Moss Stone

Teaming During the Divorce Process: Dealing with Power Dynamics

Good Counsel: For Mental Health Professionals

During the divorce process, there are many opportunities for the therapist to team with their client’s divorce lawyer to support the interests of the client. This is particularly true in a Collaborative or mediated process, but may also be available in traditional circumstances.  The purpose of this 3-part segment on Teaming During the Divorce Process is to outline just a few areas in which coordination between the professionals might be useful.   We will start with the issue of empowerment, a dynamic that appears in most divorce cases.

Empowerment issues

Regardless of the divorce process used by the parties, all divorces involve some type of negotiation in order to resolve issues.  All negotiations can be impacted by issues of power, or perceived power, by both parties.  Many couples face a power imbalance that affects the way they “negotiate” issues during the marriage.  While those imbalances may carry over into the divorce, a primary role of the divorce attorney is to provide a safe and effective negotiating environment so that the power imbalances does not cause the “weaker” party to get a less desirable settlement.  When I mention the “weaker” party, I am not necessarily talking about physical, financial, or emotional weakness.  Rather, I am primarily focused on situations in which one party has less strength as a negotiator.  The weakness can stem from a variety of sources, such as the lack of information on the matter at hand, a fear of conflict, or simply being less inclined to exert control over the issue.

In a court-centered process, the attorney might be doing all of the direct negotiating which can sometimes correct (or sometimes overcorrect) the power imbalance.  In Collaborative Practice and mediation, where the clients are likely to be more directly involved in the negotiation, the attorney needs to exercise great skill in helping to provide a level playing field.  While the temptation for the attorney to “take over” the negotiation for the weaker client can exist, even in a Collaborative case, the attorney needs to consider the value in having the client remain directly involved.  For example, if the parties have young children, they are likely to have hundreds of post-divorce negotiations, without any professionals present, and if some of the negotiating imbalances are addressed or modeled during the divorce, the weaker spouse is left with an agreement that can be difficult to manage or enforce. In addition, clients who are able to engage directly in their negotiations tend to understand their agreements better and, therefore, compliance tends to be less of a problem.

In addition, the attorney representing the stronger spouse needs to have an awareness of the power dynamics. Even if the stronger spouse has been able to “win” negotiations during the relationship, using those same power dynamics during or after the divorce may actually work against his or her best interests since it may cause the other spouse to rely too heavily on their attorney or other outside agents. This behavior may dramatically reduce the ability to have flexibility in future discussion.

For the attorney, whether they are representing the weaker spouse or the stronger spouse, understanding the power dynamics is essential to truly effective negotiation and future skill development.  Getting insights from the client’s therapist my prove to be invaluable both in identifying the power dynamics and in helping the client learn how to develop more effective negotiating strategies for the future.

The therapist is, no doubt, in a better position to identify interpersonal traits that may cause the client to be weaker (or stronger) in negotiation. Sometimes the counseling may be focused on developing better skills in communication with the soon-to-be ex-spouse, as well as future relationships. For example, if the therapist is working with a codependent spouse there may, at times, be situations in which the therapist may be trying to help the client learn to assert themselves by standing firm on particular issues.

In a divorce, a client may well discuss issues that are being presented during the divorce and look to the therapist to guide them in finding ways to stand up from themselves. While the therapist may be well equipped to guide them in this area, it may be difficult in the context of a divorce negotiation.  For instance, if the negotiations have progressed to the point that there truly may not be more “on the table” that can be negotiated (for legal or practical reasons), counseling the disempowered spouse to hold firm may bring frustration to a client whose attorney may be working to help them accept a different reality.

Even if there has been a tendency to give in too quickly in their relationship, it is very possible that the client has reached the point in divorce negotiations where “giving in” is the better strategy. This is a crucial time for the divorce lawyer and the therapist to be in communication. Conversely, if the divorce lawyer believes a client may be giving in on an issue out of codependency, guilt, or intimidation, teaming up with the therapist to help the client find the strength to seek a better outcome may benefit the client immensely.

Essentially, the therapist’s knowledge about the interpersonal dynamics, combined with the attorney’s understanding of the realities of the decisions that need to be made, provide the best opportunities for helping the client get his or her best outcomes.

In our next segment, we will look at how addiction issues can impact the work that the therapist and lawyer can do together.

Next: Teaming During the Divorce Process: Addiction Issues

mental health professionals, therapists
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