the lawyers cannot accomplish these goals without a buy-in from both parties.  If their actions are ruled by fear and anger, then they will be unable to make responsible decisions, and settlement discussions may be out of the question.  In representing clients over the years, I have seen instances where a party or his attorney elects to take a “slash-and-burn” approach.  When that happens, my job is to aggressively protect and defend my client’s interests.  That means getting tough.  However, even in the midst of the most hotly contested legal dispute, it is in everyone’s best interest to keep the door open to reasonable settlement negotiations – because, in the end, it is the client’s life, and the client’s future, that are at stake – and, in too many cases, when the battle is over and decisions were dictated by fear and anger, the only winners are the lawyers.  But that doesn't have to happen.  Take charge of your emotions.  Keep your cool.  And approach divorce as if it were a business negotiation.  If you can do that, then you are in control.


Gary J. Frank, is an Arizona Family Law Attorney and former Judge Pro Tem with over thirty years of experience in dealing with divorce, custody, parenting time, support, and all other issues in Family Court.  He also has many years of experience as a Family Law Mediator.  If you are in need of a consultation regarding divorce, child custody, or any other area of Family Law, please do not hesitate to contact us by telephone (602-383-3610) or by email through our website.  We look forward to hearing from you.