If any situation fits the old axiom that things sometimes get worse before they get better, divorce qualifies. Sure, some couples “grow apart” and amiably come to terms on divorce. For others, though, divorce can be like jumping from a moving train onto a runaway bobsled — in an Alpine blizzard while the train is jumping the tracks into a deep ravine.
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Whatever causes a marriage to unravel, the goal of a more serene life is often out of reach until after the dust settles from the divorce. That leaves many people in the worst shape, psychologically, while they make decisions that will affect their future and, potentially, their children’s future as well.
For a divorce lawyer, working with emotionally wrung-out clients goes with the territory. Most trial attorneys find it necessary to some extent to prepare not only their legal case but to prepare the client for court.
At times, divorce lawyers might strongly encourage a client to get their emotions under control. The family lawyer might instruct a client to seek treatment for substance abuse problems or to address other personal matters that could weigh against a settlement in the client’s favor.
Some divorce attorneys even offer collaborative approaches – working to bring two sides together during a divorce. While collaborative divorce is a great idea for those who can find a way to work with a former spouse during the divorce, it is not for everybody.
More common are loosely agreed divorces where one party retains an attorney and the other side consents to terms, or mediated settlement where one or both parties retain attorneys or an adversarial divorce process that might result in an eventual divorce trial in family court.
As things move from the collaborative toward the adversarial end of the spectrum, managing emotions can be more difficult. In many cases, the divorce lawyer is the primary person working with you to keep emotions in check. If simple instructions from an attorney are not enough to inspire you to zen-like calm while you weather the end-game of a train-wreck marriage, the next best stop after the lawyer’s office would probably be a therapists office. Here’s why.
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1. Your divorce lawyer is not trained as a therapist:
Simply put, lawyers are trained to argue in court. Therapists are trained to explore motivation and behavior.
A lawyer might enjoy the wisdom of Solomon, but the format of legal service delivery is not the same as the format of therapy. Both professions bill by the hour, but your therapist’s hour will be spent working on your personal issues. Your lawyer’s time is best focused on getting you the best settlement.
2. Your divorce lawyer is not licensed as a therapist:
In most states, therapy is a licensed service. So is the practice of law. A person might hold licenses in both fields. Brief therapeutic interventions might be part of what a lawyer offers, but the kind of care you enjoy in therapy requires spending time in therapy.
Only a licensed therapist can lawfully bill for that kind of work. Unless you have both a generous and unusually wise attorney, your therapy time will probably best be spent with someone who mutually benefits from helping you with particular personal matters. That’s how commerce works.
3. Therapy can confront underlying issues:
Let’s presume you came across a divorce attorney who is also licensed to provide therapeutic services. The lawyer wants to settle the case, but as a therapist, they also want to get to the heart of what triggers emotional reactions.
Emotional reactions can derail a divorce strategy, but confronting deeper causes for those reactions can take more than a couple of hours in therapy.
4. What Kind of Therapist is the Lawyer?
Even if our hypothetically wise divorce attorney is licensed as a therapist, there are many types of therapy. Some therapists focus on divorce recovery. Some focus on family issues involving children. There are substance abuse counselors. Some practice behavioral-cognitive therapy. Others offer various forms of psychotherapy.
What matters as much as a therapists specialty is that they practice. Therapists practice therapy. They have spent long hours of their career in practice. Practice builds expertise.
Your divorce lawyer practices law. Practicing law does not build therapeutic expertise any more than practicing therapy builds legal expertise.
The right friends, family members, spiritual leaders, mentors or volunteer counselors can be potential therapeutic sources of emotional support during a divorce. Any might be better sources of emotional and psychological support than the person you hire to navigate the legal dissolution of a marriage. Where conflict, angst, disappointment, depression or despair run deep, professional therapists likely offer the best hope of recovery. But let your divorce lawyer stick to what lawyer’s do best – settling your legal problems.