TWO SIDES OF THE COIN
Two Sides of the Coin is a series of articles written by Ian Steinberg, a matrimonial and family law attorney, in conjunction with an array of other professionals from different industries. The series provides insights into issues from the perspective of each party to a divorce. Each article provides readers with practice tips that are helpful when navigating through the divorce process.
Is This a Question for My Lawyer or my Therapist?
By Ian Steinberg, Esq. and Lauren Ares, LMFT
When a couple gets divorced, each spouse is going through a life-changing event that elicits a wide array of emotions. Managing those emotions while making the numerous decisions required to move through the divorce process can be overwhelming. Whether you are the spouse that is moving out of the former marital residence, the parent that will now have to take a more active role in your children’s lives, or the one who will have to make financial decisions that you were not accustomed to making, the transition into your new post-divorce life will be challenging. That makes choosing the right team of professionals is even more important.
The first two members of your team as you enter the divorce process are often your matrimonial attorney and your therapist. Sometimes, these two can blend into one, and you will find yourself asking your therapist legal questions or expressing your emotions to your attorney. While this is completely natural, having a clear idea of which professional can help you in a given situation will allow you to get the right advice from the right professional. Often, when the lines between emotions and the rule of law become blurred, it is helpful to take a step back and ask yourself “is this a question for my therapist or my attorney”?
Here are some helpful tips in deciding which professional is in the best position to assist.
- Which “What Can I Do” Are You Asking?
One of the most common questions that a part to a divorce will ask both their therapist and attorney is “what can I do?” Depending on the context of this question, the answer can be given by either a therapist or an attorney.
For example, if you are asking this question because you are emotionally torn, upset, stuck or feeling too scattered to think clearly, your therapist is the professional to speak with. Your therapist can work with you to help process these feelings and help you get “unstuck.” Finding a healthy outlet for these emotions will often help you make legal-related decisions more clearly.
On the other hand, if you want to know whether or not you can reach out to your soon-to-be ex about enrolling a child in an extracurricular activity or whether or not you can change the beneficiary of your life insurance policy, that is a question for your attorney. While the latter might seem more obvious, the former may be less clear. Asking yourself which type of “what can I do” question you are grappling with may help guide you towards the right professional.
- Focus on the “Because”
It is helpful to consider the reasoning behind asking a particular question or having a particular feeling. Asking yourself, “I feel/think X because of Y” can help point you in the right direction. Often, it can be helpful to write this down and focus on the “because” of your question. If the “because” pertains to an emotion that is difficult to navigate, such as feeling upset or stuck, a therapist most likely would be the professional to assist. Similarly, if you are upset by something that your spouse said, a therapist would probably be in the best position to help get you to a better place, even the upsetting comment was made in the legal context or in court.
However, if the “because” relates to the process itself or the strategy to move forward, that may be a question for your attorney. For example, if you are feeling frustrated because of the amount of time you are seeing your children, your attorney may be able to make a strategic or legal maneuver to help increase your parenting time.
It is important to remember that sometimes, both your therapist and attorney can provide helpful pertaining to the same issue. If you are anxious before a court appearance, your therapist can help you process or develop a new skill set to address your concerns related to this stressful situation, and your attorney can explain to you the process, potential outcomes, and strategies that will provide you with the best outcome.
- Do Not Be Afraid To Ask
One of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking that their question is silly, or that their attorney or therapist may not know the answer or will be unable to properly provide support. However, it is important to remember that it never hurts to just ask. It is as simple as saying “I am not sure if you can answer this but…” This can often open up the door to having a conversation with someone on your team that can guide you in the right direction.
While attorneys are not trained to provide therapeutic advice, they are often compassionate and empathetic people who are your advocates. Additionally, they will know to direct you to your therapist (or another professional on your team), just as a therapist will know to direct legal questions to your attorney. Asking for help is also a form of self-care, which is vital while going through the divorce process.
While they play different roles, therapists and attorneys are advocates for their clients/patients and want to see them succeed both during and after the divorce process. While a therapist can help you consider the emotional ramifications, process outcomes and points of view, an attorney will provide you with legal strategies and advice so you can achieve the best outcome possible.
Allowing each professional to assist you in the area in which they are trained will put you in the best position to succeed. Whether you are the monied spouse or the non-monied spouse, or the custodial parent or non-custodial parent, allowing your therapist the space to help you keep your emotions in check will serve to provide you a clearer mind to make decisions related to the legal aspects of your divorce. In order to ensure a healthy post-divorce future, it is vital to both have the right team and utilize them correctly.
Ian Steinberg is a matrimonial and family law attorney with Berkman Bottger Newman & Schein. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at (212) 867-9123. Lauren Ares is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in New York. She completed the Emotionally Focused Therapy externship and is certified in Mindfulness. She can be reached by phone at (646) 791-2745.