Keeping the Temperature Down in Disputes with Your Ex



Samantha was angry. I knew this not just because she said it. I could see it exuding from her in the way she sat - jaw clenched, tears welling - to the way she spat the words out when she spoke of her ex, Jeff.


Jeff had decided to end their 14 year marriage and she was in emotional free-fall, feeling completely blindsided and betrayed. And grieving.


This was the first time I had met Samantha. As we spoke, alarm bells were ringing for me, warning me that trying to resolve the range of issues borne out of Samantha and Jeff’s separation could very easily turn nuclear.


Family law issues are not clean-cut, clinical, technical issues to resolve. They come with the full range of human emotions. Very often, they come with high drama. Most of the time, there is lots of grieving and distrust happening which can manifest itself in anger and poor behaviour.


Often, one person has made the decision to separate some time ago and has already travelled well along the emotional rollercoaster that comes with that decision. Meanwhile, their partner is playing emotional catchup, travelling on a later departing rollercoaster.


Often the parties' emotional states render them unable to process information soundly and make settlement decisions. That is not a weakness or a frailty on their part. It is just neuroscience. Very easily the conflict levels can spiral to heights the parties never envisaged they could reach.


As anger and grief take seed and conflict grows, perceptions become distorted. The story of the conflict becomes akin to a fairy story – complete with a villain, a hero and an innocent victim. Guess what role we rarely assign to ourselves? We start to view things consistently through the lens of our own story. We can easily slip into seeing others as being “for us” or “against us”.


With increasing emotion, our thinking gets cloudy and the neuroscience that is at play means we may become physically unable to make clear, rational decisions.


Our communication starts to deteriorate – we tend to communicate only with those that support our view; our story of the conflict. If we are speaking with our ex or those who don’t agree with us, we tend to do so with the goal of defeating them or changing their views and strengthening our own position, rather than with the goal of understanding.


As all of this is happening, the key issues get blurry and unrelated issues and innocent bystanders start to get sucked into the vacuum of the conflict. As the issues become less defined, it becomes difficult to work out what it takes to resolve them.


We get locked into our positions, not wanting the other person to "win" or fearing losing face or looking badly if we back down. We become more and more committed to our positions, even if it makes little logical sense to maintain them.


How we view others changes. The differences between us seem to become larger and larger while the things we have in common appear, to our mind’s eye, smaller and smaller.


Add into all of this, lawyers with a litigious approach stepping in to write letters to assert your position, to demand “disclosure” and to “protect” you and quickly the temperature of the conflict rises. Threats of court get thrown around and, if Court proceedings eventuate, you are thrust into a process that is largely out of your control and sees the conflict spiral spin faster.


Yes, things could very quickly turn nuclear for Samantha and Jeff. But, the good news is that things needn’t go that way. Your choice of lawyer and the process you choose can have a huge impact on whether your relationship is gently untied or harshly hacked through.


Lawyers who are trained in Collaborative Process (also called Collaborative Law) understand the interplay between their client’s emotional states, the actions they as lawyers take and the level of conflict. They are focused on mitigating conflict, not contributing to it. They have specific strategies to keep communication happening respectfully and to remove the inflammatory letters and threat of court from the resolution process. They are able to support parties to creatively problem solve to find solutions that wouldn’t be possible in more litigious approaches.


Having walked Samantha through all the processes available to her for resolving issues with Jeff, including Collaborative Practice, her relief was palpable. She still felt angry but understood this was a natural part of the grief process she was going through and that she would be supported as she went. Most importantly, she now knew there was a way to get through the separation without that grief and anger exploding into escalating levels of conflict.


The Collaborative Process is not an easy, soft option – there is no way of completely removing the emotion and the conflict felt during a separation or family law issue. In one sense, it is almost necessary to feel that emotion in the same way that heat is necessary to making creme caramel. However, no one likes burned creme caramel! Using a lawyer trained in Collaborative Process means that, no matter which process you work through, he or she will always be looking for ways to find resolution and to assist you to avoid being burned by unnecessarily inflamed conflict.


If you would like to explore how you can find a way to work through your separation without the drama, drop us a line at lawyers@familylawresults.co.nz.


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