By far one of the angriest clients I have ever worked with was a Middle Eastern-born physician preparing to testify multiple times in his divorce proceeding. He was frustrated that his marriage was ending, that custody of the children could be disputed, and that his wife had used the allegation of spousal abuse as a litigation tool. The abuse allegation meant that my client faced a hearing on a restraining order as his first judicial appearance instead of a mediation.
Every aspect of US-style divorce went against this man’s nature, cultural and religious upbringing, and sense of fairness. His reaction to the divorce proceedings: blinding rage. Before we could start a witness preparation session he cried about the unjust process. He ranted that his wife was an evil liar. He poured out all of his most recent research into her devious acts to destroy him. And he was frightened: by his growing isolation from his children and the threat of criminal charges.
We worried that if he appeared uncontrollable, venomous and seemingly dangerous when he testified, that his demeanor would affirm his wife’s spousal abuse claim. We had to find a way to control or resolve his anger.
Often, I take the client back to the critical moment of the disputed event and re-trace the steps leading up to it, helping to show the client that s/he was in fact doing everything right, in some way. But here, going back to the decline of his marriage just evoked the negative feelings all over again. We had to be able to articulate the demise of his marriage, but we couldn’t approach this prep in a straight forward way.
So we changed the perspective by focusing him on the future and the distant past and forcing him to look at the only positive things in the case for him: his children. We assigned him lots of homework. For each visit, we asked him to write extensive narratives on persons or times in his life and career with a positive point of view.
The first narrative assignment was about his children: what they were like, what their character strengths are, what they were good at in school, what brought them joy, and his future with them without the distraction of a terrible marriage. We asked him to write a page about how he saw his children’s future: study, sports, relationships, colleges, life styles. At our sessions, he would read them aloud and then we would talk about where he had put himself in their story, where he was absent, how he would change the future.
The second narrative we asked him to write was about his professional life – why he became a doctor, why that specialty, what he is most proud of, what his colleagues say about him.
The third narrative was his life story up and to the point of getting married. The story was to include why and how he fell in love with his future wife and all the qualities he admired at the time. Nothing more.
Finally, he wrote a list of his positive attributes – from many perspectives: what his colleagues would say, his own family, and his children, his friends, etc. Every session, he would come in steaming, and we would allow him to share his agony. We would write down his issues in a list and tackle them one by one. Then we would go on to his homework, have him read it aloud, and we would talk about it — verifying and affirming who he is and how he really wants others to see him. This would get us to the point where we could begin to address the hard issues of the day with a balanced emotionality, a sense that he was heard, and a more positive energy so he could listen and learn.
The result was that eventually we were able to talk about the spousal abuse claim in a constructive way, and, in fact, find a framework for the events that made the wife’s claim as false and transparent as her divorce tactics had become. With this narrative in place, our poor, suffering, hot-headed client became a constructive partner in his own divorce and a balanced witness at his custody hearing.