The Anguish of Conflict

Recently I was engaged to represent a divorcing party in the amorphous process I call “Lawyer-to Lawyer Negotiation.” Unlike Collaborative Law, mediation, or even litigation, Lawyer-to-Lawyer negotiation does not require that the lawyers and parties participate in a defined process in accountable ways. Rather, it’s just two lawyers and their clients who may meet if everyone agrees to do that. More often, it just means that the lawyers will work to arrive at a divorce agreement that will be submitted to the court for approval. There is typically no process agreement of any kind that governs the behavior of the attorneys or the clients.

This case started off with the other lawyer being extremely cordial and signing his correspondence to me with closings such as “All my best” and “Kindest regards.” He acknowledged that, though he was not trained in the Collaborative Law process, he anticipated we could work together to resolve this case most amicably. Even though the focus of my practice is largely divorce through the Collaborative Law process, and his largely litigation, he agreed he would not proceed with filing a complaint for divorce and serving it on my client. He inferred that his client was doing my client a favor since he knew she did not want to engage in an adversarial court process.

We exchanged volumes of financial documentation in this high asset case with a marriage of almost 4 decades. Disclosure was not an issue. The issues were the division of assets and the payment of spousal support (alimony)—which are almost always the chief issues in a divorce case, unless there are parenting matters to resolve, and here, the children were grown.

The husband was seeking to retain all of the assets in his name and give the wife all assets in her name, of considerably less value than those of the husband, and a substantial portion of which her family had gifted her during the marriage. While that, in my experience, is a somewhat unusual stance to take in a long-term marriage, it was reasonable to expect that a more balanced settlement could be reached.

When the husband’s lawyer and I met in my office to discuss settlement, he tried to convince me of the worthiness of his client’s position. When I said I could not recommend such a lop-sided settlement to my client, he packed up his bag and left, saying sarcastically and between clinched teeth, “Well it was very nice to meet you!”

We continued to exchange proposals, and he continued to be aghast that his client’s offer, even with a little sweetening, was not acceptable. With each exchange, my heart beat more rapidly and my blood pressure rose. I was soon eating, breathing, and sleeping this case. I devolved into a kind of anguish that, even when I could corral it into the background, was almost always with me. It became one of those all-consuming cases in which the stakes felt unreasonably high. While there were a number of contributors, including the health of my client, that made this case especially hard, it was the enmity that the lawyers developed for each other that felt like it would bury me.

I worked with this dreadful anguish, using all the ways I have learned over the years to be with something awful that I had nurtured into a life of its on. I meditated, releasing it, momentarily, and consciously not giving it energy—until it again grabbed me by the throat. I breathed deeply. I said mantras holy and unholy. I exercised. I complained to my law partner. I uttered supplications to what I called evolutionary awareness—aspiring to the high road. I felt righteous and stupid at the same time.

The husband’s lawyer had in my mind become my enemy. Though I had theories about what was going on and reviled the condescending and belittling comments I perceived in his emails and letters, I knew that all I could do was to work with myself—and that I truly could not know with certainty what his intentions were, sinister though they were in my mind.

At last we settled the case—with a much more equitable outcome than the husband had initially proposed. I felt immense relief—and my client was very satisfied. But what did I learn from this and will I find myself in this situation again? The answer to the latter is, yes, likely so, since I do not expect to live without conflict—and get snared in its anguish. I am humbled and respectful of my work and that of my clients as conflict pushes us to look more closely at ourselves and what we all share. My work changes and grow me, and it will give me more opportunities to see how much I truly learned of these lessons:

  • I stay present to the challenge. I don’t resist the feelings, but neither do I feed them.
  • I admit that I cannot truly know what my “enemy” feels or intends.
  • I am clear in my communications and vigilant about not taking the bait—perceived or actual.
  • I take some deep breaths before I respond to an email or words spoken that inflame me.
  • When I see myself blaming the “enemy” I drop it, knowing nothing good will come of it.
  • I give in to the humor of the high stakes tug-of-war I’m in.
  • I acknowledge that my integrity is never worthy of sacrifice.
  • I let go of wanting to look good—of being ruled by my ego.