To my mind, this passage is the foundation for effectively helping clients through a divorce. Some attorneys have trouble allowing clients to make their own decisions, and feel compelled to “guide” clients to making whatever decision the attorney himself would make in that situation. And, while it is not always easy, remembering that a client’s decisions are hers to make and not my own, is the key to effectively helping her make those decisions. And, that, so far as I have come to understand it, is the key to truly caring for clients.
When I care for an adult…I try to avoid making decisions for him. I help him make his own decisions by providing information, suggesting alternatives, and pointing out possible consequences, but all along I realize that they are his decisions to make and not my own.
“How Do I Know if I’m Making the Right Decision?”
This is one of the most common dilemmas that people face in negotiating divorce, custody, alimony, equitable distribution and child support issues. In fact, the fear of making the wrong decision can paralyze people and prevent them from making any decisions.
In my last blog post, I talked about the negative impact of indecision. The fear of making the wrong decision is one powerful fear that feeds indecision.
However, in a divorce context or any other, making decisions in the face of uncertainty it is critical.
The fact of the matter is that there are poor, better and best decisions. But, there are rarely right and wrong decisions. There are great decisions that turn out poorly and terrible decisions that work out well. No one has a crystal ball, and even the best analysis and prediction can be laid waste by future events. Life, as they say, is uncertain.
Nonetheless, decisions must be made. The best way that I know to handle the discomfort of making difficult decisions in the face of uncertain outcomes is from the book Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project.
These authors give the following advice:
“Don’t spend your time looking for the one right answer about what to do. It’s not only a useless standard, it’s crippling. Instead, hold as your goal to think clearly as you take on the task of making a considered choice. That is as good as any of us can do.”
That is tremendous advice in both divorce and life.
Not making a decision is a decision. In a divorce context, not making a decision about how you want to resolve alimony, child support, equitable distribution and custody issues is a decision to let your spouse decide how that will happen. And, it is frequently a decision to go to court, whether you intended that or not.
Take this common scenario: A Wife (or Husband) tells her Husband (or Wife) that she wants a divorce, and suggests that they use the collaborative process because it will protect the kids and their finances.
In some cases, the Husband’s reaction is to do nothing, and not make a decision on how to proceed. Essentially, stonewalling.
Sometimes this happens because people think that the divorce won’t happen if they don’t participate. They think, “If I don’t pick a process, then a divorce cannot or will not happen”. The truth is that it will happen with or without them. But, it will happen in a public courtroom instead of a private conference room. And, the parties will have lost most, if not all influence over the process and outcomes for their children and their financial lives.
Other people in this situation think that agreeing to a process means that they are agreeing with the divorce. That causes them to avoid choosing a process as a means of voicing their protest of their spouse’s decision to be divorced. This is a self-defeating approach. It is possible, and very common, to both disagree with the divorce and participate in the collaborative divorce process.
Many people operate under the false belief that they have to agree to a divorce. In North Carolina, a party can obtain a divorce without their spouse’s consent. So, if your spouse tells you that they want a divorce, they can get one whether you agree or not. You might be able to delay it, but you cannot prevent it.
Further, failing to choose a divorce process forces the other spouse to go to court. A courtroom divorce process is the only process that one party can force the other into. So, if one spouse refuses to choose collaborative divorce, mediation or another process, then the other spouse has no choice but to seek the help of a court. Therefore, refusing to make a decision is often a decision to go to court. That option is typically the opposite of what both spouses wanted.
So, if your spouse has told you that they want a divorce, then you need to investigate your process options. And then you need to participate in choosing a process. If you don’t, you will be making an unintentional decision, and that may well be choosing a battle in court.