Psychology of family practice

Welcome to our new column on the psychology of family practice with therapist, Annmarie Carvalho, former family law solicitor and mediator.

‘The Wounded Healer’

Are there specific qualities and backgrounds that make family practitioners different from other lawyers?

Annmarie Carvalho

Welcome to the first Psychology of Family Practice column! We’re going to be thinking about family practice on a deeper level in this column – about all the fascinating stuff that lies beneath the surface of what we do.

In thinking about what to write about for this first edition, I wanted to take it right back to the start. To why we go into family practice in the first place.

It’s such a marmite practice area. Some people absolutely love it and it’s the only one for them – while others can be seen running off into the distance, screaming “PLEASE, can someone make them stop talking about all these feelings…??!!”

So why is it that some of us gravitate towards family while others run a mile?

I have a theory! (honed by my own years as a family solicitor and mediator and now therapist for family lawyers).

You may have heard people refer to therapists as “wounded healers”. The idea is that those who are attracted into emotive areas of work where they’re responsible for supporting others usually do so because of difficulties they’ve been through in their own life. It is their own wounds (hopefully by that point healed to some degree!) that help them to understand and empathise with the wounds of others.

Can this also be true for those of us who work in family justice? I think so. Many of us have a natural affinity with and interest in psychology and relationships. But, on top of that, many of us have experienced our own difficulties. Whether it’s parental separation/divorce, bereavement, family illnesses, or other disruption, there’s often some pain that’s shaped us. And made us keener to connect with other people. It’s those experiences that increase the empathy that’s so essential for this work. That understanding and compassion.

Who cares wins?

But here’s the rub! The great conundrum. It’s that the caring about your clients can easily tip over into caring too much. Into lying awake at night worrying about the direness of their situation. Into ruminating over the difficulty of finding solutions. Into feelings of guilt and over-responsibility for their situations. Because the complicated emotional dilemmas we deal with don’t have easy, clean solutions. And the justice system and the “solutions” it provides are limited. This is why the out-of-court dispute resolution movement in family law is so crucial. Yes, its most important because it provides clients with more family-focused options. But its also because it provides us, the practitioners, with a way of working that is about giving some of that responsibility back to the clients.

We are family

And finally…

These days I get invited to speak at conferences for lawyers from all sorts of different practice areas (one of the happy side-effects of being a bit of an extrovert!). It always gets me thinking about what’s different about family lawyers. Because there is something different. This area involves skills which are so much broader than the legal. It’s easy to feel like you’re called upon to act like an amateur therapist to your clients. The work involves being a negotiator, peace maker, communications specialist, mediator (with a large or small M), counsellor, coach. And some might say magician – expected to pull a rabbit out of a hat on occasion…

The result of all these different demands, all these hats that we wear? It’s that, as a group, we are a particularly close bunch. There is a lot of socialising. A thriving community. Often with a good dollop of gallows humour.

It’s the emotional difficulties of the work that necessitate that mutual support. But they’re also what makes it particularly toxic when you’re dealing with difficult fellow practitioners. So we need each other. And we need the ongoing focus on wellbeing. And to understand our own psychology and that of those we work with. Because, through that, lies the ability to practice in a way that is sustainable long-term. So long may this cross-pollination of family law and psychology continue!

Annmarie Carvalho is a therapist and former family solicitor and mediator at The Carvalho Consultancy –