Andrea was livid. She had just discovered that Paul, her husband of eleven years, and the father of their three kids, had been seeing someone else for the past six months. She felt betrayed, played for a fool. The more she thought about it the angrier she became. Paul was going to pay for this, she would see to that. And not just with money. She wanted to smash him, to make him feel the humiliation and despair that she was feeling herself. She would get the meanest bulldog of a divorce lawyer she could find, one who would bite deeply, shake and not let go.
That this is Andrea’s reaction is not surprising. I think we all can relate to her feelings. Someone she trusted turned out not worthy of that trust. Putting myself in her position I can feel my desire for punishment and vengeance rise inside of me. So, why would I advise Andrea not to stop there, not immediately to, “Cry ‘havoc’, and let slip the dogs of war?”
Well, as good as it might feel initially to unleash a devastating legal attack replete with injunctions, temporary orders, discovery demands, emergency hearings and the like, ultimately Andrea too will have to live in the environment of her own creation. When we pick a fight, most often we will have our invitation accepted followed by a corresponding invitation from the other party to escalate this conflict even more. As much as we may believe that we are in the right, that any clear-headed individual (especially a judge) would doubtlessly proclaim our virtue and victory, the other person probably feels much the same way. We may believe an all-out assault will cause the other party to roll over and surrender, Usually not. Humans being human, we generally lash right back, particularly if we feel cornered.
Moreover, filing a lawsuit immediately takes a great deal of control out of the hands of those whose dispute it is. Court rules must be followed, deadlines are imposed, the judge makes a decision for Andrea and Paul. Probably neither person is going to be thrilled with the outcome. A great deal of creativity and subtlety is lost by resorting to a formal court process.
So, what will Andrea most likely end up with if she hires a bulldog? A dogfight. Some of the things we can count on in a dogfight are extreme stress, great expense, rancor, and unintended damage to innocent bystanders. In this case the innocent bystanders are Andrea and Paul’s three children. When things turn bitter in a divorce, those who suffer the most are the kids. No parent wants that.
Andrea hears me out and then offers, ”But won’t I be seen as a pushover if don’t let him have it with both barrels?” This is a common belief. We often are fearful that if we do not make a big noise in advancing our position then no one will take us seriously. Curiously, taking a more measured approach is most often in our own interest. One, it is easier to work effectively towards a good resolution if emotions are not unnecessarily fanned. There is already tension and conflict enough inherent in the situation. Two, it is easier to be forward looking when we are not preoccupied with punishing for past events. Three, acting from a stance of our interests is far stronger than being pushed hither and yon by the vagaries of our ever-changing emotions. I share with Andrea some words a wise person once shared with me, “Know your purpose, accept your feelings, and do what needs to be done.” Emotions offer information, not guidance. Andrea can stand and advance her interests in a powerful, dignified way without the need for declaring total war against Paul. No one could reasonably mistake this stance for weakness.
So what are Andrea’s options? We talk about mediation, Collaborative Divorce, divorce coaching, and litigation. Each has its place. My task is to help clients like Andrea pick what is best suited to her circumstance.
Is there never a place for a bulldog? No, I would not say that. Some circumstances may demand such an approach. What I am saying is that there is a far wider range of choices available than we often think. Many of them reward heartfelt effort to advance each party’s respective interests and do not carry the emotional hangover that follows on traditional litigation.