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A lawyer is not a stick: against high-conflict divorce

Posted November 2009. Filed under Divorce & Dissolution

Ending a marriage is difficult enough without getting bogged down in a high-conflict divorce. That is when at least one partner is less committed to fairness than to fighting court battles of revenge and personal animosity, often using children to accomplish various ends.

People need good representation to make sure that they are treated fairly. But trying to establish that the other party is an unmitigated creep and a toad is no route to protecting property and parenting rights.

Does some part of you want the court to publicly convict your spouse as the guilty party? Do you want a lawyer to be a stick to beat your former spouse? Those are understandable human impulses but they’re almost impossible to satisfy. Domestic relations courts aren’t set up to see blame as a relevant issue. And they are not set up to make one side pay the bill for the pain and unhappiness of the other.

Courts are set up to determine the disposition of property and debts fairly and equitably, to decide whether and what amount of spousal support is fair, and to approve parenting arrangements that are in the best interest of minor children. It’s time-consuming and terrifically expensive wheel-spinning to try to get courts to assess blame and avenge wrongs. Here are some things people sacrifice by doing battle:

Privacy. Court proceedings and documents are public. People can learn things said about you and your relationships, true or not. High-conflict fireworks can attract media attention. Privacy survives if you can agree on issues outside court.

Dignity. How much pride can you swallow? A commitment to conflict assures the indignity of professionals evaluating your home and family, of a judge deciding about the details of your life, your finances, and your parenting. Many people find that humiliating— and unsatisfying.

Children. High conflict divorces can cause toxic stress to children. Constant, open battle has been shown to interfere with mental, emotional and physical development and can be devastating to children’s futures.

Tomorrow: Will it really benefit you to reveal personal flaws and failures in court? You can’t erase allegations made on the record. What if one day that makes it hard for a former spouse to get a job or a promotion or live in a way that serves things you value— financial contribution, good parenting, getting on with life?

The day always comes when you want to stop looking in the rear view mirror and look to the future. If that day is now, high-conflict divorce is not for you. Instead, seek legal counsel that enables you understand what the law says and how the process works so that you have the ability to make your own good decisions about what’s worth fighting for. Then demand a strong voice for your reasonable interests if you face a partner who wants to fight.

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