Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The One Thing All Un-Coupling Women Seem to Need the Most

Although I don't regularly practice family law, I volunteer a few hours of lawyer-time each month working on family law cases through a program sponsored by the Alaska Court System. The program relies on volunteer attorneys to alleviate pressure on the court system's docket by helping resolve divorce and custody cases that seem amenable to settlement. Sometimes the issue is how to divide assets, sometimes it's how to divide child custody, and sometimes it's both. Sometimes I represent men and sometimes I represent women, but everyone involved is trying to untangle their lives from another person's life. 

In my experience, all "un-coupling" people (but particularly the women I have met in this way) don't actually need very much legal advice. The thing they most need is compassion. 

Before I start quoting from the statute book about how child support and visitation works, or how a judge is likely to rule on a particular issue, or promise to Sherpa them through our frustrating, byzantine legal system for the next three hours, I say five words:

Tell me about your relationship.

I am always amazed at what follows. There are often tears. There is a narrative chronology of falling in love and/or of getting married, a long or a short marriage, or an unmarried relationship with kids, the birth of one or eight children, or none. For same-sex couples, there is the practical and psychological pain that comes with second-class domestic citizenship. For everyone, there is relief, sadness, resignation, regret, ambivalence, frustration, happiness, certitude, or any combination of those things. 

All without much prompting beyond those five words.

Few of these women seem to have encountered anyone in the legal system who asks them this, and yet it's something they want to be heard on, and really should be heard on. In addition to the many financial and logistical hurdles of "un-coupling," the end of a relationship is a sort of death and a re-birth. It's the final chapter in what began as any other love story. 

Women, in particular, want to talk about the other chapters. And while I'm not pretending to be anyone's therapist, I think it's my job to listen to their stories with compassion and without judgment. I try to do that in my personal life too, where I have had a number of divorcing friends, who also need non-judgmental compassion more than they need legal advice or information. Only by listening with compassion, I've found, is it possible to gain the trust and credibility necessary to help them with anything else.  

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