As a family lawyer, I am regularly asked why I think relationships come to grief. There is no single answer to that question but if I had to identify one of the most common reasons, it would be a breakdown in communication. This is to simplify what are often incredibly complex issues but, in my experience, an inability to communicate about important things that happen during the course of a relationship has a huge impact on the durability of that relationship and can also have a significant impact on the course of a separation.
In my job, I am most often engaged by clients who need help disentangling themselves from a relationship which is ending or has ended. By this point, communication has often become fraught. Usually, a couple will have a particular style when it comes to the way they engage in conflict with each other, and that style may have become entrenched. In times of crisis, people naturally seek the security of old habits, and it can be even harder to break a destructive cycle.
It can be really important for my clients to understand their conflict styles, and develop an awareness of how they may react and engage when they are stressed. Equipped with that knowledge, and with the belief that they have the power to control and change the way they respond, means that they can make choices that help them communicate clearly and successfully, even about difficult subjects. Better self-awareness allows them to step away from a cycle of conflict and look at the bigger picture. The focus can then turn to their priorities for the future and achieving a solution that meets their needs. Encouraging clients to salvage what they can from their relationship and learn how best to communicate with their ex can make a huge difference to the way a case progresses and to the eventual outcome. It is a vital part of my role.
Often the issue is not just about the direct communication between a separating couple. Another significant line of communication in a divorce takes place between the lawyers representing each party. The way lawyers communicate can be as important as how their clients communicate directly. Divorce lawyers have a reputation for being argumentative and aggressive – deployed in a vacuum without any strategy or consideration, this approach does clients a huge disservice. The most important function of a lawyer is to help a client achieve the right outcome. Persuasion is a far more important skill than the ability to write an angry letter. And persuasion involves listening just as much as it does telling.
Helping to establish a good functioning level of communication during the course of a separation can be the key to unlocking solutions for the future, acting as a springboard for a couple's relationship going forward. This have a big impact on the outcome for their children and can make it much easier for a couple to reach a consensus in relation to what should happen to the finances too.
The elements described here are part of a toolkit that helps me in my role, though it is not what you would necessarily expect in a family lawyer's job description. As a passionate advocate of good communication, it was natural for me to get involved with the charity OnePlusOne as a trustee. Their work is founded on research into relationship science and targeted at supporting couples in their relationships with one another. www.arguebetter.uk