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Divorce: The Stereotyping of Men and Women

Getting past stereotypes in a divorce

The following is a guest blog by our esteemed colleague Rita Pollak. She is a collaborative family law attorney, and is very active in the divorce community. Rita has been a leader in combining both the legal and the emotional components of divorce. Her approach should be required reading for professonals and the lay public alike.


I recently read a poem describing men as using action’ words and women, using feeling’ words. Men were responsible for ‘doing’ and women spent time ‘caring for…’ children, mostly.

The narrator laments the separation of ‘acting’ and ‘feeling’ into gender specific roles.

When working with separation and divorce, I now wonder if we, as professionals, unwittingly assign such descriptors to our clients, and then reinforce those stereotypes not only by the kinds of questions we ask, but also by the way we ask them.

Do we tend to ask men first about their work and career, about money, debts and assets, their responsibilities around the house and then ask about their relationships with their children?

Couldn’t we start by asking men how they feel about the divorce, what it means to them, and keep them on that topic for a little while so they become more comfortable sharing their feelings with us. It’s probably a good idea, whether you’re a traditional attorney, collaborative attorney, mediator, coach, or even a financial professional.

Do we ask women about the children, right off the bat, then about school, activities, and other family relationships? Do we then get around to inquiring about work and career, money, assets and debts, and responsibilities around the house?

If some women seem uninformed about money matters, do we skim over that topic, or could we stay on that subject and dig deeper for what they do know? So many women have been running the household for years and don’t connect that skill with being money managers.

Can we ask a more consistent set of questions to both men and women so that they both respond to questions about money, career, future financial planning? Can we ask both women and men to talk about what getting divorced means to them and help them linger, even in some uncomfortable places?

For example, if the father were my client, I might say,

  • I know there is a great deal that you want to tell me and I promise that we will get to it all. I want to know about everything that is important to you, so can you tell me, how did you get to this place in your marriage where you are now speaking with a divorce lawyer?

And as the man answers, I would try to keep him on the topic of the divorce itself, how he feels about it, and what it means to him in the context of his family situation. I might ask what he’s noticed about the reactions of each of the children.

If my client struggled, I would help by asking shorter and more pointed questions, such as,

  • How was the decision to divorce made? Did you initiate it? Did your wife? Do you feel like you had an equal say in how you would proceed? Is this how other important decisions in your marriage have been made?

If the mother happens to be my client, I would begin in a very similar way, assuring her that I am very interested in the children, her relationship to them and everything about how this divorce might be affecting them, and yet, I want to know how she feels about the divorce and how it's impacting her.

I will also, rather early on in the attorney-client relationship, start asking the woman about financial matters, to assess her experience and her comfort level with money. If she minimizes her knowledge of finances, I would have a series of short, specific follow-up questions, like,

  • Who pays the household bills? Do you pay them on-line? Who shops for the family’s clothing, equipment etc. Who arranges the family vacation?

Many women and men strive for a more equal sharing of work and family responsibilities. Nevertheless, in our culture, it is still very common for couples to fall into more traditional roles, with regard to ‘doing’ and ‘feeling.’

At the time of a divorce, strong feelings often arise about some men needing to learn about the fuller range of parenting and family-related activities, while some women need to step up to a more mature understanding of budgeting, investing, retirement planning, etc.

Can we, as part of a collaborative process, mediation or even a more traditional representation, encourage our clients, and even ourselves, to think about integrating the feelings and the doings into the kind of shared experience that will benefit the children, as well as the parents?

If we are very mindful about the order and kinds of questions we pose, we may be able to interrupt the habitual thinking that contributes to continuing traditional stereotyping of roles.

We can be transparent if a client pushes back by explaining we are encouraging them, and ourselves to look at a fuller range of expression of ‘feelings,’ and ‘doing.’

The poem I read ends with the men and women creating, together, a shared vision for the future.

Despite the tumultuous nature of divorce, many parents eventually come together and cooperate in raising healthy children. If we professionals do our job, I believe that this outcome becomes more likely.

Rita S. Pollak
Partner PollakHeenan Collaborative Law Trainings
Leadership Council Center for Community Dialogue


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