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Latest News and Views of Walther Family Law

A client comes in for a divorce acting crazy because she/he just can’t get over being rejected. Maybe it’s been months, or even years, since she/he found out their partner wanted out. Their rational self thinks it’s time to move on, get over it and get going on a new life. “My ex certainly did!”

But they can’t let it go. They keep turning over all the facts, compulsively trying to figure what went wrong. Or they’re so angry they’re hell bent on revenge and spend every waking moment scheming of ways to get back at their ex (and this often involves you, dear divorce lawyer!). Or maybe they’re just so depressed they believe nothing will ever be good again.

It’s almost like they’re addicted.

That’s not far off the mark.

Biological Anthropologist Helen Fisher and Neuroscientist Lucy Brown have been MRI-scanning the brains of people in love and those recently rejected in love. What they saw was heightened activity in the mesolimbic pathway, otherwise known as the brain’s pleasure system.  Two neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin, drive it.

Which neural transmitter is at work and where along the pathway impact how we react. Increases in dopamine at one end engender motivation, desire and pleasure, while decreases produce cravings. But at the other end, dopamine simply grabs and focuses our attention, making us feel something is terribly important and we need to take notice.

All addictive drugs, or their lack, impact the release of dopamine. And so does love.

The pleasure system’s other major player is serotonin, which governs both inhibition and our experience of satiety: how much do we miss something and how likely are we to have control over our actions.

Drugs reduce serotonin levels. And so does being dumped.

Altogether, the pleasure system provides the setting for a perfect storm of wanting, motivation, focus and craving.  People in the throes of an emotional divorce, like those experiencing addition, are at the mercy of powerful neurological surges. Worse yet, they don’t really know it: the pleasure system is part of the “primitive brain” and, sadly for the love-addled, it operates well below the level of conscious awareness.

So what do family lawyers typically ask the neurotransmitter-drenched brains of their divorce clients to do? Pretty much the emotional equivalent of “Just Say No”. And it’s just about as effective.

Our clients simply can’t “move on” at will and, as their divorce lawyers, we would do well to take that into account. Once we acknowledge a client’s deep primal feelings and recognize they can’t solve the problem with their rational brain, effective advocacy requires us to conduct ourselves and our case differently.

Our interactions with the client need to acknowledge what they’re going through. Instead of asking them to shrug it off, we need to learn the skill of active listening. We need to know how important to our client, and ultimately to our case, our ability to exhibit empathy is. Learning to provide a comforting touch on the back or shoulder when needed is not being soppy – in these cases, it’s good lawyering.

We need to get the client what they need to cope, and then to heal. Help the client understand that what he/she is going through is pretty darn normal. Introduce him/her to techniques the client can practice when feeling overcome: deep breathing, stretching, meditating, if that’s appropriate.

Lastly, it’s our job to mediate between our client and a legal system with a lack of tolerance for what the client is experiencing.  If we can, we should avoid taking these clients into court in the first place. Judges dealing with crowded dockets are likely to be angry and frustrated with our clients’ emotional responses. No time. No patience.  Delaying, providing time to heal and get counseling, works best.

But what if the house needs to be sold now and the other side files a motion? When delay is out of the question and our emotional client needs to attend  a hearing and make important decisions, ask the court to exercise its “equitable powers”  and to understand why this is such a hard decision for the client to make.  Reframe the story of this client for the court as a human being in pain – not a pain in the ass.

Instead of trying to get our clients to “get a grip”, we should. Different clients demand different approaches.  Now that science has helped us understand what’s actually going on for our most emotional clients, we have no excuse for not developing the skill set to effectively represent them.