Shawn Weber, Family Law Attorney and Mediator
One colleague of mine made the apt observation that Family Law is the only area of law where 99.99% of the time, the opposing parties have slept together. That is huge! What a tremendous amount of emotion, pain and tension can come to the table over what otherwise could be simple negotiations. The parties in a divorce or other family law case are faced with not only the stress of potentially costly litigation but are also faced with the hurt, pain and loss associated with the end of an important relationship. Throw children into the mix and it becomes even more complicated. This contrasts starkly with the average civil dispute where, although there may be anger and frustration, the emotional pain does not and cannot run as deep. In a simple civil dispute, decisions often simply come down to math. It’s not so simple in family law where two plus two may not exactly equal four.
I often work with families in extreme high conflict. I have seen otherwise perfectly sane and rational people completely “crack up.” I am reminded of the 1989 Hollywood Film the War of the Roses (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098621/ ), where the divorcing characters played by Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, the Roses, draw a chalk line through the middle of the house and actually end up killing each other at the end of the movie. It has always been a goal of mine to keep my clients from ending up like the Roses.
It is very important that a person going through a divorce work very hard to keep emotions from clouding sound judgment. Sometimes people latch on to certain assets like a house or a retirement plan and refuse to give it up no matter the cost. For example, a person needs to think hard about whether it is really best to keep the house rather than sell it. A client may “win” and get the house, but then be “house poor” for years trying to pay an unaffordable mortgage and maybe even lose the house anyway.
There is also the issue of what I call emotional cost. Divorce and family law litigation can play havoc on a person’s soul. I believe it can take years off a person’s life. I have personally had clients, who I have watched deteriorate physically as a result of the huge amount of stress. Their lips may be pursed, their eyes sunken from lack of sleep. Perhaps they are drinking more heavily or gaining weight. It doesn’t do any good to fight to the death over every last dime if a person strokes out from the stress.
On the other side of the same coin, however, I never cease to be amazed at how much better a client actually looks after they are finished with the divorce and away from the stress. I remember one client in particular who simply looked beaten down as a result of some fairly difficult litigation. She didn’t take care of herself. She had headaches all the time and she rarely slept a full eight hours. The pain and tension literally could be seen in her eyes. She came to my office one day and said, “I feel terrible. This divorce is killing me. You have to help me end this nightmare.” We then talked about options for settling the case in ways that she was previously unwilling. She realized that the stress of the divorce was killing her and that it was more important for her to end the conflict than it was to keep fighting for every penny. I called opposing counsel and the case settled in a week after three years of litigation. I saw this client later the following year. She looked wonderful. I didn’t even recognize her. The color came back to her cheeks. She actually smiled, which I had never seen her do. Her eyes showed that she was happier and stronger. No, she didn’t get everything in her divorce settlement that she thought was “fair” and she was still happy.
Later that same year, I met with a friend of mine who was facing his second divorce with an extremely high conflict individual. I could see the pain in his eyes as he considered the prospect of costly litigation with a very difficult spouse who had already assured him she would “make him pay.” He asked me as a friend, not as a lawyer, what my advice was. I told him to come up with a number he could live with and buy his peace. He followed my advice and told me that it was the best advice he had received that year about his divorce. Others, including attorneys, advised him to fight with a scorched earth strategy. Instead of Armageddon, however, he found peace and was able to move on quickly. He was happier for it.
So, I always advise my clients to consider the emotional cost of continuing with the fight. As an attorney, it’s hard for me to place a value on emotional peace, but it is nonetheless real. A party may do better leaving some things on the table and walking away, if it offers a chance to be free of the conflict. Perhaps only the person going through the divorce can put a value on emotional peace.
I am NOT suggesting that a person should just walk away from everything so as not to fight. Rather, I suggest that when weighing financial decision making, one should consider all aspects of the emotional pieces of the dispute and consider emotional cost when making financial decisions. Peace of mind is simply priceless.