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Top priority: Encourage clients to focus on self-care during divorce

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No matter the area of law in which you practice, odds are good you will run across a client who is going through a divorce. Divorce is one of the most stressful life-changing events a person can experience. According to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale — a tool which measures the degree to which certain life stressors trigger a subsequent onset of illness — divorce and separation rank #2 and #3 respectively, falling only behind the death of a loved one. Yet it is all too common for clients to neglect their physical and emotional health when going through the divorce process.

In the past 20 years, I’ve guided hundreds of clients through the separation and divorce process, and I’ve been through a separation and divorce myself. On my podcast, “A Year and a Day: Divorce Without Destruction,” we’re focusing the current season on well-being and emotional health during divorce. I’m joined on the podcast by North Carolina marriage counselors, therapists and child psychologists on an array of topics.

Why is self-care important during a divorce?

The divorce process can be overwhelming and lengthy. Negotiating a separation agreement or being involved in litigation requires a person to make many important decisions. Clients who take care of their emotional health during this process are better equipped to make these often difficult and long-term decisions without becoming overwhelmed.

Self-care includes the basics like eating well, getting adequate sleep, and exercising mindfully—all of which may be a challenge for someone going through a divorce—as well as meditation, journaling, being in nature, or any other activity that improves mood and reduces anxiety.

A family lawyer can do many things for their client, but some things we just cannot do for them. For example, I can’t tell my client what an equitable distribution of their property is if they can’t help me identify the assets that exist in their marital estate. I can’t decide for them what custodial schedule would best meet their children’s needs, and I can’t decide for them how much support they are willing to take. These are just a few of the very important decisions that only my clients can make. As attorneys, we can do more things, more efficiently for our clients who are healthy enough to engage with us actively in this process.

Encourage the client to take baby steps

When a person is newly separated, they may feel paralyzed and unable to make even the smallest of decisions because of the anxiety and stress that a separation can cause. Going through a divorce is a huge life change, and it is completely normal to feel these emotions, but the key is to find a way out of that particular state, whether it’s to take a walk, refocus or even take prescribed medication for anxiety. Whatever the client needs to do, it’s important to put one foot in front of the other and move forward.

At the beginning of the process, it can be helpful not to think big picture. Trying to figure out what your life will look like in a year or more can be overwhelming. Early in the divorce process, it will likely be easier for the client to take it day by day and to baby step through each individual issue. Hopefully, by taking it one day at a time, the client won’t get overwhelmed in January worrying about what the holiday custodial schedule will be the following December.

Encourage the client to think about what is going to happen tomorrow. Who has the children tomorrow? How are they going to pay this month’s bills? The client needs to be able to get through the immediate issues first, and practicing acts of self-care can help the client have the mental capacity to work through these issues with their lawyer.

Help them pick their battles

When a client is going through a divorce, they don’t have to fight every battle with their spouse, and they shouldn’t fight every battle. Clients who are cognizant of caring for their emotional health throughout the process are better equipped to pick their battles, and they are better able to let an issue go when it isn’t going to advance their goals.

When a client is going through a separation, they do not have to continue engaging their spouse in the acrimony that was the norm during the marriage. They can disengage from being in constant fight-or-flight mode and begin choosing their battles. Everything does not have to be an emergency. When clients are first beginning this process, there is a tendency to get stuck in fight-or-flight mode, and every little thing that happens can send them over the edge. Recognizing that it doesn’t have to be that way in and of itself is a huge step toward self-care.

Encourage therapy

Self-care during a divorce may also involve talking with a trusted professional who can help the client process his or her feelings and emotions productively. Divorce is a loss, not unlike the death of a loved one, which requires moving through the grieving process step-by-step. A therapist can provide the tools to help maneuver through that process.

A common question among parents involved in custody disputes is whether they will be penalized by the judge or the opposing party if they seek professional counseling. This concern is understandable, particularly in highly contested custody cases; however, it is more likely that the court will recognize therapy as an attempt by the parent to deal with his or her emotions in a productive way and will look favorably upon the individual who is courageous enough to ask for help. In fact, not getting needed help can cause some people to turn to self-medicating, which ultimately could be more detrimental to a case than pursuing therapy. Not only can alcohol, drugs, or other destructive behaviors inhibit decision-making, but these behaviors can lead to legal implications, particularly if they are proven to interfere with a parent’s ability to actively care for their children.

Help assemble their team

Encourage your client to develop a team of professionals who are going to help them through the process. In addition to the divorce lawyer, the team often includes a therapist, an accountant and a financial adviser.

Having a team in place can help reduce the client’s stress and take some of the work and worry off their plate. There may be some things the professionals cannot do for the client, but once the attorney gets the information they need from the client, they can start doing the heavy lifting — so the client can continue to move forward with their everyday life.

There are many resources available to clients who are going through a divorce. DivorceCare offers support groups for both adults and children. In addition, most health insurers cover counseling, and many plans cover alternative treatments like acupuncture, massage or nutritionists as well.

A divorce can be all-consuming, and the client may find that while they are going through a divorce they can’t focus on their job or take care of their children. Once they have their team in place and are regularly practicing self-care, they can refocus their attention and get back to living their life.

Tell them to keep going

Those moments when it’s difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel are when an act of self-care can be most impactful. Activities that reduce stress for an individual, whether it’s meditating or going for a run, can help both now and throughout the process. For me, it’s exercise.  When I can feel the stress mounting, I have found that there are few things that thirty minutes on the Peloton can’t fix.

The key for clients going through a divorce is to do what makes them feel good and keep doing it. In doing so, they’re improving their emotional health, not just in the present moment, but for the long term.

Jaime H. Davis practices law in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is a board-certified family law specialist, the co-managing partner of Gailor Hunt Davis Taylor & Gibbs and a certified family financial mediator. She hosts a podcast titled “A Year and a Day: Divorce Without Destruction” and has recently published a book by the same name. Her podcast can be found on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts and more.