The Psychology of Marital Dissolution: Getting Yourself into the Right Mindset to Divorce & Setting Realistic Expectations, As Seen in The Union-Morris Women’s Journal (Jan 2008)
Jan L. Bernstein, Esq.
The wide range of emotions experienced at divorce are often exacerbated by our complex and sometimes intimidating legal system. Anger, confusion, sadness, disappointment, resentment, frustration and relief are all justified feelings that easily turn into helplessness as a result of not knowing what steps to take once the decision to divorce has been made. Worse yet is the tendency for that helplessness to turn into avoidance, sending one spiraling down a path of inaction that can lead to dissatisfactory results.
The insidious nature of the problem is not the fault of those who find themselves trapped in it. It is human nature to mourn the loss of a relationship into which a great deal has been invested, and natural to feel anxiety over having to confront this loss in a legal context. Perhaps contributing to the tendency towards inaction is the common misconception that there is no need to begin planning for the inevitable legal process until a Complaint for Divorce has been filed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Once a decision to divorce has been made, it is critical to be proactive and retain counsel as soon as the situation allows.
One service that the matrimonial practitioner can provide in the earliest stages of the divorce process is to help confront the myriad emotions and feelings of confusion and helplessness. It is common, if not the norm, for clients to have questions at an initial consultation ranging from their most personal concerns to sophisticated issues of law, finances and their rights. Taking the first steps towards having these questions answered lifts the shroud of mystery and triggers a sense of relief. It is the immediate goal of the matrimonial practitioner to empower clients with the information needed to ease their minds and arm them with the tools necessary to begin the legal divorce process with minimal stress. Obtaining the necessary information and legal advice at the earliest possible stage empowers the client to make informed decisions throughout the process.
Early counseling and advice not only helps to reduce stress, but helps reduce costs. Once a legal filing has taken place, the direction of the case may be irreversible, and options that might otherwise have been available foreclosed or made much more difficult. The matrimonial practitioner will help establish appropriate expectations and provide a guideline for implementing their realization, before litigation begins. Sometimes, this early guidance can help avoid contentious litigation altogether.
An example of where early counseling is critical are in the areas of equitable distribution and alimony. While the average person understands that marital property must be distributed and may be familiar with the concept of spousal support that must be paid to a party, knowledge of the applicable standards in New Jersey for these common components of divorce is rare. Understanding the key issues of the law and their relation to the specific circumstances of a case allows clients to set realistic expectations, and to begin to plan their post-divorce lives sooner rather than later.
It is equally critical for parties to have an early understanding of what can be expected when child custody is at issue. Too often the cautionary tales told about contentious and expensive divorce litigation center around children, who can easily and inadvertently become pawns in their parents’ divorce. Many of the problems experienced in these cases stem from clients not knowing their rights as parents and not having attorneys who counsel them early on to understand that the end of a marriage is not the end of the parent-child relationship. Without the aid of an effective matrimonial practitioner at the earliest stages of the process, the ability to direct a case away from acrimonious and expensive litigation can be lost because clients develop and become entrenched in unrealistic positions that can only escalate to bitter custody battles with often devastating effects.
Just as there are no guarantees in any marriage, there are no absolutes at divorce. Many of the emotional and financial difficulties incident to divorce can, however, be managed by taking a proactive approach and formulating realistic expectations. Effective family law attorneys are well-trained in articulating the importance of this concept and are able to inform, provide reassurance, and temper or bolster expectations depending on the circumstances of a given case. It is this ability to advise clients at the very outset of a case that maximizes the potential for efficient resolutions and allows for the easiest possible transition into the next phase of life.