bLAWgazine: How to survive a high conflict divorce

Quinn M RossQuinn Ross is one of eight lawyers at The Ross Firm. Quinn practises in the areas of real estate, corporate/commercial law and estate law. He also has broad experience in criminal, administrative and civil litigation where he has appeared before the Ontario Court of Justice, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, the Divisional Court of Ontario, the Court of Appeal for Ontario and various administrative tribunals.


How To Survive A High Conflict Divorce

(A letter from your Brother)


My Dear Sister,

I was sorry to hear (but not very surprised knowing your husband as I do) that your 14-year marriage had ended with your husband leaving you and the children for another woman.  I understand you and the children remain at your home in Forest Hill and that, at least, must be a comfort to you.

In your letter, which I opened and read only minutes ago, you asked me “What should I do and how should I conduct myself throughout the looming legal proceeding?”

What I am about to write to you is important.  Read it carefully.  If you follow my instructions (and I mean really follow my instructions…not like when we were kids and you mostly ignored me), you will emerge not only successful in your lawsuit but a better, wiser and happier woman!

By the way, you will be interested to know our brother asked me the same question several years ago when his marriage ended, and my advice to him was the same.

Choosing Your Lawyer

In my experience, there are basically three types of lawyer.

The Gun Slinger


The first, and often the most tempting lawyer to retain is the gun slinger.  These lawyers, (often, but not always, men), promise to oppose everything the opposition might request and wring the last penny out of the opposing party’s hide.

These lawyers are generally bullies.  They often attract clients who are more interested in winning at any cost (read as ‘wreaking havoc’) rather than resolving mutual issues fairly through give and take.  They have no problem in attempting to take the children hostage as part of their negotiating strategy.

Generally for this type of lawyer, your case is all about them …about the lawyer, winning.  They are mindless of the emotional and financial havoc their need to win causes not only the opposing party, but their own client as well.  Too often, the only winner in these situations is the lawyer who has taken his client’s money to satisfy the need to vanquish.

Avoid these lawyers like the plague, even if your spouse hires one!

The Ham ‘N’ Egger


The second type of lawyer to consider very carefully, is known in the profession as a ham ‘n’ egger.  These lawyers, often well meaning, take most cases that come their way…real estate, wills, criminal law, landlord and tenant, and of course, family law.

Family law requires a high degree of sophistication especially when you move into the areas of custody, property, business valuations, and pensions, to mention a few.  Remember the old maxim: Jack of all trades, master of none.

The Extrordinator 

There are plenty of extraordinary, highly competent family law lawyers.  They are men and women who know the law; know the difference between being a social worker and being a lawyer; know how to listen to their client; how to advise their client on the likelihood of success on a myriad of issues; how to communicate with their client; and finally, know how to prepare and present your best case, convincingly, to a judge.

Get references and shop around if you have to, not for the best price (although price is always a factor), but for the lawyer of excellence, best suited to you.

So, there you are, my dearest sister.  Easy.  Take control.  Choose the right lawyer.

Do it!

Can you bear me going on?  Because I have two other tips I want to pass on to you that will absolutely lighten the load of what lies before you. 

Isolating Emotion

The first deals with the necessity of separating legitimate emotional issues from the legal issues you and the Extrordinator will tackle.

On that note, I must tell you, I got a great kick out of the list of questions you included in your letter. It is so like you to make lists.  And what a list!

1.      Where did I go wrong?

2.      How could the ingrate do this to me?

3.      How will I manage for money?

4.      What about the kids in all this?

5.      What the hell ever happened to “…for better or for …worse”?

6.      I’m frightened.  I’m angry.  I feel totally rejected.  I hate how I feel.  How do I deal with these feelings?

Do you remember that little gem Mom always fired at us when we were frightened or feeling sorry for ourselves? Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. ~ M. Kathleen Casey


Here’s the good news ….no, here’s the great news!   The absolute quickest way to get a handle on your emotions and start to heal is to put your feelings into words.  Dare I throw out that old saying “A problem shared, is a problem halved?” You actually started to do this (share your problem) when you wrote me the letter and I’ll bet you felt better the moment you wrote it!  Don’t deny it!

So, find a friend you trust, or join a self-help group, write a journal, or go to a therapist or a counselor. Put your feelings into words.  Notice carefully, I said put your feelings into words… not your legal case. The legal matters you discuss with your lawyer.

I promise you, if you separate them …the emotional issues from the legal matters…two things will follow, just as night follows day. 

The first thing is…you will start to feel better about yourself and your life.  There’s been a ton of research that confirms putting feelings into words makes us feel better…go figure.

The second thing you will notice is that you will make far better decisions in your legal case.  Why?  Simply because you have dealt with your emotions in another forum.  You will have left  the emotional element on the other side of the door when you entered your lawyer’s office.

The results will amaze you.  Your legal decisions will have the clarity of a brain loaded with logic, able to reason free from the emotional responses that get us into so much trouble when we are problem solving.

I said there were two tips, and this is it…the second tip and the last piece of advice I offer you (until the next letter of course.)  I think you will like this one.  It’s right up your alley because it involves making a list or two.

Controlling and Letting Go!

One day everything is going well, or at least you are coping, and the next morning you wake to a lawsuit…an unfamiliar landscape with no map or GPS to guide you.   It can be, as you have discovered, overwhelming.  The terrain is strewn with landmines…property issues, resentment, sorrow, money, children, and old loyalties.  How do we navigate through all that?  How do we find the footpath that leads us back to some form of contentment during the blitz?

I once read of a very interesting experiment that took place in a nursing home, of all places!  The researchers had a theory that people who had a sense of control over their lives were apt to be happier than people who felt their lives were out of their control.  To prove the point, the researchers arranged to give the elderly residents control over simple things in their daily routines, including caring for their own house plants.  The results were amazing.  The overall happiness of the residents shot up and their life expectancy doubled.

What I want to say to you then, is this:  Of course you are feeling pain, grief, fear, anger and resentment.  Who wouldn’t?  But I know you and I know you don’t want to stay there even if it is, in a strange way, a comfortable place to be.  You will want to take back your life!

Piercing The Pain

So, what do you do?  I’m going to suggest one final list and I’m going to call it a “Generic to Do List.” This is a list of things over which you do have control.  For that list I am going to suggest things that come to my mind.  You may want to alter it to suit yourself.  It is, after all, your list.

Here is my Generic To Do List:

Things I Want to Do…(Do not include maiming your spouse).

Things I Should Do…(For ‘Myself’!)

Things I Have To Do…(Ahrrr.  I hate having to do anything).

Before we discuss how we tackle the items on our list, I want to remind you of one very important thing.  You will recall the researchers who created the To Do list for the elderly in the nursing home.  They didn’t ask the residents to devise a health care scheme or to prepare a budget for the nursing home.  They simply asked them to take charge of watering the plants.  A simple step.  A small thing.

The same principle applies to you.  Clearly you can’t, with a wave of your wand, resolve the issues in your family law matter any more than you can create world peace.

But you can hire the right lawyer…a pretty simple task (Things I Have To Do).

You can make an appointment to visit your family doctor to get his advice on how to best take care of yourself during this high stress period…a pretty simple task. (Things I Should Do).

You can go to dinner with a friend, reconnect with your kids by doing something simple but pleasing to both parent and child like a movie, shopping, lunch, or you could join the book club your spouse always loved to ridicule…all simple.  (Things I Want To Do).

If you choose to perform one task a day from Things I Should Do, or one task from Things I Want to Do, or one task from Things I Must Do, and you complete that To Do task, you will find that, step by step, you will gain control of your life and decrease your stress (that is, you will feel happier.)  You will also be able to take more on, as you proceed through the process.  Your small successes will grow into major achievements.

And just by the way, as you regain your old joie de vivre, so too will the people around you, your children, your family, and your friends.

Let me know how you are proceeding.

Your Brother, with Love.

Written by on January 17, 2013 in Quinn Ross, Uncategorized - No comments

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