The following article contains advice that is general in nature and does not constitute legal advice.
Here at the Canberra Gals Network, we are passionate about ensuring women and gender-diverse people have the tools they need to succeed at any stage of their life, even the stages we don’t always plan for. We sat down with Pepe Kish, Director and Co-Founder of Balance Family Law, to discuss the importance of divorce education, some myths about separation, and the general importance of conflict management in all your relationships.
With over 10 years experience, Pepe’s legal career began in the Children’s Court and Child Protection. Today, she’s transferred her early career learning to occupy the intersection between legal and human solutions and her passion is around changing the conversation around separation and divorce. Pepe is also a mother, Chair and co-founder of The Kind Lawyers movement, and a passionate environmentalist and animal lover who volunteers at local sanctuaries and community organisations.
Balance Family Law is a Canberra-based practice established in 2019 that is working to both humanise and simplify legal consultation. As part of their vision to make family law more accessible, they offer services that allow “separating couples to swiftly and affordably resolve their family law matters, with as much (or as little) help from us as they need”.
Shifting the Conversation Around Divorce
“Let’s come over to the same side, and recognise that the relationship as a separated couple isn’t actually over, it’s just changing.”
Divorce can be a difficult topic to broach because it simply isn’t something that people plan for. “But that’s what makes it so important,” says Pepe. “The statistics tell us that divorce will be inevitable for some couples, so it’s important for people to be able to educate themselves about divorce and separation before it is something you or someone close to you goes through. We need to normalise having these conversations.”
Unlike other traumatic life events like death, people who are separating are often not cloaked in family and friend support. In fact, it’s often the opposite: people who are separating often feel as though they lose half their support networks. “They might receive support from some people, they might receive criticism or be frozen out by others” says Pepe. “For people who’ve been in a relationship for quite a long time, they have shared friends. When they leave their partner, they can lose half their friendship group; they lose a lot”. That’s why it is so critical to have an understanding of what a separation can look like before you go through one.
If you don’t know what to expect before you or someone you know is separating, “you’re already having to manage very difficult and stressful feelings. There’s fear, there’s uncertainty, your life has been turned on its head”. That’s why Pepe emphasises exploring these topics before they happen, so that the good seeds about separation and divorce, are planted early on. Divorce doesn’t have to be ugly. There are kind, dignified and peaceful ways to transition from a relationship to separation. If you know about these options before you or someone in your life is separating, those good seeds have already been planted, and you have a better chance of calmly navigating the situation.
Debunking Popular Divorce Myths
Myth #1 – Property is divided “50/50”
One of the most popular myths surrounding divorce is the notion that couples should always walk away with a 50/50 split of assets. On the surface, it seems fair that each person receives an equal share. However, this usually isn’t the case. “Imagine that a separating husband and wife are about to run a race,” explains Pepe. “In the race, they have to run the same distance. You may assume they both have a fair and equal chance of winning the race, but when people are separating, the situation is typically unequal.”
If, for example, the wife has taken time out of work to care for children, she has paused her career and income earnings. Let’s liken this to her carrying a heavy backpack to run the race. Since the husband had the opportunity to continue his career progression, he has less financial risk. For this reason, we’ll equip him with a pair of elite running sneakers. “And then you can liken that to various other things happening, like him having more super or her having ongoing care responsibilities”. And then she ends up with more weight because she has more barriers and more to lose, and he has a clear advantage because he is in a better financial position. In this analogy, you can clearly see that the couple does not have equal footing, which begs the question: how fair is 50/50?
Myth #2 – Taking sides is helpful when offering support to a friend who is separating.
As a society, we tend to assign blame in order to make sense of a situation. Divorce is still stigmatised as a failure by the couple or by an individual in the couple. But for many couples, divorce and separation are inevitable life events. When someone in your inner circle goes through separation, your first instinct may be to take their side. Whilst this sentiment usually comes from a kind place, this is often more harmful than helpful. Any assignment of blame to the other party may create an “us versus them” mentality and make the journey more difficult for a separating couple.
“All of us have the responsibility collectively as a community to not encourage a victim mindset”, says Pepe, because encouraging the assignment of blame can actually “disempower an individual, because the separation becomes about the other person harming them.” She says that this leads to a “sense of entitlement that they are owed, which just sets the scene for ongoing conflict”. In an ideal scenario, people who go through divorce feel empowered to undergo the journey with their partner, rather than fighting against their partner because they have been wronged.
Myth #3 – All family law disputes go to court.
Aside from the plethora of other options such as mediation or collaborative law, Pepe suggests that there is a more systemic root to this myth. For many lawyers, “their comfort zone is taking steps on the basis that we could go to court”, and by framing that as “potentially the end goal, lawyers are creating a pathway, maybe even subconsciously, in that direction”. Since these lawyers have come to see family law as “a very adversarial system”, typically, a peaceful and collaborative separation doesn’t occur. “But at Balance Family Law we’re saying ‘okay, rather than fighting each other, let’s fight the problem’. Let’s come over to the same side, and recognise that our relationship as a separated couple isn’t actually over, it’s just changing”.
Instead of preparing for court proceedings, a lawyer’s role should be to provide a couple with as much or as little support as the individual couple requires to amicably prepare their agreement. Lawyers should never profess to take their client’s problems, but rather offer support, advice and work alongside their clients, to problem solve and devise solutions together. It is important for those who are separating to remain accountable at all times.
When we diverge from the myths about divorce and separation, we can more clearly manage conflict to come to the best solutions.
Applying Principles of Conflict Management to Your Relationships
1. Conceptualise collaboration
At Balance Family Law, Pepe focuses on creating what she calls a “team-based approach to problem solving”. Separation can be collaborative. Once couples understand this, the problems they face become much easier to solve.
Balance Family Law aims to help couples work together and bring in other professionals such as financial planners or counsellors, to work together in a team based, collaborative way.
2. Keep an open mind when navigating conflict
Conflict resolution is all about taking time to reflect on how your actions will impact future outcomes. By pairing this reflection with strong communication skills, you can set your relationships up for success.
“What I think causes conflict is that if issues can’t be openly discussed, they manifest as problems elsewhere” says Pepe “And so often, when I meet people who are separated and divorcing, their conflict is because something has been repressed for a really long time, and they haven’t been able to articulate it.”
Conflict is cyclical, and our actions and words can perpetuate cycles of conflict. Rather than looking for a problem, look for solutions. The way to adopt a more forward-thinking mindset is to communicate your needs with your partner as clearly and as early as possible. After all, “Life is an ecosystem,” says Pepe “and we need to find our place and what works for us but also consider the needs and interests of others. And then when that happens – it’s not always going to be easy, but it will be easier.”