I am an avid reader and recently read a book by Dr. Donna Hicks, an internationally renowned authority on dignity. The concept of it’s not what’s on the table, but what’s under the table that matters really resonated with me personally and professionally as I help clients resolve family legal matters outside of court.
In her book, Dignity: The Essential Role it Plays in Resolving Conflict, Dr. Donna Hicks wrote the following:
“As a psychologist, I naturally gravitated toward the unspoken conversations that were taking place at the negotiation table, – or perhaps under the table. There was always an emotional undercurrent that paralleled the discussions of the political issues, a force so powerful that it could derail productive problem-solving in a fraction of a second.”
The Division of Personal Property in Divorce
This concept of what’s on the table and what’s under the table, made me think about disputes about personal property. Whether acting as settlement counsel, a collaborative lawyer, or a mediator, invariably the issue of division of personal property rears its ugly head. Parties argue about items of personal property, often items that clearly have no monetary value – so why the dispute? What is the meaning of an old piece of furniture, a picture on the wall, gifts given to the couple that they now want but can’t both have? It is symbolic of something else. Parties in divorce or other family law conflicts have suffered many indignities. They may feel they have lost home, family, the promises made at the time of marriage, and the future they imagined together. It can be difficult to express these feelings, and parties may seek acknowledgement or apology even in the form of personal property.
I recently had my own experience that shed some light on what is under the table. My lease was expiring during the pandemic, so I decided to take the opportunity to make some changes, including finding new office space. In that process, I had to dispose of some of my furniture.
My Table: Near and Dear to My Heart
I was able to donate to friends or non-profits a number of items, but I had a conference room table that was near and dear to my heart. I had purchased it used when I first started my private practice as a young lawyer, and it had been with me ever since. It was a simple and not fancy wooden conference room table. It has seen different office environments; had many lawyers, clients, even children sitting around it; had innumerable tissue boxes placed on it to soothe the pain that poured out of people in tears going through divorce and other family law conflicts; it was used as a workspace for myself and staff, for office meetings where we shared life events like birthdays and holiday parties or where I met with colleagues for lunch or just to shoot the breeze before or after a professional meeting. It had a life and a history for me beyond just being a conference room table – just as for our clients dividing personal property or other assets can have meanings that are not related to the “business” of divorce.
Above and Below the Table
Above the table are the law and the practical considerations regarding divorce; below the table are all the emotions. Lawyers whether in the role of settlement counsel, collaborative law attorney, or mediator, must always try to see beneath the table and understand and acknowledge what clients are holding – and work with clients to determine how much of that holding is good to keep, or to let go.
The Power of Letting Go
So, what happened to my conference room table? I thought about taking it home to see if I had any “use” for it, or bringing it to my new office, but there really wasn’t any place for it. I had trouble giving it up, but ultimately, I let it go. I realized that I could leave the table itself behind, that moving forward meant all those feelings beneath the table were still there but no longer had to be attached to something tangible.
My conference room table now has a good home with another attorney. When she came to pick it up, I told her how attached I had gotten to that table and why, and how I really wanted to keep it but that I was glad it was going to continue to be used in another law office and was getting a new home. My conference room table will always hold above and below its surface, old and new stories, new beginnings and letting go. The other attorney then told me I was always welcome to have coffee with her and “visit” my table! So, I let it go, but got something in return that was just as valuable, a new friend and colleague. In divorce, when dividing personal property, sometimes letting go can be a powerful settlement tool and one worth considering.