The Emotional Side of Divorce and Custody

The Emotional Side of Divorce and Custody

There’s a classic book on divorce called “Crazy Time,” and both the title and the book aptly describe the emotional roller coaster of breaking up a relationship. Family lawyers who have weathered their own divorces know this terrain all too well. But those who haven’t may puzzle over their erratic and emotionally fraught clients.

Psychologists recognize that divorce is an emotional process as much as a legal one. And the two often proceed independently of each other. A couple may have a divorce judgment that distributes property and awards child custody, but if they are not emotionally divorced, they may end up back in court multiple times.

Lawyers aren’t trained in psychology, but by understanding the emotional landscape of divorce, they can better comprehend their clients’ emotional states and help them work through the legal issues.

Some divorces are difficult because of longstanding communication and behavior patterns. All couples develop ways of communicating and interacting with each other. For divorcing couples, those communication patterns weren’t very effective. They may know this, but in the stress of divorce, they’ll fall back on their old ways, destroying any attempt to negotiate solutions.

In addition to relationship patterns, psychologists say that most people feel some level of guilt or shame for their divorce. These emotions are hard to accept, so people commonly replace them with more acceptable feelings of anger or depression. This leads couples to blame each other and fail to take responsibility for their own contribution to the failed marriage.

These buried feelings of guilt and shame make it hard for couples to maintain perspective, see the other’s point of view, or make decisions that are in their best interest. Guilt can cause people to give up more than they should in a divorce settlement, but it’s not unusual for these same people to grow angry later and return to court to have the divorce terms changed. Or, because of shame, a client may try to avoid making decisions altogether, hoping the lawyer will make the choices instead.

For example, a wife who always relied on her husband to take care of her financially may wrongly assume that he will offer her a fair divorce settlement, and may reject any suggestion that she hire outside financial experts. But the husband may be harboring years of resentment at being the sole breadwinner, and may want to prevent her from getting any of “his” money. She is being naïve and dependent, while he is failing to accept responsibility for his part in the dynamic they formed during the marriage.

That same wife may feel she should have sole custody of the children because she raised them and he was never around, while the husband may feel equally entitled because he supported them financially. If the spouses don’t resolve these old resentments, they may end up returning to court for years to come.

In addition to upending family life, divorce has a lot of unknowns, including how much money each spouse will ultimately have and what the children’s’ living arrangements will be. Each spouse may need to move or find a job, and they may worry about their kids. So it’s no surprise that divorcing couples tend to feel a lot of fear and anxiety. These emotions can overwhelm them at times, making it nearly impossible to absorb information and make a decision, let alone a good one.

By recognizing the emotional undertones of clients’ behavior, lawyers can help steer them toward better choices, and can encourage them to seek counseling and support to make their emotional divorce as final as their legal one.