The role of psychotherapy in divorce proceedings

May 9, 2024
Two people with coffee

Partner Deborah Jeff discusses how collaboration between a psychotherapist and a family lawyer during the divorce process can lead to more positive results for clients, in The Times.

When advising clients regarding relationship breakdown, most family lawyers focus on the parties’ financial circumstances, any children involved, and a client’s personal objectives. But understanding the psychological impact of a relationship ending is also of paramount importance, and clients can benefit from therapeutic support alongside legal advice. By using the combined skills of a psychotherapist and a family lawyer, a distinctly better outcome can be achieved. 

Despite recent reforms intended to reduce hostility in the legal process, such as the advent of no-fault divorce, it is still widely regarded as protracted, painful and acrimonious. However, divorcing partners can choose to utilise both the expertise of family lawyers and psychotherapists, leading to better outcomes and challenging this conventional wisdom. This innovative approach smooths the legal process and ameliorates their overall experience.

In initial meetings with clients at the beginning of the divorce process, it is common and understandable for them to be emotionally distraught. Their trauma, and sometimes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can manifest in different ways. The same applies to the grief process, as they take time to deal with the ending of their relationship. Family lawyers therefore need to be aware of the warning signs that indicate a client’s level of distress requires therapeutic support. There is no shame in that; family and friends usually do not have the skillset to professionally support on the emotional and psychological side.

For example, clients might stutter rather than speak fluently, or present as dishevelled and unkempt. Often, they are lacking in confidence and struggle to make rational decisions. In these circumstances, any attempt to continue proceedings when they are in a poor psychological state could be counter-productive, potentially leading to a more protracted process and a disappointing result.

Instead, a more holistic skillset is also required to ensure clients’ needs are met. To act as a family lawyer in a client's best interest therefore necessitates considering their case on a human level, as well as accommodating the wider family context during proceedings.

Clients who are further traumatised by the divorce process can authorise their lawyer and treating therapist to talk directly. By working together, they can review their client’s health, what legal steps are necessary to protect them and whether their client is psychologically ready to proceed on particular points. At each stage, the legal and therapeutic professionals work in harmony, exercising due diligence to ensure that an optimal strategy is maintained throughout that aligns with a client’s health.

Experience shows that this pattern of engagement with clients translates to more positive results: often lower legal costs, better strategic understanding of where the client and former partner are in the grief process, better preparation and more accurate prediction of what the other party might do next. It is time and money well spent.

Deborah's article was published in The Times, 9 May 2024.

Deborah JeffDeborah Jeff
Deborah Jeff
Deborah Jeff

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