Holder of the Hope
Throughout the life of this column I see how much I, we, have grappled with the questions—what is it that we do? How can we do a good job? How do we even know when we do a good job? Lately, I have been considering a new answer to that question and that is that we can be the holder of the hope for our clients that they will find a way out of their conflict. All of our clients come to us in some sort of distress and look to us for solutions. They believe that we can help them and so do we, don’t we?
Have you ever encountered a problem that you believe is entirely unresolvable and then somehow it is resolved? If you think about such a situation there is always someone or something who believed it could be resolved. Sometimes we find the hope in a person, or a deity or some other spiritual force, or maybe we believe in a lucky pen or astrology. But somewhere in the story of every problem is a believer that there is a resolution. We know this because if there were no hope for a resolution, we would likely not try to solve a problem at all.
Some post-modern psychological theorists have created a whole body of work focused on narrative theory. Narrative theory asserts that the stories we tell ourselves and each other are powerful. In the most simplistic terms possible, the theory asserts that if we tell ourselves a story of failure, we are likely to fail and if we tell ourselves a story of success we are more likely to succeed.1
We as family lawyers hear a lot of stories and tell even more. We explain our version or our client’s version of events to decision-makers, other attorneys, mediators, our clients, and ourselves. We take a position and argue for our perspective. In every conversation we have the ability to turn a story of failure into a story of success and we have the opportunity to define success. We can define success as helping to create a post-separation, binuclear family in which all of the family members thrive. We can also define success in the way our clients might define what they say they want in their most despairing moments: “I get everything, he gets nothing, the children know how awful she is, and he is sorry for the way he treated me.”
We have an incredible opportunity as holders of the hope to help our clients identify and create constructive and positive stories, such as:
There is a peaceful, cost-effective resolution to their conflict and we will find it;
The kids are going to be okay and, in fact, thrive;
Our clients are going to financially and emotionally recover;
Our clients are going to be able to find new, fulfilling, romantic relationships;
Our clients are going to figure out how to co-parent successfully.
To be a holder of the hope, we have to believe it. Do we? Can we, after everything we have seen as family lawyers and adults in the world? This is the thing that it hardest for me because I see myself as not a particularly optimistic person and I have seen a lot of suffering families who do not change. Of course, that is the story that I tell myself which we know from narrative theory can also change. So let me try to apply narrative theory to this belief of mine. It is true, I have seen a lot of families in perpetual conflict; however, I have also seen a lot of families in conflict who were able to find their way out. In creating my narrative, I could focus on the families that have not changed or the families that have been able to change. We have all seen people who seemed to hate each other so much but come to a resolution and make hard decisions for the benefit of the whole family. Many of my clients at some point tell me that they are never going to have another relationship, never mind get married, and the vast majority of time they do recover and send me holiday cards or want a prenuptial agreement. There are also people who actually pay off what they owe to me and people I see years later who tell me about their child being in college and thriving, and even those who have told me my work with them made a positive difference.
I still must insist on holding on to the treasured parts of my cynical self and know that not every family is going to find its way out of destructive conflict, but also I can sincerely believe that it is possible for members of every family to find a way to resolve their conflict and make the lives they want for themselves. I can help them resolve that conflict and I can be the holder of that hope for them, while they are finding their way, until they can hold it for themselves. My hope is that no client with whom I interact misses the opportunity to achieve their goals and write the story that they want for themselves because there was no one to hold the hope.
1 K. Young & S. Cooper, Toward Co-Composing an Evidence Base: The Narrative Therapy Revisiting Project, J. of Systemic Therapies, vol. 27, no. 1, at 67–83 (2008).