The BBC website says that January is ‘commonly acknowledged’ as the busiest month for starting divorce proceedings. This is not news to lawyers and other professionals working in the relationship field. Shaky partnerships find it difficult to weather the intensity of togetherness at Christmas.

People enter into a marriage or Civil Partnership with the expectation that it will be ‘til death do us part’, and these days it seems this is a redundant clause. Marriage isn’t just any old contract and for many people divorce feels like the end of their hopes and dreams- the death of what ‘should have been’. For lawyers, adopting a more insightful approach to dissolving a marriage or Civil Partnership may be a helpful new way forward.

In terms of social psychology, divorce generates the broadest range of passions, and not only in the two protagonists involved. Divorce is an emotional rollercoaster that lawyers and other professionals also have to negotiate. Sometimes the passion or doggedness of the legal team gets in the way of professional clear-headedness. This is not merely some dry commercial partnership contract that’s being dissolved, this is human lives.

The psychology of change, choice and loss wrapped up in the ending of a marriage can inflame the process to incendiary proportions. If solicitors and other professionals involved are perceptive and manage (perhaps talk down) the high emotions that can repeatedly be triggered in the process then things may go more smoothly. Often litigation seems like the only way forward, but going to Court on child-contact matters for example, is an unenviable task. In addition, litigants are rarely happy with the Court route; they had wanted the judge ‘to hear’ and are upset when they can’t have their say, they find that the proceedings dry and impersonal. Children matters could be settled so much more calmly in mediation or through round-table meetings.

Here are some psychological insights that will help professionals to keep the divorce temperature low and their reputations higher:

In the ending of a marriage or Civil Partnership there is often the leaver and the left. So think about:

  1. The leaver:
    She has ‘left’ the marriage some while ago in her imagination and is future-focused. She is planning a new, more liberated life. Being out of the marriage is a relief for her and holds more charms than being in it.
  2. The Left:
    The responses in the person being ‘left’ can often be those of bitterness, shame, despair and the desire for revenge. His feelings of self-esteem may have been severely challenged and the response to this can be to try in every way to restore the balance of power using any ‘weapon’ at his disposal.
  3. Denial:
    Couples are often in denial that arguing over their child contact is damaging; they are blind in their miscommunication, hurt and despair. One partner trying to wound the other by refusing, or challenging, contact can cause immeasurable psychological harm to a child at whatever age. Fighting over 30 minutes of contact time or whether the child will be allowed to meet daddy’s new partner can fill up several of the solicitor’s lever-arch files without resolution unless the underlying psychology is addressed.
  4. Professional ‘blindness’:
    Solicitors are convinced of the rightness of their client’s case. Some find themselves getting overly involved and will end up ‘fanning the flames’ of the process rather than professionally resolving it. One example is the legal one-line ‘snotty’ letter in the divorce process which elicits an equally terse one-line response, getting the couple nowhere…
  5. Humanising the professional encounter:
    If solicitors lifted the phone to each other to introduce themselves and have a short introductory conversation when they are first instructed it could have a transformatory effect on the whole case and set a better example of behaviour to the couple.
  6. Encouragement:
    If ‘reluctant’ parties in the divorce can be encouraged see that endings can also be beginnings the situation could look very different.

Lawyers place great store by good client care and the firm’s reputation is everything; it’s useful to remember that a satisfied client will tell his friends, but a dissatisfied client will tell the world!