To say that 2020 was a challenging year would be an understatement. While it started off with a sense of optimism and relative economic prosperity, the coronavirus, racial unrest, and political rancor gave this world, and this country, in particular, a set of punches to the gut. And while it may have always been under the surface, the events of this year brought into the open an unprecedented level of anger. The devastating impact of the coronavirus upon the economy, i.e. loss of jobs, reduction in incomes, shuddering of businesses, etc. resulted in feelings of anger towards the economic system. The George Floyd tragedy led to calls for racial and social justice which unfortunately turned violent fueled by anger over the police and views that our country as a whole was systemically racist. Add to all of that the 2020 election – politically charged, to say the least. Feelings of anger if not outright hatred dominated the campaign. Whether justified or not, anger was the emotional thread that seemed to have run throughout the year 2020. While anger, as an emotion, may have its place in the human psyche, when that anger becomes one’s primary feeling, it ends up overwhelming and clouding everything else. Reason and rationality. Common sense. Communication and dialogue. They all end up getting lost. That was clearly on display throughout 2020.
As the calendar changes from 2020 to 2021, there are a great many things that we can wish for. Back in the good old days, we might wish for things like a better job, finally getting that bigger house or a fancier car, losing weight or getting in shape, traveling more, or crossing things off your bucket list. However, most people’s wish lists are probably dramatically different this year. Obviously, the top on just about everyone’s list is that there be an end to this coronavirus pandemic and a return to some level of normalcy. This hope is fueled by the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine which our scientific and pharmaceutical community developed in “warp-speed”. Obviously, the end of the coronavirus pandemic is at the top of my wish list as well. However, right below that is another wish for 2021 – the creation of an anger vaccine. I know I am a dreamer but think how much nicer the world would be if the level of anger could somehow be controlled, reduced, or tempered. I know this would be the case when it comes to the handling of divorce matters.
In the almost four decades I have been handling divorce matters, some level of anger permeates many of them. Indeed, some feelings of anger are fully understandable. Your relationship with someone you loved and thought you would spend the rest of your life with has fallen apart. Perhaps that person has been abusive. Perhaps that person has betrayed you. Perhaps that person has somehow changed and it is no longer the person that you had fallen in love with. Maybe you are the one who has changed and want to find a way out of that relationship. You would not be human if you did not feel hurt, guilt, a sense of loss, maybe even a little anger. However, it is when parties to a divorce allow their feelings of anger toward the other person to totally dominate everything else that it becomes a major problem. The level of anger can range from mere loathing to out-and-out hatred. Those feelings of anger can be there the first time I meet a client or they may gradually boil over onto the surface as the strain of the marital litigation takes its toll. How is this manifested? They want to “bury” the other person. They want to “rake them over the coals”. They want them to “pay” for all the suffering and pain that they have caused. They want you as their lawyer to make that happen. They want to get all the money. They want to give no money. They want him or her to have nothing to do with “my” children. They want to win. They want the other person to lose. While sometimes these feelings are made by someone who is simply evil, most of the time it is a product of anger.
Many years ago a learned judge wisely told me that in criminal court you see the worst people at their best but in family court, you see the best people at their worst. All too often this is true.
When presented with this situation, I do my best to temper those feelings of anger and redirect those energies productively to try and reach a fair and reasonable resolution of the case. Sometimes those efforts are successful. Sometimes not so much. There is another old expression that a case will resolve itself at its own time. Some people never feel anger and they were able to work toward a resolution of their marital issues from the outset. Some people never let go of their anger and will fight forever. For most people their emotions will subside over time and parties will be able to finally resolve their differences, and even if they are not able to do so will present their best case to the court, accept the outcome and move on with their lives.
Letting anger dominate a divorce is never a positive thing. It clouds judgments. It affects your ability to reason and to think rationally. You are unable to exercise common sense. Invariably, these ongoing disputes will not only serve to prolong the case but think of the financial as well as emotional capital which will end up being expended. As an attorney, I always zealously represent the interests of my client. Asking a client to get control of their emotions does not mean giving in or giving up. It means focusing one’s attention on what should be the real issues in dispute and resolving those issues in the best way possible for your client. Anger only impedes those efforts.
As we enter into the year 2021, let’s wish that as the coronavirus pandemic hopefully comes to an end, so too the level of anger. It would be nice if the same fervor which led to the development of the coronavirus vaccine in “warp-speed” would also enable the development of an “anger vaccine”. Not only would the world be a better place, so too the practice of family law.