October 23, 2012

It's Not Your Parents' Divorce: How Generational Shifts in Attitude Are Affecting One Practice Area

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Say so long to your comfort zone.
What you need to know
about managing the multigenerational law firm.

June 2006 Issue | Volume 32 Number 4 | Page 35


By Stefani Quane

Back in 1970, when I was in second grade, I was the first kid in my class whose parents were divorced. I remember being so embarrassed by the fact that I hid it from my classmates.

Thirty-five years later, divorce is seen as almost commonplace. Just this past week, I saw two TV commercials featuring divorced people in a lighthearted way. In one, a woman riding a ski lift discusses hiring a financial planner for her settlement money. She wants an advisor who will listen to her ideas—unlike her ex-husband. In another commercial, for a hair color product, a father repeatedly picks up the kids for residential time, and each time he arrives, his ex-wife has a new hairstyle. Divorce, it seems, has gone from embarrassing to mainstream, at least on Madison Avenue.

The fact is, though, these commercials reflect changes in client attitudes that I increasingly see in my family law practice. Newer generations respond differently to the divorce process than older clients do.

On average, the younger clients don’t suffer the sense of shame that older couples experience. With clients who are 40 or older, as we speak about feeling like a failure at marriage, I explain that not all relationships are meant to last forever. As lawyers, we provide cultural wisdom about divorce and are uniquely situated to provide absolution: the pronouncement of being cleared of guilt or blame and relieved of an obligation. The feedback I get is that these conversations are helpful.

Younger clients, however, accept divorce and understand that it is normal to take different paths. This became clear to me when I started to give my comforting “divorce is not shameful” speech to a 32-year-old client. Her response was, “Everyone I know is divorced. Why should I be embarrassed?” The cultural mores around divorce have shifted and younger clients don’t seem to need the affirmations like older couples do.

Another noticeable difference is that younger clients often expect the process to be more amicable. They know about mediation. Having grown up witnessing some wretched divorces, they don’t want that experience for themselves. If they are going to get divorced, they want to do it well. In fact, I had one client who went to a therapist to ask how to do divorce happily. The older therapist scoffed, saying this wasn’t realistic. My client and his spouse refused to believe her and worked toward a healthy, congenial parting.

Older clients, on the other hand, are often unfamiliar with the newer options of mediation and collaborative divorce. Also, when they seek advice from their divorced peers, well-wishing friends frequently advise hiring a good lawyer to avoid being taken to the cleaners. Once I explain the more amicable options to older clients, they are visibly relieved that the process doesn’t have to be as costly or contentious.

Emotional maturity, too, is another generational difference that factors into divorce. Although younger couples value amicable results, they often lack skills for achieving such results. For example, they may not be skillful at keeping strong emotions in check or may lack the wisdom to put issues into proper perspective. With older couples, I often don’t see the fiery blowups of youth.

All generations, clearly, can benefit from a more balanced approach to resolving conflict. The prediction is that collaborative divorce is going to be the standard for the field some day. I believe we are seeing signs of this now in the generational shifts in attitudes toward divorce. Maybe the big change will happen just about the time they start showing happy divorce cartoons for children on TV.