Are you a victim of your spouse’s emotional bullying? It’s far more common than you might think. I’ve lost count of the number of new clients I’ve met over the years who recognise the signs of emotional bullying and want to get out.
However, they will often literally give me two sets of instructions at once, both of which are completely polarised, and they do it without realising that they’re asking almost the impossible.
The first instruction is that their spouse is incredibly aggressive, abusive and emotionally controlling. I am often told that I will have never come across someone like him or her before. The truth is quite the opposite. Chances are the previous client may well have said something along the same lines. Or been just that person complained about! Suffice to say, after over thirty years in family law it is highly unlikely I haven’t come across all shades of behaviour, some of them very serious indeed.
But there is the client, sitting ashen, assuming I’ve never heard anything like it before. All the issues which have been bottled up perhaps over many years set to come tumbling out. More often than not, it goes along these lines: intolerable behaviour, a lack of respect, and the ways they have been emotionally ground down, all because their spouse only knows how to win, and what they want, they get.
So the new client tells me, as if I’d never come across the situation before, they need the maximum help possible to deal with him or her. That they must have someone on their side that is strong enough to stand up to their spouse and get the case sorted out, because it’s going to be tough.
Yet, at the same time (and I’m waiting for it), they will issue a second set of instructions. They want you to settle the case as fast as possible and, at all costs, don’t upset the spouse in question.
They feel guilt at bringing this disastrous marriage to an end. Even worse, they feel like it’s their fault. Any comfort I may try and offer that there is no need for such guilt, any suggestion that I may make as to how to proceed, how to deal with an emotional bully and make him or her take notice, is perceived as much too aggressive and not what they want at all. The thought of anyone stepping into their shoes on their behalf to take on the bully, in a court of law in a legal process, is frankly, too much to bear. It’s too much, too soon. The realisation that together we can be strong and the client can grow, that it’s up to them to participate, it’s their case and their future, is often too much to handle.
So I’m left, writing down the conflicting instructions on my note pad, wondering what to do. Not with the case, but with the client sitting before me. Do I persevere? I think I must and I try my best to establish a rapport with my client. Sometimes I can, sometimes though, try as I might, it’s not possible.
The years of abuse will have obviously taken their toll on the client. The client is left with not a shred of self-confidence, not a shred of commercial reality, no perception at all of the need to stand up to a bully in terms of the legal process and to re-establish her self-confidence and self-esteem. After years of being worn down, they think the best thing is to give in and do anything for a quiet life. To take what’s on offer and don’t do anything to upset the bully, because it only makes things worse. And yet… they’re instructing you at the same time to do something different, stand up to the spouse, do your very best for the client. It’s definitely something they want you to do, but…
Once I recognise the vastly different signals coming from the client, I will suggest counselling from a local expert. It’s vitally important that the client regains their self-confidence and self-respect in order to go through a divorce. The client needs to be able to banish the negative feelings about this decision and start to look forward with confidence to a brighter future.
I don’t underestimate the trauma of a divorce in relation to the emotional aspect but I think people do over estimate the legal process itself. With a competent lawyer, it need not be as traumatic as feared.
What is required is patience, pragmatism and an awareness that what is happening happens to hundreds of thousands of people each year and that it is not as terrifying or problematic as you may think. It could, and should, be faced calmly only on a day to day basis, and you should never try to run before you can walk.
There should be an understanding that the legal process takes time. In Central London it can take several years, in the provinces it can easily take up to a year. So there is time to take a breather, time to come to terms with what is happening. In the meantime, certain issues need to be firmly dealt with and there may not be time to wait. It needs the client to take a deep breath, close their eyes and go for it. The position must be stabilised, the playing field levelled. With the best will in the world there is no alternative.
Some clients tell me the worst aspect is that the abuse continues from their spouse directly or via their lawyers. My answer is straightforward: lawyers are there to take the strain. The case is handled by them and they are getting paid to take that strain. They aren’t emotionally involved so load them up and let them take the load from the other side because it doesn’t have the same effect on experienced lawyers as it might on the client. Insist on draft replies being sent to you along with any correspondence from the spouse’s lawyer, or ask for letters to be read out in a telephone conversation or face to face meeting to reduce their impact on you until you feel strong enough to handle them yourself.
If you instruct a lawyer, there are additional benefits you should be aware of:
- Abusive behaviour by the spouse can and will be dealt with and, if necessary, be controlled by the courts and even by the police.
- Financial arrangements can be put in place via the usual process until the case is finally resolved.
- Assets can be protected.
- Child related arrangements too can be agreed or ordered by the court pending a final outcome if it cannot be agreed.
In short, stabilise the process early, but go with the flow rather than against it. Remember that you aren’t the lawyer. The person who is has trained for years to be one and has worked for years in that field. This enables the anxious client to take a breather and, with experienced help, counselling therapy and even medication if it’s that serious (and many cases are that serious), come to terms with what is happening.
Slowly, as the process goes forward, the client comes to see that the black darkness of the box he or she is in is evaporating. The sides of the box start to slip away and light from the real world starts to appear. Slowly a wretchedly overwrought client can begin to smile.
It takes time. Repeat this and keep repeating it: it requires patience, step by step, day by day.