Supporting Your Wellbeing During Divorce Litigation
Coleen Rooney recently spoke (listen here) poignantly about how when she was in legal proceedings for the so called “Wagatha Christie” trial she felt like she could physically parent but emotionally wasn’t there because she was so upset and so stressed out about it all. She described how her lawyer would tell her things she needed to do and she would feel like she urgently needed to do them, even if it meant being up till 2 am.
It was a vivid depiction of the pressure that legal proceedings can put on someone and it’s something that we think about a lot at FLiP in terms of how best to support clients’ wellbeing when they are in litigation. We spoke with our Divorce Consultant and Individual & Relationship Therapist Joanna Harrison and our Director Mariko Wilson to get their thoughts on this issue.
Jo, you listened to the interview with Coleen Rooney – what did you make of what she was saying about how stressful it was?
I found it very poignant to hear her put it that way, that physically she could parent but that she was so preoccupied with it all. Of course her proceedings were different from the kinds of proceedings we deal with at FLIP but the sentiment was very familiar because I’ve worked with lots of clients who feel a similar way – essentially overwhelmed by what the proceedings require of them. The thing about going through legal proceedings when you are divorcing is that you are already going through one of life’s most stressful events (second only to bereavement) so adding in the external stress of what is required by being in legal proceedings can really feel like a lot – if not too much.
How can we help clients if that is how they are feeling?
It’s something we think about a lot at FLiP as we are always working to protect both the legal and the psychological side of a client’s divorce. What it might look like is working out what help to put in place to support a client going through proceedings. That might mean for example having weekly or regular sessions with one of us from the therapy team but it might also mean joined up meetings with your therapist and lawyer to work out strategies to best help a client cope with the stress the proceedings put on them.
Coleen Rooney talked about the pressure of having to find evidence for her lawyer within a time frame, is that the kind of thing we might expect to be stressful in divorce proceedings, and if so how do you support people having to gather evidence?
Jo: From my side of things, because I used to work as a family lawyer I know how much work is involved for example in getting a Form E together and gathering up all the information required but I am not involved in that directly anymore. What we might help a client think about is how they are going to do it, and how they are going to create boundaries around it – so that there are times when they feel they are not working on their divorce and can have some respite from it. It’s also a lot about managing expectations but that’s probably something Mariko can speak more directly to. I think it’s helpful when the client and the lawyer can agree a way of working that works for them both in terms of protecting the client’s wellbeing. An issue like approaches to deadlines might be something that it’s helpful for both client and lawyer to have conversations about in advance.
Mariko: The gathering of evidence and looming Court deadlines can be very stressful for clients, particularly if they are not used to working to deadlines in their day to day life, or are not the sort of person who does their best work under pressure. We as the lawyers know the peaks and troughs of the workload in legal proceedings; we know the points at which the workload tends to fall on the client (like preparing a first draft of their financial disclosure), and the points when the baton passes back to the lawyers. That being the case, in my view, it’s all in the preparation. If the client also knows when these crunch points will come, they can plan, prepare and (sometimes most importantly) know when the light at the end of the tunnel will appear (in terms of the pressure on them easing up). Whenever I have directions on a case, I put those directions into a chronological timetable and have found that many clients appreciate having a copy of that as it enables them to understand what is going to be required of them and when over the coming months. They then plan ahead – be that calling in extended family to help with childcare, booking in a bit of annual leave, or simply making sure there are some extra dinners on hand in the freezer during those crunch points. Family proceedings are difficult and stressful at the best of times – unexpected and/ or tight deadlines from your legal team can only make an already difficult experience worse.
Mariko, does the stress of the proceedings affect legal decision making? For example is that something you will weigh up as part of the strategy in deciding on what process might be appropriate?
Absolutely. There will be many factors which feed into the question of which forum might best suit any one couple/ family working through family breakdown – and stress is certainly one of them. A client with a very low threshold for stress is likely to find litigation particularly overwhelming and might fare better, and be able to engage more fully in an alternative forum of dispute resolution such as collaborative law (where the parties effectively control the timetable and pace of the process, amongst other things).
Even after a client has “picked their path” situations will frequently arise which will necessitate a cost: benefit analysis of continuing with the proceedings and again – stress will play into that analysis. At FLiP, when we talk about the “cost” of proceedings we mean several things; the financial cost, the physical and emotional cost and the cost in terms of the human relationships involved. Does the potential upside of the litigation outweigh the “cost” of those proceedings, to that individual, at this particular point in their lives? Part of the lawyer’s role is to help the client work through that analysis and it often includes a discussion about that individual’s personal threshold for stress and the other demands upon them at that particular point (amongst many other things).
How can we protect and support parents who are going through court proceedings so that they can feel that they are able to parent in the way they want to and not feel too overwhelmed?
Jo: It’s such an important point and I think there are different ways to look at it. One might be simple changes. Like – do you want notifications on your phone of emails because if you have them and you are distracted by them when you are doing something with your kids is that going to be stressful?
Then there is a really important issue which I always try to think about with clients which is – what is your support network here? And thinking with them about how to enhance it at this time. So friends and family of course but also how are you going to flag up your situation to the school so that they can be more supportive that the family is going through a lot? Is going to see your GP something that might be helpful so that you can think about it with them? Is having some professional support like with one of us in the therapy team or an existing therapist going to be a useful investment so that you have a space to think about your situation and let off steam if you need it? It’s all back to the idea of the parent getting their own oxygen mask on so that they can then be a support to their children.
I mean, there is also the wider question of trying to support parents to settle things without going through court proceedings and we will help clients to make use of different processes.
Mariko: I think this is a really important point – prevention really is much better than cure, and being in the right process for your family and your circumstances can make all the difference between it being tough but manageable as opposed to overwhelmingly stressful. It’s really important at the outset to consider with each client all the options available to them (including mediation, collaborative law, arbitration and litigation), before guiding them through the process that they decide is right for them and their family circumstances.
Jo and Mariko – what advice would you have to clients who are overwhelmed by court proceedings?
Jo: I think that it’s important to take a bespoke approach so that the particular circumstances of any client and any family can be thought about, both in terms of how best to be supported and what the best legal strategy might be. Making time to think that through, however busy the proceedings feel, is essential to be able to do that.
Mariko: I always say to my clients – this could get rough – you are going to need to be the very best version of you possible to get through this well. That means different things to different people. To some it will mean leaning more heavily on an existing therapist or a member of our therapy team at FLiP. To others, it will mean ensuring that a partner, family member or friend works with them in the background on requests from lawyers. For some it might mean being open with their legal team and finding workarounds to avoid and or address being overwhelmed. For example, I have had clients where (save in the event of an emergency) we limited email contact to twice a week because they found the email traffic overwhelming. I have also had clients get overwhelmed with their own paperwork, in which case I have invited them into the office or even travelled to their home to help them sift through it. I think the key to avoiding overwhelm is an early discussion about any particular vulnerabilities/ triggers for the client and thinking creatively about what structures can be put in place to support them before things get too much.
Jo is very experienced in working as a therapist with individuals and couples who are separating. A former family lawyer, Jo has a depth of experience in being able to understand the legal process. She can work with clients, either individually or as a couple, to support them through the process. Clients can meet with Jo for an initial consultation at our offices in Central London to think about what help is required. This can be at any stage before, during, or after a divorce or separation.
Mariko is a director at Family Law in Partnership. She handles all aspects of private family law and has a broad range of experience, frequently acting for high net worth individuals in financial relief and divorce proceedings as well as acting in children matters. Mariko has particular expertise in cases involving complex pensions issues, and in cases in which mental health issues are a feature.
To learn more about FLiP’s unique approach to working with clients on divorce and separation, click here or contact FLiP at E: email@example.com or T: 020 7420 5000.