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“My Relationship was Short – Will my Ex Get Half my House?”

Last week, I wrote about Sean the whirlwind. His marriage to Amanda had lasted 18 months and he wanted an annulment. He was also concerned that Amanda may bring a relationship property claim to half the home he owned before their marriage and that they had both lived in together.

Sean is not alone in having his marriage or de facto relationship falter in the early stages.

Marianne thought that her de facto relationship with Hugh was “for life”. When they decided to move in together 2 years ago, with talk of marriage being on the cards, it made sense that they lived in Marianne’s home rather than in Hugh’s small rental. She imagined that an engagement ring would likely be presented to her at her next birthday and was devastated when, instead, Hugh ended the relationship and told her he was entitled to half her home.

Sean and Marianne were understandably concerned about what relationship property claims their exes may have. Each were adamant their exes should be entitled to nothing of what they had worked hard to acquire before their short lived relationships.

The Property (Relationships) Act 1976 is the law that sets out how property should be divided between a couple after they separate. This law applies to couples who are married, in a civil union or de facto relationship. Most people know about the presumptions of “equal sharing” of relationship property under the Act.

Less people are aware that, with a few exceptions, the situation is different when a relationship or marriage is one “of short duration”

A marriage of short duration is defined under the Act as one of less than three years. You could see Sean’s relief when I explained to him that because his marriage to Amanda was less than three years, their family home isn’t automatically divided equally. Because their marriage was less than three years and Sean had owned their family home prior to the marriage, the presumption that the family home be equally shared did not apply.

This didn’t mean Amanda had no claim to the home. Her and Sean’s shares in the family home are to be decided with reference to their respective contributions to the marriage. Contributions to the marriage aren’t merely financial but also include non-financial contributions. For Sean, this meant that when he and Amanda negotiated their property split, they had to take into account not only the contributions she made of her income but also her time spent improving the gardens and attending to domestic chores and errands.

You may now be thinking that Sean’s situation would also apply to Marianne’s situation but it doesn’t.

Although the Act applies to couples in a de facto relationship, there is a difference between how the Act applies to marriages of short durations and de facto relationships of short duration.

It was probably fortunate for Marianne that she never got her wedding to Hugh. Because her relationship with Hugh was a de facto relationship that lasted less than three years, no orders can be made under the Act. This essentially leaves Hugh out in the cold in respect to the family home and certainly far from having the half share in the home that he claimed he was entitled to.

However, there is an exception to this that Hugh could call upon. If Hugh can show he had made a substantial contribution to the de facto relationship (financial or non financial or both) and that the failure to make an order would result in a serious injustice, he could bring a claim. However, successfully proving this wouldn’t automatically entitle him to half the home. Instead, as with Sean’s situation, Marianne and Hugh’s shares would be decided based on their contributions to the de facto relationship.

In talking with Marianne about their respective contributions it became clear that Hugh didn’t have any real claim because, aside from contributing to the power and grocery bills and splitting the bill for social activities together, he had kept the rest of his income for his own use. Marianne had carried on meeting the mortgage, rates and insurances. It also appeared that their non financial contributions were relatively equal.

Marianne decided she didn’t have to do anything further. Sean was relieved that Amanda wouldn’t be entitled to half the home and he was comfortable about her being recompensed for her contributions so set about negotiating this with her. Although they had different outcomes, both Sean and Marianne realised that in any future relationships or marriages, a Contracting Out Agreement would be in order.

Got a relationship property issue you want clarity on? Give us a call at Family Law Results on (09) 297 2010 or email us at lawyers@familylawresults.co.nz

My Marriage was Short. Can I get an annulment?

Sean was a whirlwind. When he rang to arrange his appointment, he sounded like he needed to be somewhere else in a hurry. When he came in for his consultation, he tipped over his coffee in his rush, spoke in a rapid fire stream and was about to dash across town to another meeting. It seems this was a pattern for Sean because when he sat down with me, he told me (quickly!) how he and his wife Amanda had fallen head over heels and were married just 4 months later. Unfortunately, the whirlwind continued and they separated 18 months later.

It shouldn’t surprise you that Sean hoped the brevity of his marriage meant he and Amanda could get divorced quickly. Unfortunately, in New Zealand, the 2 year separation rule before applying for a dissolution applies no matter how long the marriage lasted.

“What about an annulment?” Sean asked, “The marriage barely existed!”.

Surprisingly often, I get calls from people wanting to see if they can get their marriage declared void by the Family Court. However, I haven’t yet met a person who can fulfil the legal requirements to be met in order to get an application for such a declaration off the ground.

Having your marriage declared void means the marriage is treated as never having legally occurred. Unlike a dissolution application (divorce), there is no requirement to be living apart for 2 years before the application may be made. However, here’s the catch,  the Court can only make a declaration that a marriage or civil union was void in very limited and unique circumstances. Those circumstances include:

  • One or both of the parties to the marriage or civil union was under the age of 16 years or was 16 or 17 years old but the consent of the Family Court had not been obtained to the marriage or union.
  • One of the parties was already legally married or in a civil union.  
  • The parties shared a familial relationship that prohibits them from marrying or entering a civil union.
  • A party was under duress to marry, was insane, operating under a mistake or there was an absence of consent to the marriage or civil union with the other party. It was this latter ground that led one participant in Married at First Sight New Zealand to unsuccessfully ask the Court to declare his marriage void.
  • The legal formalities for a marriage or civil union were not completed because the parties knowingly and willingly married or entered the union without a licence or without a celebrant or Registrar.

For Sean, none of these grounds applied, meaning he had to rush off to his next meeting knowing that the period of time he had to wait to have his marriage dissolved was actually going to be longer than his marriage to Amanda actually lasted.

Got a question about your dissolution, separation or marriage? Give us, your family law experts, a call on (09) 297 2010 or drop us a line to lawyers@familylawresults.co.nz.

What is in a date?

Robert and Megan are using the Collaborative Process to work through the legal and financial issues arising out of their decision to end their marriage to one another. Before starting the process, their separation had been a “slow burn”, gradually having less of a marital relationship and more of one akin to being “flat mates”. In March, they finally decided their marriage was at an end but have carried on sharing their home and their finances until they reach final agreements in their collaborative process.

Jessica and Mitch had been living together in Rarotonga where Mitch had employment.  Three years ago, Jessica and the children would return to New Zealand so the children could attend school there and Jessica could return to working in her career which she hadn’t been able to pursue in Rarotonga. Initially, they would all travel back and forth between the two countries to spend time with one another. Gradually, Jessica and Mitch began making these trips less and less, just sending the children to spend time with Mitch until they realised their marriage was effectively over. They carried on sharing finances, however, until they could sort their property issues out at mediation.

Janine and Rochelle had been growing apart for a long time and Rochelle told me their civil union was over years ago even though they never made any decision to separate and “kept up appearances” for the sake of their children. Rochelle kept working and paying for all their expenses then learned a couple of weeks ago that Janine had commenced a new relationship. Rochelle moved out straight away and now wants to go to Court to immediately get a divorce and sever her civil union with Janine.

These couples all have one issue in common –  the problem of ascertaining when their separation date was. In some cases, this will be very clear cut, usually signified by one person moving out of the shared family home. For these couples, however, it is far less so. As couples face increasing challenges around housing affordability, the incidence of couples choosing to remain living in the family home for a period after separation is becoming increasingly common. Furthermore, some separations aren’t sudden events but rather slowly and organically unfold over time.

Why is deciding upon your separation date even important? A separation date is important for two reasons.

Firstly, in New Zealand, you can only submit to the Court an application for a dissolution of your marriage or civil union (your divorce) once you have been “living apart” for 2 years.

There is no other way around this. In your application for a dissolution, you will be asked when you made an oral or written agreement to separate. An agreement to separate, whether in writing or made orally, that has been in force for 2 years prior to the application being made may be treated by the Court as evidence that you having been living apart for the required two years.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that you must actually be living in separate residences to be living apart. However, the term is used in respect to living apart as a married or civil unioned couple.

You could still be separated and “living apart” if you have decided you are no longer living together in your marriage or civil union but, like Robert and Megan, still choose to reside under the same roof, effectively as housemates or flatmates.

The second reason for why your separation date is important has to do with the division of your relationship property and finances. The separation date may be important to your relationship property division in some or all of the following ways:

  • When your pool of relationship property to be divided is calculated, the value of some of your assets and liabilities will be taken at your separation date. Such assets include your Kiwisaver or superannuation schemes, your bank accounts and any loans or debts.
  • If, after the separation date, a party makes contributions to the repayment of relationship debts or the sustenance or improvement of a relationship asset, this could give rise to a claim by that party to be compensated for that post-separation contribution.  For example, if Mitch pays off a relationship credit card debt after separation, he can claim to be recompensed for Jessica’s share of this debt as part of the overall property division.
  • Claims for ‘occupation rent’ may start from the separation date where one person has had the benefit of occupying the family home while the other has had to pay for alternative accommodation.
  • Financial liabilities by one party to the other for maintenance and child support arise on separation. However, if you need to apply to IRD for Child Support, you need to be aware that IRD won’t back-date the child support to the date of separation and will only assess it from the date of it receiving an application. Sometimes, there will be some “crossover” between financial liability and post separation contributions. For example, if Robert wishes to claim from Megan his contributions of his income made to meet her expenses after separation, this may be offset or mitigated by any liability he has to maintain her after separation.

Trying to settle on an exact date where there was a meeting of the minds about separating can feel like an impossible task. Many couples settle for a pragmatic, sensible solution. For Rochelle, that meant deciding she could wait to apply for her dissolution rather than face the cost of a potentially costly legal argument about when she and Janine were separated. For Robert and Megan, they agreed on a separation date and that they would jointly apply for a dissolution 2 years from that date. However, for practical reasons, they agreed the separation of their finances including bank accounts, Kiwisavers and debts would be all be taken as the date of settlement of all their property matters given they continued to share finances until that time.  

If you would like more advice about your separation, contact Family Law Results pm (09) 297 2010 or at lawyers@familylawresults.co.nz.

Untying the Knot

I received a distraught phone call recently from Ramona. It was Wednesday and she was due to get married on Saturday. The one hitch to her getting hitched? Her husband-to-be, Ian, was still married to his ex and hadn’t got around to getting a divorce. “Can an urgent divorce be done?” pleaded Ramona, “What about the caterer?!”.

Getting a divorce is relatively straightforward in New Zealand and you don’t need a lawyer. However, there are some things you need to be aware of.

The legal term for a divorce is a “dissolution”. To bring your legal marriage or civil union to an end, you need to obtain a dissolution order from the Family Court. The dissolution only brings your marriage or civil union to a legal end so that you are each free to remarry. The dissolution does not resolve issues to do with your children or your property.

While it is a relatively simple process, you don’t want to put the process off. It can take some time to get all the paperwork together and to be considered by the Court. If there are Court backlogs, this can make things slower. Furthermore, once the Court decides it is appropriate to make an order, the order usually won’t come into effect until one month after the order is made. You will be legally married until then.

However, you can’t jump on ahead too soon – you can only apply for a dissolution order if you have been separated for 2 years.

You don’t need to have been living apart in order to be separated. Some of our clients decide to end their marriage but keep living in the same house until they sort out their finances. Once you have been separated for at least two years, it will be very difficult for the dissolution application to be defended.

You can get the application forms for a dissolution order from the Ministry of Justice. You will need your original marriage or civil union certificate or a certified copy of it. If you have one, you should also attach a copy of your separation agreement.  When you take your application to the Court, you will need to pay a filing fee of $211.50.

The simplest way to apply is jointly – you both make the application. If you both agree to the dissolution order being made, you can indicate on the application that you don’t require a court hearing. If you do this, you won’t have to appear before a Judge – a Registrar will consider the application and you won’t need to be present. However, if things are urgent and you need an order made in time for one of you to remarry, you can indicate you both agree and ask for a hearing before a Judge. You will both need to go to the hearing to confirm your agreement to the order and the Judge can make an order that immediately takes effect. However, bear in mind there can be delays in getting a hearing before a Judge!

If you cannot make a joint application, you will need to make the application yourself and then have the application given to the other person. You will need to arrange someone to serve the application personally on the other person. Sometimes, you can pay a private investigator or process server to do this. The person who completes service (gives the application to the other person) will have to provide an affidavit to the Court to confirm that service took place. If the other person is difficult to locate, you will have to ask the Court for special directions that let you serve the other person in some other way, such as by email, advertisement or through another person.

While the process is simple, it did little to help Ramona with her wedding coming up in a few days. All was not lost, the caterers were not cancelled and a ceremony was not held but they had to go through another marriage ceremony to be legally married after Ian’s dissolution finally came through.

Can you rely on a Contracting Out Agreement?

Twelve years ago, Terry spent considerable time and money getting a Contracting Out agreement (pre nuptial agreement) completed with his partner, Monique. Not only did it cost him several thousand in legal costs, it was also pretty stressful as Monique didn’t really want to sign it. Now, he feels it was all worth it because he and Monique have just separated and he is relieved that he insisted on protecting his assets, including the home, with that agreement.

Terry came to his first appointment with us clutching his Contracting Out Agreement and feeling confident that while Monique may have decided to leave their marriage, she wouldn’t be doing so with half his hard earned assets. His confidence was to be shortlived.

On speaking with Terry, we learned that in the twelve years since they signed their agreement, a lot of changes had occurred for Monique and Terry. Terry had had a period whereby he hadn’t been in work and Monique had supported him financially, paying all the expenses on the home. They had bought and sold the original home Terry owned along with a number of the other assets they had brought into the relationship and included in the agreement. A couple of years after signing the agreement, they had married and three children quickly followed. On the birth of their first child, Monique gave up her paid employment and become a full time mother. Among other things, the agreement says that Monique has no claim to the home and no claims for economic disparity compensation. At no time, did they review the agreement. Terry told us he hadn’t wanted to spend any more money on it.

We had to tell Terry that there is a high risk his agreement will be challenged by Monique and, if she is successful, the Court would set it aside. If that happens, their property will be divided according to the Property (relationships) Act 1976 and Monique would receive at least a half share of the property that he had tried to protect from a relationship property claim. Terry acknowledged that, in avoiding the cost of reviewing his agreement, he had potentially cost himself a lot more.

Regularly reviewing your Contracting Out Agreement helps to ensure it reflects any changes in your financial or personal circumstances. Like your will, your Contracting Out Agreement needs to be regularly reviewed to ensure it reflects your wishes. While you may not think there have been any changes in your circumstances that make a review necessary, relationship property law and how it is applied by the Courts is constantly evolving. Reviewing your agreement will ensure that it reflects changes in the law and remains current.

If your agreement is not regularly reviewed and you and your partner separate (or one of you dies), you run the risk that the agreement is of no use because it doesn’t reflect your financial circumstances at that time or any changes that occurred throughout your relationship. Furthermore, you run the risk that a Court may decide that the Agreement has become unjust and therefore shouldn’t be of effect thus undoing all your effort and cost of putting the Agreement in place.

We tell our clients to think of their Contracting Out Agreement as similar to the insurance policy they have for their home. You don’t pay one insurance premium and expect it to protect you from the loss of your home forever after. Instead, you regularly pay to maintain your insurance and regularly check that your insurance policy meets your needs and circumstances. Statistically, there is more likelihood of experiencing a separation than your home burning down or being struck by an act of God yet most people are like Terry and don’t pay as much diligence to putting in place a sound Contracting Out Agreement and regularly reviewing it. Don’t be like Terry.

If you would like to discuss protecting yourself from relationship property claims or having your existing arrangements reviewed , call the team at Family Law Results on (09) 297 2010.

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Less Acrimony and Delays – solving the problems of the Family Justice System

When they separated, Tane and Imelda could agree on two things – they did not want to end up in Family Court and they did not want their separation to become a battle ground that their children had to survive. They didn’t want their children to look back on this time as one full of endless arguments. They had seen friends and family members who, while not ending up in Court, still battled out their own separations armed with lawyers sending letters back and forth. This appeared to cost a lot, financially and emotionally.

Tane and Imelda wanted a cost effective process that left them with the ability to share their children’s birthdays without stress. In effect, they wanted the “Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow divorce” – one characterised by dignity and goodwill rather than inflamed animosity.

Like Tane and Imelda, many New Zealand couples facing separation may not realise that a resolution process exists that aims to keep them away from the usual horror stories associated with divorce. Using Collaborative Practice, specially trained lawyers and other professionals provide partners with a safe and dignified environment that is geared towards reducing conflict, focussing on children’s welfare and ensuring sound decisions and solutions are found.

During the process there are no lawyers’ letters. Rather, everyone sits down and works together to find solutions that reflect what is important to each party. Agreements reached are legally enforceable but are often more creative and customised to the family’s needs than court orders or agreements reached through more traditional methods of negotiating between a couple’s lawyers. Many clients, on hearing about the process, describe it as simply “common sense”.

On Monday, the final report of the Independent Panel reviewing the 2014 Family Justice System changes was released. When the 2014 Family Justice System changes were made, Collaborative lawyers were concerned at the narrow emphasis placed on mediation. The Panel has highlighted that this narrow focus on mediation is inconsistent with the original policy intent that family dispute resolution be a flexible concept that draws on a range of dispute resolution models to help families reach agreement. My view is that FDR must include a range of more flexible processes than mediation alone.

Access to justice should mean each whanau has access to the appropriate dispute resolution process that best suits that whanau’s needs. For many, this will be Collaborative Practice which enables families to access legal advice and any necessary wrap around professional services in one complete, cohesive process.

Unfortunately, access to Collaborative Practice is not provided for within the current Family Legal Advice Service or Legal Aid system. Those who qualify for Legal Aid are not given the same range of resolution options afforded to the rest of the community and they are left with no choice but to use processes that may not be the best for them, their whanau and their circumstances. They are denied the support and encouragement to self determine their current and future family disputes that Collaborative Practice offers.

The Panel’s report highlights considerable issues within the present Family Justice System including pervasive delays, confusion and limitations around access to legal advice, inflexible and fragmented services, and a need for targeted counselling and culturally responsive services. In one cohesive process, Collaborative Practice addresses these issues and provides couples like Tane and Imelda with the opportunity to move themselves and their children through separation without pitting them against one another. At FLR, we hope the Government will recognise Collaborative Practice when considering changes to the Family Justice System and include it within the menu of choices for families.

If you’d like to explore whether Collaborative Practice may be right for you and your family, feel free to contact us on (09) 282 3574 or at lawyers@familylawresults.co.nz. We’d love to talk with you.

Ten years of The Family Lawyer!

Ten years! Hard to believe but this blog has been quietly ticking along for ten years. Phew – where did those ten years go?

At Family Law Results, this week we’ve been celebrating by sharing our favourite blogs over on our Facebook page.

Lauren Aspin, stella-solicitor at FLR, picked her favourite – the op-ed article from the NZ Herald that I wrote in the wake of ‘those’ pictures of Nigella Lawson and her husband, Charles Saatchi. Here’s why she chose it:

“The Blog I have chosen is the article about family violence and Nigella Lawson.

Why?

This blog post resonates with me on many levels.

Firstly the way that the violent incident between Nigella Lawson and Saatchi confronts our assumptions about who the victims of family violence can be.

Some of the most professionally intelligent, successful and savvy women I have known have been known to be emotionally stupid in their relationships and personal choices”.

The fact that domestic violence can happen to anyone  stands out as this is a conversation I have had with clients, and my own friends and family. None of us is immune – we can all make poor decisions or allow behaviours to happen that are not ok and which, in hindsight, can seem unbelievable. It comes down to conversations I have had with friends, often female friends, speaking to them about challenging behaviours from their partner that are not ok nor respectful, and opening their eyes that sometimes these little things can mount up.

I also think it resonates as it can be easy to victim blame, but I always try to remind my clients that the behaviour is the issue of the perpetrator not them, and that they are not alone. Many people, from all walks of life find themselves in relationships marred by family violence. We just don’t talk about it – that’s why no one knows. Or we have campaigns that say “It’s not Ok” but “It’s” and how it looks is not discussed

I think the post also speaks to  wider issues we have in New Zealand Society and the reticence of people to intervene when they see violent, racists, xenophobic,  homophobic, sexist or sexually inappropriate behaviour etc happening. This issue is so prevalent throughout New Zealand, we think it’s not our problem, and leave people or avert our eyes, or don’t challenge people. This morning, I was listening on the Radio about bullying in schools being such a huge issue, and how this is symptomatic of these wider issues of NZ society.  This has been a huge talking point of late, in the wake of the Christchurch Terror Attacks, and I think we all need to do some soul searching and be brave to stand up to people, and know that it is the right thing to do to speak up, speak out and challenge anti-social behaviours.”

Keeping the Temperature on Conflict Down

Samantha was angry. I knew this not just because she said it. I could see it exuding from her in the way she sat – jaw clenched, tears welling – to the way she spat the words out when she spoke of her ex, Jeff.

 

Jeff had decided to end their 14 year marriage and she was in emotional freefall, feeling completely blindsided and betrayed. And grieving.

This was the first time I had met Samantha. As we spoke, alarm bells were ringing for me, warning me that trying to resolve the range of issues bourne out of Samantha and Jeff’s separation could very easily turn nuclear.

Family law issues are not clean-cut, clinical, technical issues to resolve. They come with the full range of human emotions. Very often, they come with high drama. Most of the time, there is lots of grieving happening which can be manifested in anger and bad behaviour.

More often than not, one person has made the decision to separate some time ago and as such, has already travelled well along the emotional rollercoaster that comes with that decision. Meanwhile, their partner is playing emotional catchup, travelling on a later departing rollercoaster.

Often the parties’ emotional states render them unable to process information soundly and make settlement decisions. That is not a weakness or a frailty on their part. It is just neuroscience. Very easily the conflict levels can spiral to heights the parties never envisaged they could reach.

As anger and grief take seed and conflict grows, our perceptions become distorted. The story of the conflict becomes akin to a fairy story – complete with a villain, a hero and an innocent victim. Guess what role we rarely assign to ourselves? We start to view things consistently through the lens of our own story. We can easily slip into seeing others as being “for us” or “against us”.

With increasing emotion, our thinking gets cloudy and the neuroscience that is at play means we may become physically unable to make clear, rational decisions.

Our communication starts to deteriorate – we tend to communicate only with those that support our view; our story of the conflict. If we are speaking with our ex or those who don’t agree with us, we tend to do so with the goal of defeating them or changing their views and strengthening our own position rather than with the goal of understanding.

As all of this is happening, the key issues get blurry and unrelated issues and innocent bystanders start to get sucked into the vacuum of the conflict. As the issues become less defined, it becomes difficult to work out what it takes to resolve them.

We get locked into our positions, not wanting the other person to “win” or fearing losing face or looking badly if we back down. We become more and more committed to our positions, even if it makes little logical sense to maintain them.

How we view others changes. The differences between us seem to become larger and larger while the things we have in common appear, to our mind’s eye, smaller and smaller.

Add into all of this, lawyers with a litigious approach stepping in to write letters to assert your position, to demand “disclosure” and to “protect” you and quickly the temperature of the conflict rises. Threats of court get thrown around and, if Court proceedings eventuate,  you are thrust into a process that is largely out of your control and sees the conflict spiral spin faster.

Yes, things could very quickly turn nuclear for Samantha and Jeff. But, the good news is that things needn’t go that way. Your choice of lawyer and the process you choose can have a huge impact on whether your relationship is gently untied or harshly hacked through.

Lawyers who are trained in Collaborative Process (also called Collaborative Law) understand the interplay between their client’s emotional states, the actions they as lawyers take and the level of conflict. They are focused on mitigating conflict, not contributing to it. They have specific strategies to keep communication happening respectfully and to remove the inflammatory letters and threat of court from the resolution process. They are able to support parties to creatively problem solve to find solutions that wouldn’t be possible in more litigious approaches.

Having walked Samantha through all the processes available to her for resolving issues with Jeff, including Collaborative Practice, her relief was palpable. She still felt angry but understood this was a natural part of the grief process she was going through and that she would be supported as she went. Most importantly, she now knew there was a way to get through the separation without that grief and anger exploding into escalating levels of conflict.

The Collaborative Process is not an easy, soft option – there is no way of completely removing the emotion and the conflict felt by the participants. In one sense, it is almost necessary to feel that emotion in the same way that heat is necessary to making creme caramel. However, no one likes burned creme caramel! Using a lawyer trained in Collaborative Process means that, no matter which process you work through, he or she will always be looking for ways to find resolution and to assist you to avoid  being burned by unnecessarily inflamed conflict.

If you would like to explore how you can find a way to work through your separation without the drama, give us a call on (09) 297 2010.  

Guest Blog: Sam from Toughtalk

Last week I blogged about the work of Sam, a clinical psychologist and founder of Toughtalk. Toughtalk’s mission is to improve the mental health record in this country and one of the ways it does this is by breaking down the stigma around men talking about their feelings. Toughtalk has produced two seasons of videos of men doing just that – talking about life’s challenges and what has helped them. Just a warning – if you take a look at Toughtalk’s videos, before you know it, an afternoon will have passed and you will have worked your way through an entire season!

I am rapt that Sam agreed to provide a guest blog for my wee site – Thanks Sam!

 

8 Tips for Supporting a Mate

Men really want to talk, they just need the right environment, attitude, and questions to feel comfortable opening up.

So often people want to reach out to someone but don’t know how to start the conversation, hold a comfortable space, or know what to do when the conversation gets tough. All the tips I’m discussing are tailored for talking with men, but generally apply to women too, especially when a person identifies as being more masculine in nature. A major barrier to talking with men about their deepest challenges is our collective belief that men don’t want to communicate about how they’re feeling.

People always ask me:

“How do you find men willing to open up for your Tough Talk videos?”

The implication of this question seems to be that such men are a rare breed, yet this hasn’t been my experience at all. I regularly talk to men from a variety of backgrounds as I travel around New Zealand and many men leap at the opportunity to tell their stories.

Every so often I come across a man who could be described as “macho”. I find that as long as I use language they’re familiar with, ask open questions, remain respectful, and show a willingness to listen, then almost anyone will open up. The only exceptions have been when someone is really angry, anxious, sad, or simply not in the right mood to talk.

“If you think men don’t want to express their deep emotional pain, then you’re subtly feeding into “the hard man” attitude implicit in Kiwi culture.”

TIP #1: It’s easier for a mate to open up while doing an activity.

 

It can be intimidating for someone to open up in response to an invitation “to talk”. Their mind often goes to wondering what they’ve done wrong. It’s much easier for someone to accept an invitation to do an activity.

Conversations flow better when people are engaged in activity while speaking. For hundreds of years men have stood side by side in silence and companionship as they hunted, primarily using their eyes and body to communicate. Like hunting, other activities can provide a medium for communication. Having something to partially focus on makes tough conversations less intense and opens opportunities for nonverbal communication.

Here’s some one on one activities for you to consider: throwing a ball, walking, playing cards, fishing, building, crafts, running, gardening, shooting hoops, biking, and hunting…

TIP #2: Having the strength to share your own challenges makes it easier for a mate to talk.

 

A standout lesson from my journey has been that when I’m honest about my own insecurities and shed a tear, it supports others to do the same. Baring my soul seems to create a space where absolute honesty feels comfortable and safe. Often I don’t need to ask people any questions afterwards; people’s stories and emotions start flooding out.

If enough of us have the strength to be role models then there is potential for a ripple effect which could contribute to an improved culture of support. We start to see widespread social change when enough people are living according to a new social norm. Being honest about our internal struggles could become the normal thing!

TIP #3: A private space to talk one on one makes it easier for a mate to open up.

 

ISam tip 1t can be really off-putting when someone brings up a sensitive issue in front of a group of people. It’s hard enough to accept challenging issues within the privacy of our own mind, let alone have them broadcast to our peers without warning. It doesn’t matter if everyone can see what’s going on already, talking about it in a group without permission can bring on shame and embarrassment.

 “A person has a much higher chance of working through an issue if their first experience of talking about it is accompanied by feelings of support and acceptance”

Inviting someone into a private space for a one on one chat is a comfortable environment to talk within. There’s a lot you can do to create a tailored space for a tough conversation. For a start, make sure you have enough time to go deep (I recommend around 2 hours, but it fully depends on the situation), you could be doing an activity together (see Tip #1), you could provide some beverages and snacks (there’s something deeply comforting about sharing a meal), you could be playing suitable music in the background, and it may be appropriate to be situated in mutual territory, i.e. neither one of you has more power in the space, such as owning it.

It’s easier to talk when sitting next to someone, angled slightly towards them, but not directly facing them. It can feel more threatening when you’re sitting directly opposite each other. Ideally you won’t have anything in between you, like a table or desk as it creates a barrier to nonverbal communication. I’ve found that an ideal setting is in the outdoors, particularly by a fire, a body of water, or anywhere with a view.

TIP #4: Ask permission to talk and accept “no” for an answer.

 

It is really important to ensure someone is in the right space for a tough conversation. One approach is to invite the conversation through mentioning a relevant situation, e.g. “It must be hard not having your partner around anymore… Do you want to talk about it?” You could also try being more direct “I’ve noticed you’re going through a tough time, do you want to talk?” A useful follow up question is “what’s happening?”, rather than “what’s wrong?”

Sometimes the person won’t be in the right space to receive support. An opportunity for someone to express what they’re going through may be detrimental if they’re preoccupied by a strong emotion or mood, an immediate problem, a pressing task, or about to enter a situation where it isn’t safe to be emotionally vulnerable. Once you open something up it can take a while to close, so make sure you factor that into timing.

It is important that you respect when someone says “no”. Let them know you’re there for them when they’re ready to talk or make a date for the future.

There is also the possibility that you’re not the best person for them to talk to. If you think this is the case, you could ask someone else if they would be willing to support them instead. You could also ask the person if you’re the right person for them to talk to and find someone else if you’re not. You might feel offended that someone isn’t willing to open up to you. Try your best to remember that support is about what is best for the person you are supporting.

TIP #5: Listen attentively until they’re finished talking.

 

Sam 5This may sound obvious, but I can’t stress it enough – listening is a skill that’s extremely important to practise if you want to be a good support person.

Often when you’re listening to someone, something they say will trigger a thought in your head. This takes your attention away from listening. Usually when you end up engaging with a thought, you will want to talk about what you’re thinking. The issue with engaging with your own thought processes is that you’re not fully listening at the time.

At some stage the person you’re trying to support will realise they’re not being listened to, which may lead them to think that their point of view is not worth hearing. You could also miss a crucial part of what they’re saying, which could result in you missing an opportunity to say something they desperately need to hear at the time.

So how do you listen skillfully? It’s easy in theory, but it takes lots of practise to get good at. The first part of the skill is noticing when your attention has wandered away from listening. You may be dwelling on something that was said, thinking about what to say next, or distracted by something else going on around you.

When you notice that you’re engaging with your own thoughts, rather than listening, let the thought go – you don’t need to be thinking about it in that moment. I can’t stress how important this is, LET IT GO, even if it means forgetting it. People need for you to be holding a space of listening when they reach moments of expressing raw emotion and vulnerability!

Once you let go, bring your attention back to listening again. From there it is a continual process of noticing when your mind has drifted, letting the thought go, and focusing on listening again. Notice, let go, listen – again and again while the person is talking.

If it looks like they’ve got something else to say, try waiting patiently. If you see someone hesitate or say something like “oh no, don’t worry”, try asking them what they were about to say – they may need your encouragement to get it out. The entire conversation has been getting them to this point. It’s also useful to ask if they’re finished before saying something in response.  

TIP #6: A mate’s burden is less heavy when you feel emotions with them

 

 “A common misunderstanding many people have is that you can solve an emotional problem with logic. This approach makes logical sense because people are brought up to solve logical problems with logic. However, the best way to solve an emotional problem is with emotion. It is totally logical”

Dr. Robin Youngson started Hearts in Healthcare – a movement that promotes the phenomenal healing effect that can occur when people take the time to share other people’s pain. For a doctor, this may look like sitting with a patient, listening, and connecting with them until they experience a taste of what the patient is experiencing.

The phenomenal healing effect of compassion is not restricted to health professionals. It is a method that anyone can employ who wishes to support someone. The method is simple – hear someone out, look them in the eyes, put yourself in their position, and let yourself feel any feelings that come up.

“It is important that you don’t offer support from a position of being “more well”, which can come across as sympathy. For example, “I’m really emotionally intelligent, so I think I can help you.” We’ve all got mental health and we’re all vulnerable to loss, so it seems only right to speak to each other on that same level.”

Before offering support, check in with how you’re feeling and decide whether you have enough energy. If the answer is not clearly a yes then consider if there is anyone else around who may be able to support the person you’re concerned about.

It’s important to have boundaries when people are asking you directly for support. What that means is being able to say no when you’re not up to it. I personally find that people respect no, but respond to it even better when you explain why you’re not up to it. This reveals that you’re also vulnerable, which at least tells the person that they’re not alone.

You could support the person to find someone else, or plan a conversation for a later date. You will be much better at supporting someone when you’re feeling mentally well yourself.

TIP#7: Before finishing challenging conversations, try talking about something positive.

 

Another lesson I learnt while working as a psychologist was not to suddenly finish in the middle of a tough conversation because I was out of time. It can leave the person in worse shape than before you started talking. One way to know when a tough conversation has reached a natural end is that you feel a lift in mood and sometimes end up laughing and joking.

It’s important to ensure that there is at least 10 minutes to unwind from a conversation. The best technique I’ve learnt is to get someone to teach you something. Focusing on teaching shifts their attention. Their mood transforms as they communicate their knowledge. People often seem hesitant initially, but once they think of something to teach you, both of you will enjoy the shift in dynamic between the giving and receiving positions.

TIP #8: Whatever happens, let them know that you’re there for them.

 

Sam 8The toughest thing about tough conversations is that they don’t always go well. Sometimes it feels like talking made something worse, sometimes people aren’t ready to open up a wound, and other times someone might feel angry or upset by something you said. Whatever happens, making time to support someone sends a message that you’re there for them, which is often the most important thing.

“If a conversation doesn’t appear to go well, try not to despair. I’ve personally been surprised just how much people process after a conversation. The benefits of supporting someone may not show up for days or even years.”

Sometimes on reflection I realise something I said may have been more harmful than helpful. If this happens, l always seek to “check in” about it later with the person. Ask an open question when you’re checking in, so you don’t bias their response, e.g. “do you remember when I said… how did that land for you?” If they let you know something upset them, then it is an opportunity to apologise and heal any rift caused between you.

If they’re not ready to open up, you could make it easier for them to contact you in the future, e.g. “I’m here for you, and I’m a phone call away if you ever want to talk”.

Advanced Tip: Acknowledge the advantages and usefulness of a point of view before challenging it.

 

Most of the time there are at least a few aspects of what someone is saying that are useful. However, other parts of what they’re saying may be contributing to the problems they’re experiencing. It is important to first identify the useful parts by pointing them out to the person. Acknowledging the truth of someone’s experience helps them see that you understand and respect them, which may help them accept your challenges to the aspects of their point of view that you think are less useful.

If they can keep the useful parts and modify the problematic parts then the result will most likely be a more balanced and healthy point of view.

Talking about suicide

 

People commonly think about suicide when they’re having a tough time. It is really supportive to keep calm and level headed if someone brings up suicidal thoughts. More often than not people won’t be planning to act on their thoughts. It is helpful for people to talk about their suicidal thoughts without feeling judged, or having you jump into panic mode, because it helps them realise that thinking about suicide is a normal part of coping.

If there is any reason to suspect someone is likely to attempt suicide imminently or has a method planned that is likely to be effective then it is important to act. Call 111 or go to your nearest emergency department (ED). There are also other options available to consider on the Mental Health Foundation’s website: https://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/get-help/in-crisis/

If the person you’re supporting is not planning to act on their thoughts, ask them questions to explore what is going on behind their thoughts – “what is causing the pain that you want to escape from?” It is helpful to talk about the people and activities in the person’s life that are likely to keep them safe. It is also useful to provide your phone number and ask the person to promise to call you if they find themselves going beyond thinking to taking action. You may be able to support them to get professional help before a crisis occurs – I recommend the following two search engines to find a psychologist, or talking to your GP about local therapy options.

New Zealand College of Clinical Psychologists

Find a Psychologist

Sometimes people won’t bring up thoughts of suicide without being prompted because they’re worried that they could be sent to hospital. I’ve found that if I’m concerned someone is thinking about suicide, then they usually are. People will feel more comfortable to talk about suicidal thoughts if you confidently ask them if they’ve been thinking this way; it shows them that it’s a normal response to their situation.

Final Thoughts

 

I believe good support boils down to being there for someone, creating a comfortable space, and sharing feelings in a genuine way. We absolutely need more support to take place at a community level if we want to see mental health and well-being to improve in Aotearoa. Get out there and support a mate, don’t be afraid to ask for a help, and let’s create a more supportive culture together.

Let us know in the comments if you tried any of these tips, and how they went! We’d also love to hear if there’s anything you’d like for us to go deeper on.

Sam logo

A Man on a Mission

It’s not every day that you meet someone who is putting everything out there to make a significant difference to New Zealanders’ lives. Last night I got to meet such a person – Sam from Toughtalk.

Sam is a clinical psychologist and founder of Toughtalk. Toughtalk’s mission is to improve the mental health of New Zealanders by getting men talking about feelings and the things they do that serve their wellbeing. In two seasons of pretty sharp videos, Sam gives some every day Kiwi blokes the space to talk about wellbeing and we get to watch the conversations unfold. Given the statistics relating to male suicide in New Zealand, this is seriously important work!

Go check out his videos and if you like what you see, consider supporting Sam in his work by spreading his work or by making a donation.

You can check out Sam’s videos at: www.toughtalk.nz