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Relationships

Brian Burke: About Your Divorce (Letter 129) — Deciper the ‘Just’ Code

Oblique Strategy #25 — Decipher coded sentences that use the word "just" — even if you're the speaker.

When speaking to therapists about divorce, I’ve been saying the same thing for more than 20 years: Divorce is essentially a psychological process of grieving — and grief drives the case.

When the therapeutic work is done, the case is ripe for settlement. The legal divorce is, at most, secondary.

There is a strong probability that psychological problems will appear as legal issues. Legal procedure has evolved to deal with specific kinds of disputes. It can’t and shouldn’t be expected to treat the psychological problems of the litigants.

I urge therapists to accept and assert themselves in the role of the objective professional who can best see the big picture and who has a set of skills that can provide the client with the best support.

Therapists should not passively defer when the process is taken over by the client’s lawyer — especially when it appears that the lawyer’s values, rather than the client’s values, are informing decisions.

Then I ask the therapists in the audience to write down what each thinks are one of the two worst pieces of advice they can give to a client.

Of course it’s an opinion, but I think the answer is: “Let the judge decide.”

It’s bad advice because of (a) the phenomenon of psychological problems masquerading as legal issues; (b) the inability of the court to treat psychological dysfunction; (c) the capacity of the court for exasperating psychological problems, and (d) the long-term, polarizing effect of a decision made on the basis of an adversarial proceeding.

Instead of dropping your opinion (based on who-knows-what) on the client, it’s better if you help him reach his own informed and deliberate decision. You can urge him to get the information necessary to be “informed,” and he becomes “deliberate” by deliberating with you.

Now, can you think of advice that’s worse than “Let the judge decide?” The question is rhetorical so I give my answer quickly: “Just let the judge decide.”

What makes this version worse than the first is that it discounts the cost in terms of the time, money and energy that must be expended to “just let the judge decide.”

The word “just,” when used in a particular way, is the real topic of this column.

When used as an adjective, it’s a cognate of the word “justice:” The decision was just.

When we say “Just let the judge decide,” just is an adverb modifying the verb “to let.” Neither the American Heritage Dictionary nor Webster’s Third International Dictionary describes the effect of the word in that sentence.

When used as an adverb, “just” can mean “barely” or “by a little,” as in “inflation was just one percent.” It can mean “exactly” as in the phrase, “just right.” It can mean “simply” as in, “He’s just interested in the money.”

These almost match the use of the word in the sentence, “Just let the judge decide,” but not quite. It’s not in these two dictionaries, but the use I’m interested in is familiar:

Most famously, perhaps, in Nancy Reagan’s wisdom for addicts: “Just say no!”

Just do it! Just do it my way! Just leave! Just drop dead! Just find the missing piece!

In each of these examples the word “just” is used as a trivializing adverb and its effect can be insidious and pernicious. Urban Dictionary hits the nail on the head. The following is a paraphrase:

It’s a little word that creeps into all kinds of places where it doesn’t belong. It’s an easy way to trivialize something without having to justify the trivialization; often, the audience hears the word and understands its effect but doesn’t appreciate the message contains a deceptive omission.

That’s a good description of the way “just” can be misused by a person in a position with more situational power than the audience and who can avoid being questioned.

Simply noticing when "just" is used as a trivializing adverb can expose a deceptive use; it can also be diagnostic of coded communication.

When a speaker uses the word “just” to modify a verb denoting an action, they may be saying that the action will be difficult and that he doesn’t know how it will be accomplished. They may be aware of the difficultly or the knowledge of the difficulty may be known subconsciously.

Here are some examples:

» I just need to eat less.

» I just need to exercise more.

» I just need to study more.

» Let’s just forget about it.

» It’s just a matter of timing.

» Let’s just be friends.

» Why can’t we just get along?

» I just say the wrong thing.

» I just can’t get along; I just need to learn to get along.

» I just need to be on time.

A person who says “I just need to eat less” has probably said the same thing many, many times.

The person who “just needs to learn to get along” probably has some elementary school report cards that say “plays and works well with others … needs improvement.” What he is really saying is, “I desperately need to learn to get along.”

The statement “I just need to be on time” shows how noticing the use of the word “just” can help us understand what the speaker is really saying.

The statements “I need to be on time,” “I better be on time” or “I’ve got to be on time” all express an appreciation of the fact that timeliness is important. When the word “just” is tossed in, it signifies, or at least creates a reasonable suspicion, that the speaker knows timeliness is important, but he is likely to have a problem accomplishing it.

When I hear a client say, “I just want what’s fair,” I’ve been put on notice that there are complications ahead. The problem might be inherent in the facts of the case, or it can be in the definition of “fair” that accommodates the beliefs of both parties.

The most difficult challenge can be to help the client define “fair” in terms that are more abstract than, “Fair is whatever I want.”

Next column: Oblique Strategy #26 – Take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator online.

— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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