I heard the Labour MP Frank Field on BBC5 Live the other day as I was driving through the beautiful Dales scenery on my way into our Harrogate office. He said something that really jarred: “Pay a lawyer enough money and they will tell you what you want to hear” – or something to that effect. Alone in my car I felt like answering. “Spend a day with me, Frank”, but of course I didn’t. I switched over the channel and listened to some music.
The reason it struck such a chord with me is that the exact reverse is often the case: we frequently have to give our clients advice they really don’t want to hear.
In an ideal world all would be fluffy clouds, sunshine and no rain. But we don’t live in an ideal world. People sometimes do get hurt and with the best will in the world there isn’t much we can do about it except help people to move on as best we can.
One especially stark example of this principle are those situations when a client has learned their spouse wants a divorce that they didn’t see it coming. At other times the client had some inkling of what was coming but opted to bury their head in the sand hoping it would all blow over. And of course it didn’t.
The spouse might have explained the decision face to face, or left a letter or simply upped sticks and gone. I’ve heard it all. The bottom line remains the same: the marriage is over and they want out.
So the client, who might have been brought in by a worried friend, is sitting in front of you looking shell-shocked and protesting that the marriage isn’t over after all. The client tells you their spouse must be going through some kind of crisis and there’s no way they want to end it really. And you sit there thinking “I’ve heard all this so many times before.” The sad reality is – it probably is all over.
In my experience few people will ever leave a marriage, especially if there are children, unless their mind is firmly made up and they are convinced there is no point in continuing. Occasionally there are exceptions, but not many. They have had time to reach that decision. Usually a third person is involved or a difficult relationship has become simply intolerable. No-one ever just leaves the person they love and really want to be with, even for a short time. It would be much easier after all, to simply stay with them. Instead they leave, because they simply don’t want to be with that person any longer. The future looks better elsewhere, the grass greener. The things some say to ease the parting – “Don’t worry, I’m just trying it out” – can be pretty cruel too. False hope, allowing someone to think it isn’t over when it clearly is. A coward’s way out.
So what can be done for the client?
First of all, it’s vital to understand what’s happening. Coming to terms with the shock, fears for the future, the natural anxiety about money, possibly having to leave home, worries about the children and how you will cope – it’s a great deal to take on board, and all made worse by the pain of rejection. You’ll need time to process it all.
After shock typically comes anger, denial, bargaining: please, let’s get back together, it will be better if you come home! When the answer to these pleas is a predictable “no” it really hurts.
Ultimately of course, acceptance finally arrives. Getting to that stage however, will take time and for many it could take years. In the meantime your emotions will be unpredictable, up and down like a yo-yo . I advise a client caught up in that situation to live only for the short term and look no further forward. Expect that the day head will be bad and it might be bad or it might not be. It might even be okay, not bad – and as time passes more and more such days will indeed arrive.
In the meantime, there are all those sympathetic friends who might in reality be having a great time comforting the friend and then having a good gossip afterwards. Their hearts may be in the right place but I’m not a fan of such folk. Friends with a tiny bit of legal knowledge can be lethal. No case is the same as another, and a copy of a feature in the Daily Mail is I promise, not going to make a difference to your case, no matter how knowledgeable the friend who gives it to you claims to be.
In any case practical measures are what really count. Encouraging a friend to wallow in her situation won’t help her long term. It’s good to talk, but it’s also good to talk in a positive way. Men, meanwhile – and yes, I’m generalising here – tend not to talk about such matters to anywhere near the same extent. Life has taught them to bottle up their emotions.. A good counsellor can help everyone. Yes, I do believe in the value of counselling.
Emotional trauma really complicates the essential process of resolving a divorce and that’s what all the recent emphasis on immediate mediation fails to take into account. Sit in the same room? Calmly agree to divvy up the assets and sell the house? Its asking way too much of those divorcing couples who may still be wrestling with some very difficult emotions – hence its failure rate at that stage.
But what you do need to think about, if a longer term plan is too much for the time being, is the here and now. Be practical. Think of the immediate future – you need to make sure essential arrangements continue for the foreseeable future and you aren’t railroaded into a decision such as a house sale that you might regret later. Make sure, too, that debts don’t conveniently pile up, a mortgage isn’t fully drawn down of all sudden and assets aren’t suddenly squirreled away or spent by a spouse who is no longer your life time partner but potentially your opponent. He or she will have had months or even years to come to terms with their decision. You, by contrast, are having to play catch up fast and it’s certainly not easy, but you do need to make yourself think practically.
So take each day step by step. Expect nothing of yourself and distract yourself as much as you can from negative thoughts. See the doctor if you’ve become depressed. Antidepressants may help to get you back on an even keel. Don’t worry – they won’t be addictive and won’t affect your case.
Allow yourself time to cry, allow time to feel sorry for yourself, but only for a short time each day. Physical exercise can really help your mood. Above all, resist the urge to email, text or phone – especially after some wine at night. It won’t help you or your legal problems either. Resist the urge to seek revenge. That certainly won’t help.
Hold your head up high, and allow yourself time to decide how and when to move on. Let the beauty of life all around you help you to heal a broken heart.