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The emotional and psychological cost of divorce and separation and how to manage it

Posted: 30/11/2020

Deciding to separate can be one of the hardest and most life changing decisions that a couple will make. As lawyers, it is essential that this fact is kept front and centre when advising clients. The emotional 'fallout' from a separation can be momentous and can fundamentally alter the personalities who go through it.

Matilda Kingham discusses the importance of considering and dealing with the trauma of separation through a psychoanalytic lens for the sake of those going through the separation, for the lawyers who advise them and, also arguably most importantly, for any children involved.

The unique role of the family lawyer

The role of the family lawyer is distinctly unique from others in the legal profession. Although clients come to lawyers for legal advice, they frequently turn to them for additional emotional support. In a culture which is still adjusting to the merits of therapy and counselling, lawyers are often the only people with whom their client can share their emotions and are the only ones available to help with the processing of these emotions, and yet they not usually formally qualified to do so.

Clients often need to share the most intimate areas of their lives with lawyers, who are virtual strangers to them at the start of their relationship. Things that they would have hoped to be kept part of their private lives often need to be opened up to scrutiny in the family courts. Clients have little preparation for this and often feel exposed and confused. Their lawyer needs to support them through it.

Family lawyers are working with people at their most vulnerable and volatile, people who are understandably in crisis and who can, as a result, struggle to make their own decisions and need extra guidance. The lawyers must ensure that, although this may be just another client for them, it is one of the most important parts of that client’s life with long lasting and life changing consequences.

Multiple and complex relationships

There are a number of relationships at play in a separation, which in their simplest form, can be distilled down to the following:

  • the separating couple;
  • the clients and their children;
  • the client and the lawyer; and
  • the lawyer and the lawyer for the other party.

The dynamics of these relationships can often determine the direction of the separation process, namely whether it is to be amicable (and most likely cost effective as a result) or whether it is to be highly litigious and potentially destructive.

All of the players interact with each other according to their own underlying psychological makeup. Each can be angry, irrational, overly attached and emotional.

Projective identification: an unconscious psychological strategy

This article explores (albeit necessarily at a simplistic level) one reason for this pattern of challenging behaviour through one of the psychoanalytic defences of a type of behaviour known as projective identification. A psychoanalytic defence is a psychological strategy that is used unconsciously by the mind to protect the person using it from feeling a particular emotion, anxiety or pain. Other common defences include denial and repression. However, this article considers projective identification as it is an interpersonal defence, requiring two participants, so it tends to be a common feature in these types of proceedings. If one person can recognise the behaviour and avoid or stop it, it will be less likely to arise during the proceedings as a whole.

The psychoanalyst Melanie Klein defined projective identification as “putting part of oneself into the other person”. It can manifest itself in two ways, in either a positive ('normal') way or a negative ('pathological') way.

Taking a positive standpoint, projective identification is the way in which someone can empathise with and understand others. It is very important for family lawyers to be able to do this – to be able to put themselves in the shoes of another, feel and appreciate where the other person is coming from. Without such empathy, it is difficult to be able to understand what motivates a client in order to help them to get to where they want to be.

It is also crucial for couples to be able to use projective identification as a force for good. As psychotherapist Robert Mendelson said in his article [1] “the defense is not necessarily psychologically malignant in couples; rather, it becomes so only […] when a couple is in a very high state of marital tension.”

Trauma of separation brings negative behaviour to the fore

The negative aspect of projective identification is more commonly seen by psychoanalysts and, given the trauma of separation, it is not surprising that it is then that this behaviour often comes to the fore. It involves one person projecting something 'unwanted' of themselves into another person and, in turn, that person projects that same emotion back even if they did not initially feel it, thus escalating the associated emotions.

It is important for both lawyers and clients to understand and recognise this pattern of behaviour, the reasons for it and the need to identify it at the first opportunity so that all concerned can move away from the repetitive cycles of harmful behaviour which is seen all too frequently during the process of separation. I will use the four relationships set out above to explain how damaging projective identification can become:

  • The separating couple – this is the most toxic. Any feeling can be the start of projective identification: guilt, insecurity, over-sensitivity, anger or anxiety. It is common for these unwanted feelings to be projected into the other person and, if these are not able to be contained, understood and processed by the recipient then they are unconsciously projected back by the other person. The couple can enter into a vicious cycle where these negative feelings are moving back and forth between them. If left uncommunicated, it often leaves to the further breakdown of what could already be a difficult relationship.
  • The separating couple (as parents) and their children – this is the most damaging. Parental alienation shows it in action. Parental alienation is a pattern of behaviour where a parent, deliberately or unconsciously, turns a child against the other parents. As a result of projective identification, a child may split their view of their parents placing one parent as 'all good' and the other parent as 'all bad'. However, in doing so, it can lead the child to believe that they are also bad (as a criticism of one of their parents is a criticism of half of them). The more the child believes that one parent is 'all bad', the more alienated they become. Parental alienation cases are often additionally challenging and confusing because the child’s or children’s feelings towards the parent who has been alienated so often do not align with the behaviour of that parent towards the child. Whilst this behaviour might be deliberate or inadvertent by the parents it could ultimately damage the children.
  • The client and the lawyer – this is the most dangerous. Anger is a good example. Clients often feel frustrated and angry. Most often at their soon to be ex-partner. However, this is frequently projected onto their lawyer, who is the closest confidant at the time. The lawyer’s reaction is crucial. If they are able to rise above that anger, the projective identification is unlikely to arise as there is no cycle. However, if they identify with and reciprocate the emotion that is being projected onto them, the client can then be on the receiving end of a short tempered and impatient legal advisor, which is the opposite of what is required in order to help them on their way.
  • The lawyer and the lawyer for the other party – this is the most unconstructive. It is essential for family lawyers to be able to work together to resolve matters for their clients. Although some might think that the adversarial nature of the English court system is unhelpful in these types of proceedings, most family lawyers are members of Resolution: an organisation that is committed to providing a constructive approach to separation. However, if projective identification is at play, with a circle of mistrust or anger stemming from one lawyer and then projecting back and forth between them, important negotiations and discussions are likely to fail and little progress could be made. If one lawyer is feeling insecure in their client's negotiating position, they might project that insecurity into the other lawyer with aggressive communication and correspondence. The recipient (if they do not recognise this insecurity) could take it into themselves and feel less confident about their own client’s case. A client’s behaviour could also overflow and influence the lawyer, so that the lawyer takes on the client’s anger and begins that cycle with the lawyer on the other side.

Practical advice for family lawyers

Psychoanalyst Alessandra Lemma [2] set out a quick guide for psychoanalysts on how to work with defences such as projective identification. I believe that several of these are essential for every family lawyer and have therefore set them out below:

  • First, the lawyer must identify the trigger of the client’s main anxiety (although, of course, there can be several).
  • Then, the lawyer must ask themselves what the client is capable of managing – can the lawyer highlight their behaviour to them, or must they work through this with their client to lead them to their own realisation?
  • It is important for the lawyer to bear in mind that defences have both positive and negative functions – it is often an important release for a client to project their unwanted feelings into another; but it must be contained there, rather than being projected back again so that the cycle can end.
  • Finally, the lawyer must always bear in mind the consequences for the client of not using defences at all – if emotions are 'bottled up' they can boil over with equally damaging consequences.

Recognising and understanding the issues surrounding the concept of projective identification and, as a result resisting the unconscious temptation of taking part in the damaging cycle associated with it is crucial for the tool kit of any practicing family lawyer. Keeping the client’s emotions and reasons for feeling these emotions front and centre of the lawyer’s mind should enable the lawyer to have a better relationship with the client and their counterparts in cases. Being able to recognise a client’s triggers and their emotional anxieties, to learn from them and, if appropriate, to communicate this pattern to them could also, ultimately, help them to improve their relationship with their soon to be ex-partner/spouse and their children.

All clients should consider entering into professionally delivered therapeutic support when embarking on the process of separation. It is extremely beneficial to deal with the emotional consequences of separation in a safe space with those who are professionally trained to assist. They should be stronger, more resilient and better equipped for the road ahead if they are able to do so. This should be seen as a positive clinical tool to be accessed by clients even when they might feel that they do not need such additional support. At the other end of the spectrum it is also important for family lawyers to recognise the need for genuine psychological support for those involved in family court proceedings and to recommend this to clients from the start of their relationship.


[1] 'Playing' with the Couple's Projective Identifications: Paradigmatic Psychotherapy with Couples By: Mendelsohn, Robert, Psychoanalytic Review, 00332836, January 1, 2013, Vol. 100, Issue 5

[2] Lemma, Alessandra.; Introduction to the Practice of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy

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