A Psychologist Explains How to Beat Social Anxiety

It is rarely helpful to tell a shy person to “just be yourself!” Riffing on that frustrating exchange, clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen has written a book that she hopes will answer the question the anxious person usually asks in return: How?

Hendriksen received her doctorate from UCLA and today works at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders. She is the author of How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, out last week from St. Martin’s Press, which she describes as “a book I wish I had when I was 20.”

The Verge spoke with Hendriksen about the most helpful techniques to combat social anxiety, daring to be average, and why most people’s social skills are just fine.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Let’s start with the basics. In the early chapters, you define social anxiety as “self-consciousness on steroids.” Can you be more specific about what that means? What is social anxiety?

Social anxiety is a perception that there is something embarrassing and deficient about us, and, unless we work hard to conceal or hide it, it will be revealed and we will be judged or rejected for it.

We can all relate to the experience of looking in the mirror and zooming in on a perceived flaw like a zit. There is a sense of wanting to hide that perceived flaw and that leads you to, say, throw on some tinted moisturizer. That feeling — that urge to hide — is the exact same feeling that one gets with social anxiety, except with social anxiety it’s about our internal self, about our personality or our social skills or simply who we are as a person.

The one thing I always like to add is that social anxiety is a package deal, and it often comes bundled with strengths like high standards and empathy and being helpful and altruistic. People who have social anxiety are often good listeners and conscientious and they work hard to get along with fellow humans. And those are all really amazing strengths that won’t go away even as people work on their social anxiety.

In the past few years, there’s been a lot of talk about introverts and extroverts, and people often confuse being introverted with being socially anxious. But, in fact, introversion and social anxiety are separate. How can people tell which is which?

Introversion is how you’re wired, whereas social anxiety gets in your way. Introverts get their energy by being alone or in small groups, while extroverts get their energy from larger groups of people.

Non-anxious introverts are perfectly happy to leave the party early, but people with social anxiety often leave because they feel so worried and want relief. Social anxiety is something that is holding you back due to fear instead of due to choice. A classic example is that students with social anxiety will forgo the part of their grade that’s based on “class participation.”

Ellen Hendriksen. Photo by: Matthew Guillory

And socially anxious extroverts do exist. I was talking just the other day to a man who is a teacher and a standup comic. He loves being in front of people, but he’s also simultaneously afraid that they are judging him. You can get energy from other people and still be anxious around them. Or you can get your energy by being alone and not be bothered by it at all.

So, let’s get to the meat of it. How do you overcome social anxiety?

Go forth and do. I often talk to clients who say, “I wish I could hit pause on the world and I could retreat and work on myself and gain confidence and remerge confident and be ready to live my life.”

That is backward. A nice analogy is that of mood and action. We often think we have to “feel” like doing something before doing it. We think we have to feel like going to the gym before going to work out. But if we lace up our shoes and go to the gym, often our mood catches up, and we’re glad we went. With confidence, it’s the same thing. We have to put action before feeling confidence because when we see ourselves doing challenging things, we start to believe we can.

You offer a few “magic questions” for socially anxious people to ask themselves before an event. How can these help?

The first trick is asking people to be really specific. Anxiety is often vague and says things like “everybody will hate me” or “something bad will happen” or “what if something bad happens?” So if we can specify, what exactly we’re afraid of, who exactly would “hate you,” sometimes that’s enough and we realize that our anxiety is not particularly credible and that the worst-case scenario that it’s spinning and is setting off our alarm bells is not likely. Part of that is asking what the odds of these worst-case scenarios really are.

The second question is “how bad would that really be?” and the technique is called decatastrophizing. That’s simply asking, “Is this truly a catastrophe? Would I die? Is this irreparable?” And the vast majority of the time, the answer is no.

The third is “how can I cope?” If we have a plan to either rectify the situation or take care of ourselves and move on, that will make us feel better knowing that we have a plan and we can care for ourselves regardless of what happens. That helps refute the two most fundamental lies of social anxiety.

What are they?

The first is that the worst-case scenario is a foregone conclusion and is definitely going to happen. And the second is that “I can’t deal.” When we avoid experiences, we don’t get the evidence to disprove those two lies of social anxiety. We don’t see our own capabilities. So these questions can act like this nice runway to help launch us into action and to go ahead and try to do those things that we’re a little bit scared of.

One piece of advice I found compelling was to “be brave for one minute.” What’s the thinking behind that?

The vast majority of social anxiety is anticipatory. Oftentimes, once we take the leap and are in the moment, we do feel anxious at first, but if we can resist the urge to avoid pulling the plug, the anxiety will naturally plateau and start to decline. But by avoiding anxiety, we never get to find that out. So, by committing ourselves to being brave for one minute and also dropping our safety behaviors, that’s where the learning occurs.

Tell me more about the safety behaviors.

This concept comes from the work of psychologists Lynn Alden and Charles Taylor. People who are socially anxious engage in “safety behaviors,” which are simply behaviors that trying to help you tamp down anxiety in the moment. For example, if you’re at a party and feel anxious, you hover on the edge of the room or you scroll on your phone or you might rehearse what you plan to say beforehand to make sure it doesn’t sound stupid. People generally do know what their safety behaviors are. And they do make us feel better, but it comes across as off-putting or rigid. They send the wrong message, and folks who are socially anxious don’t always realize that.

What do we gain when we drop the safety behaviors?

Alden and Taylor challenged people to drop their safety behaviors to see what would happen. When they did that, their conversation partner in this experiment rated the people who dropped these behaviors as more likable and more authentic. We become the way we are naturally with our closest friends.

These behaviors take up a lot of bandwidth. If you’re thinking about how you come across, and there is very little room left over to just be our authentic, friendly self. When we drop our safety behaviors, the gaps are naturally filled in with listening and curiosity and interest and we come across as more genuine and therefore our conversation partners like us more.

That seems related to a chapter in the book devoted to explaining why most of us don’t have terrible social skills. Why do you believe that?

With most people, it’s not so much that our social skills are lacking, it’s that our inhibitions get in the way and prevent us from using our social skills. We monitor ourselves and overread everything. “Oh, she just shifted in her seat, does that mean she’s bored?” Or, “I hope I don’t sound like an idiot.”

With all that happening, there’s very little room left over to pay attention to what’s happening in the moment or even to stand properly or to not spill our wine. So when we’re feeling particularly inhibited and anxious, it seems like we have no social skills, but we do.

Instead, try to turn your attention inside out, focus on anything except yourself. Look at who you’re talking to, ground yourself in your surroundings, listen closely to what is being said. And that turning of attention from the internal commentary can greatly reduce anxiety and help us make use of our skills that we naturally have.

Even in those cases, we’re still going to be awkward sometimes, right? You write about perfectionism in the book and also “daring to be average.” What does that mean?

Perfectionism as a term is a misnomer. It isn’t about being perfect. It’s about never being good enough. It social contexts, it’s all or nothing. So, unless we give a stellar performance, we are an abject failure. The answer is to simply lower the bar. It’s okay to have an awkward silence. Your social life isn’t a laser maze. If you make one mistake, alarms are not going to go off all around you. Daring to be average means daring to just be totally normal, which can help you relax and, again, relax into the skills we have.

Be well informed. Read The Verge.

This post originally appeared on The Verge.




Freediving in Ireland

Taking the oxygen-free plunge

Lifeguards at public swimming pools don’t like it when you disregard the signs that say “Walk, Don’t Run!” But they like it even less when you don’t move at all. As a lifeguard is scanning the pool, the last thing they want to see is a body floating face-down and motionless in the water. I remember getting yelled at for doing exactly that when I was about 10 or 12 years old. I couldn’t understand what the problem was. I wasn’t bothering anyone, I was just enjoying the sensation of holding my breath, floating, and staring at the bottom of the pool. But the lifeguard reprimanded me: “You have to keep moving! Otherwise I won’t know if you have drowned.” I thought that was unfair, because kicking around in the water isn’t as relaxing or serene as just floating there, but ever since then, as a courtesy to those who could not discern my state of consciousness from a distance, I have refrained from floating face-down.

Little did I realize that what I was doing would soon be a major competitive sport.

Kicking the Breathing Habit

Serious breath-holders would call what I was doing Static Apnea—just one of several categories of the sport of freediving. The current world record for Static Apnea is held by Serbian diver Branko Petrović, who floated in a swimming pool while holding his breath for eleven minutes and fifty-four seconds. That is, if I may say so (and pardon the pun), an unfathomably long time. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Freediving is all about pushing the limits of physical and mental endurance, defying common sense all the way.

Freediving is the name for a class of activities that involve holding one’s breath underwater for an extended period of time. In its simplest form, freediving is a low-tech alternative to recreational scuba diving. Although freedivers can’t stay submerged as long as divers who use tanks and regulators, they can move much more quickly and freely without the drag caused by the equipment. It’s a quieter experience too, and with fewer bubbles there’s less chance of scaring off fish. The only equipment required is a mask, wetsuit, and extra-long fins, making it a less expensive pastime than scuba diving as well.

The Length and the Breath

But when you start talking about competitive freediving, it begins to sound like a sport that could only be appreciated by someone whose brain had been deprived of oxygen a bit too long. Static Apnea is all well and good, but serious freedivers consider that just the first step. Dynamic Apnea ups the ante by requiring the diver to swim horizontally underwater; the idea is to cover as much distance as possible without taking a breath. Separate categories exist for divers using fins and those without. But then things start getting really interesting. In the other major forms of freediving, a rope (with markings to indicate depth) is dropped to the sea floor, and the objective is to follow the rope as deep as possible before returning to the surface. In a Constant Ballast dive, divers must descend and ascend under their own power; they can optionally use a weight to help them descend but they must carry the same weight on the way back up. Free Immersion is similar, except that the diver can pull on the rope to assist in the descent and ascent. Then there’s the Variable Ballast dive, in which a weighted sled takes the diver farther down into the water; the diver then leaves the sled to ascend under his or her own power. If that’s not challenging enough, a No Limits dive uses the same weighted sled to go even deeper, at which point the diver inflates a lift bag to facilitate a speedy ascent.

Austrian diver Herbert Nitsch currently holds the world record for No Limits free diving, generally considered the most challenging category. On June 14, 2007, he made a record No Limits dive of 214m (702 feet). But freediving is intensely competitive, and records are set and broken with astonishing frequency. The endless push to go deeper and longer is, not surprisingly, very risky, even for extremely well-trained divers. In October 2002, world-renowned freediver Audry Mestre died in an attempt to break the record at the time with a dive of 170 meters. A combination of equipment malfunction and human error prevented her from ascending fast enough, despite the numerous safety measures that are always taken during dives of this sort. Similarly, in November 2013, Nicholas Mevoli from New York died in an attempt to break the Constant Ballast Without Fins record. But these tragedies seem to have had a galvanizing effect on the freediving community, inspiring them to push themselves even further as a tribute to their lost comrades.

If you think about other mammals that hold their breath to make extended dives—whales, seals, and sea lions—freediving doesn’t sound all that crazy. Human physiology is quite a bit different, but research has shown that with training, almost anyone can develop the ability to hold their breath for three or four minutes. Still, there’s a big difference between holding your breath on the surface of a nice, safe swimming pool and doing the same thing under hundreds of meters of water. That requires stamina, guts, and probably a little insanity.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on July 30, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on March 22, 2005.

Image credit: Simukas771 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Author: Joe Kissell

National Chocolate Soufflé Day

A chocolate soufflé

I can count on one hand the number of soufflés I’ve eaten in my life, and still have some fingers left over. But I did eat one as recently as last week, and I have to say, it was heavenly. It was a mocha soufflé, so although it contained chocolate it wasn’t precisely what one should consume on National Chocolate Soufflé Day. The thing about soufflés is, they take a while to prepare and require some significant culinary skill. In my opinion—and I’m speaking here as someone who knows his way around a kitchen—they’re best left to the pros. But whether you make your own or let a chef do the honors, today’s the day to enjoy the light, airy, puffed-up goodness of a chocolate soufflé.

Image credit: Pxhere

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Author: Joe Kissell

Pitcairn Island

Pitcairn Island

Haven for homeless mutineers

The story of the mutinous crew of the British navy vessel HMS Bounty has remained a popular theme in books and movies ever since it occurred in 1789. Four major films have been made with the mutiny as their inspiration, featuring such acting heavyweights as Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando, and Anthony Hopkins; one version of the film earned a Best Picture Oscar. There is a good reason for the story’s popularity: the sequence of events ending with the setting adrift of the ship’s captain, William Bligh, along with 18 of his men, in the middle of the Pacific, is inherently dramatic and fascinating.

The story of what happened to both the mutineers and those forced overboard may be paid less attention, but is equally fascinating. Captain Bligh, with the aid of only a sextant and pocket watch, successfully navigated the small boat to the Tongan island of Tofua, and then on to the island of Timor, a journey that took over 47 days and covered over 3,618 nautical miles (6710km) by Bligh’s reckoning. Only one of those set adrift with Bligh did not survive the voyage; a crewman was killed by the inhabitants of Tofua when the group landed there.

The mutineers, led by master’s mate Fletcher Christian, initially sailed to the island of Tubuai, but being unable to successfully settle there, went back to Tahiti (whence the ship initially departed). Sixteen members of the crew disembarked at this point, while Christian and eight of the mutineers, along with six Tahitian men and twelve Tahitian women (who were reputedly kidnapped), set sail to find a new island where they could settle in peace.

Bounty on the Mutineers

Fearing capture, Christian’s crew bypassed the Fiji and Cook Islands, eventually landing on the then-uninhabited Pitcairn Island in January 1790. To prevent discovery of their whereabouts, the group ran the Bounty aground, and after stripping it of its supplies, burned and abandoned it in the island’s primary bay (now known as Bounty Bay). They established a settlement on the island, growing crops and raising livestock.

The island, named after the boy who sighted it during the 1767 expedition of the HMS Swallow, had once been home to other inhabitants (most likely from Polynesia), but was deserted when the mutineers arrived. Measuring 6 miles (about 10km) in circumference and 2.5 miles (4 km) in length, Pitcairn Island is part of a group of four islands (now collectively called the Pitcairn Islands) that proved an ideal hiding place for the mutineers, owing to its incredible isolation in the midst of the Pacific Ocean, about halfway between New Zealand and the Americas.

The early community on Pitcairn experienced considerable violence among its members; clashes between the Tahitian men and the mutineers led to the deaths of all but four of the men by 1794, and by 1800, due to further violence and poor health, only one man remained alive. This man, an erstwhile mutineer named John Adams, became the leader of the settlement—now numbering 34 (counting 10 women and 23 children)—and oversaw its development into a viable and thriving entity. The group’s first contact with the outside world came with the arrival in 1808 of an American ship, but it was not until 1814 that Pitcairn became known to the wider world, when two British ships, the Briton and Tagus, landed on the island.

Surprisingly, Adams was not arrested by the British commanders on board these ships, but instead helped to establish a new relationship between Pitcairn and Britain. This relationship was formalized in 1838, when a constitution for the Island was created (which included the right of female suffrage 80 years before it was adopted in Britain), and was further enhanced when Pitcairn became a British settlement under the British Settlements Act of 1887.

Throughout the 19th century, overpopulation and a lack of resources were constant problems for the islanders, leading to an exodus to Tahiti in 1831, which was reversed later that year, and a further resettlement to Norfolk Island, a former British penal colony, in 1856. This time the move was successful; the islanders became prosperous and permanently settled in their new home. However, a small group of former Pitcairn residents decided to return two years later, in 1858, and they are the ancestors of those who live on the island today.

Giving it Their Own Stamp

Although in 1937 the island’s population reached a high point of 233, currently there are about 50 residents on the island (most of them bearing the surnames of their mutineer ancestors). There is an initiative underway to attract more residents to the island, but it has not been successful. Pitcairn does not have an airport, and ships visit on an infrequent basis, but in recent years there have been more efforts to draw tourists to the island to generate much-needed revenue for the community.

An earlier attempt to support the local economy began in 1940, with the issuance of the first Pitcairn postage stamps. Now administered by the Pitcairn Islands Philatelic Bureau (headquartered in New Zealand), Pitcairn issues six stamp series each year, which are prized by avid philatelists. Another, more recent, economic initiative undertaken by the islanders is the cultivation of honey, flavored by the Mango, Lata, Passion Flower, Guava, and Roseapple flowers found on the island.

In addition to its economic woes, Pitcairn has faced social problems in recent years. In 2004, the island came under intense media scrutiny as seven male residents (including the mayor) were put on trial facing 55 charges of sexual offenses against young girls. Six of the men, including the mayor, were eventually convicted on a total of 35 of the charges, and six other men, former residents of Pitcairn, also went on trial in 2005 in New Zealand. These trials caused major upheaval in the community, since almost all of the adult male population was implicated in them. Some residents felt disheartened by the scandal, fearing that the island’s fate would be crippled by it, while others saw cause for optimism in the necessary rebuilding of the power structure on the island.

This is not the first time Pitcairn has faced violence and lawlessness; from its inception the settlement has had to deal with the consequences of such actions. While to most people the mutiny on the Bounty remains an entertaining story from the past, for the residents of Pitcairn Island it is part of their daily reality, and has shaped the course of their lives and those of their ancestors.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on December 4, 2006.

Image credit: NOAA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Author: Morgen Jahnke

International Polar Bear Day

Polar bears

Polar Bears International has declared February 27 to be International Polar Bear Day, to call attention to the rapidly shrinking habitat of polar bears, which is due to the loss of sea ice caused by global climate change. (Although the occasional polar bear has been known to show up on a tropical island and hunt human castaways, that’s very much the exception.) Do your part today to support polar bear conservation, which might include taking steps to lower your own carbon footprint or donating to an organization that works to protect polar bears.

Image credit: Max Pixel

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Author: Joe Kissell


A bookstore in Hay-on-Wye

The Town of Books

As anyone who knows me can attest, I am a sucker for books. I’ve had my nose perpetually stuck in a book for as long as I can remember (although nowadays I also do a lot of reading on electronic devices), and my house is stuffed full of books. I’m rarely tempted to spend serious money on clothes or jewelry, but I’m perpetually tempted whenever I step into a bookstore, and it takes great discipline not to buy every book I see. Thus it gives me great joy to think about a locale where my bibliomania would not seem out of place: the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, home to 1500 inhabitants and millions of books.

Castle Rocked

Hay-on-Wye, also known by its Welsh name Y Gelli (“The Grove”), lies on the border between Wales and England, and is about halfway between the English cities of Bristol and Birmingham. Its English name is derived from the Norman word for an enclosed field (“hay” or “haie”) and from its setting on the banks of the River Wye.

Earlier on in its thousand-year history, the town was the scene of immense political upheaval owing to its strategic location between Wales and England. The history of the castle at its center illustrates how tumultuous those times were. Built in 1200 CE by the local ruler, William de Breos II, Hay Castle replaced an older, smaller castle. After displeasing King John of England, William was forced to flee to France in 1211, and his wife and son were imprisoned.

In 1231, the castle was burned by a Welsh prince, but was rebuilt by Henry III around 1233 and returned to the control of the Breos family. The Earl of Leicester, Simon de Montfort, attacked the castle in 1265 in response to local opposition to the king. In 1322, the English king Edward II again captured the castle from its rulers at the time. And during the Welsh rebellion of the late 14th century, led by nationalist leader Owain Glyndŵr, the castle was nearly destroyed by fire.

The castle had various owners over the following centuries, including the local church, which used it as a vicar’s residence during the Victorian era. In 1971, a resident of Hay-on-Wye, Richard Booth, purchased the property and created a bookstore within its walls.

Buy the Book

Creating a bookstore was nothing new to Richard Booth, who first began selling books in Hay-on-Wye in 1961. Convinced that the presence of many bookstores in the town would draw in tourists and gain attention for Hay, he converted an old cinema into the Cinema Bookshop, and encouraged other businesspeople to open stores as well. He eventually sold the Cinema Bookshop, and opened Richard Booth’s Bookshop in the old town firehouse, which has become a local institution since then, although Booth sold this store in 2005 and opened yet another bookstore.

With the example set by Richard Booth, many other secondhand and antiquarian booksellers made their home base in Hay-on-Wye, and by the end of the 1970s, the town became the world’s first “book town” with an estimated one million books in stock. The book town concept has since spread to many other countries, and although the number of bookstores in Hay-on-Wye has recently declined slightly, there are still a mind-boggling number of stores for such a small town. According to the town’s official website, there are now 19 bookstores (some of which encompass multiple bookselling businesses) serving a population of 1500, which is an incredible ratio of residents to book shops. But because Richard Booth’s vision of the town as an international center of bookselling has been realized, locals now share these stores with the approximately 500,000 visitors it receives each year.

Writers Bloc

The highest concentration of visitors descends on the town during the last few weeks of May for an event that has become world renowned: The Hay Festival. Launched in 1988 by Peter Florence and now attracting thousands of attendees annually (273,000 tickets were sold in 2018), this literary festival has drawn famous writers such as Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, John Updike, and Don DeLillo, among many others, to give readings and conduct book signings for the assembled crowd. The festival has become so popular that it has spawned sister festivals around the world, and has inspired HowTheLightGetsIn, a music and philosophy festival that runs concurrently with a portion of the Hay Festival.

It’s not surprising that a town full of books has become the setting for a major literary festival; it holds out the promise of a physical location for something that usually only exists in the mind: a community of those who love the written word. I count myself in that number, and hope some day to have that same experience, whether in a small Welsh town or in another place where readers and writers gather to celebrate the joy of books.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on November 11, 2006.

Image credit: Aloys5268 [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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Author: Morgen Jahnke

The potential impact of the Sally Challen case

We wait in anticipation of the outcome of the Court of Appeal decision tomorrow to see if Sally Challen’s conviction is reduced from murder to manslaughter.

In 2010 Sally was sentenced for life with a minimum of 22 years (which was later, on appeal, reduced to 18 years) following hitting her husband, Richard Challen, 20 times over the head with a hammer, which led to his death.

Sally is pleading diminished responsibility on the basis of his controlling and coercive behaviour; a behaviour that became more widely known when the legal system recognised that abuse does not need to be physical it can be psychological too.

In 2015 Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 created a new offence of controlling and coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship. Prior to this, the closest offence was harassment which was difficult to prove in an intimate relationship.

The statute provides that an office is committed by A if:

  • A repeatedly or continuously engages in behaviour towards another person, B, that is controlling or coercive;
  • At the time of the behaviour, A and B are personally connected;
  • The behaviour has a serious effect on B;
  • A knows or ought to know that the behaviour will have a serious effect on B.

Examples given by the children of the parents, in this case, include isolating their mother from her friends and family, controlling who she socialises with, controlling her money, restricting her movement and creating a culture of fear and dependency. This behaviour continued for over 40 years before Sally finally struck her husband.

There has been a lot of domestic abuse awareness on the television in recent weeks and a common question asked is why would you not just leave?

This way of thinking is so frustrating. If it was really that simple to leave then an individual would just leave. I have read the reports that Sally did try to leave and even start divorce proceedings on a number of occasions, but she felt she could not be without Richard and this was most likely part of his controlling behaviour, Sally did not feel like she could live without him, so kept returning, until one day it all got too much.

I have worked with victims of domestic violence for over 10 years, firstly through charity work and in my professional capacity and they often tell me that the emotional/psychological abuse is often more painful than the physical abuse.

This case has the potential to be a landmark case as it will be the first time the court will hear controlling and coercive behaviour being used as a defence in a murder trial. If Sally is successful, I believe not only will we see a rise in such defences being raised, but a greater understanding by the court of the seriousness of psychological abuse.

My view is that the court must accept the impact of this psychological abuse and if Sally can prove this it will be a most welcomed result.



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Author: Sarah Jane Lenihan

England v Germany: A clash between two countries’ legal systems

As will be well known to regular readers of this blog, family courts in England and Wales deal with financial claims on divorce rather differently to the courts in many other countries. The fundamental basis of the rules that govern such claims here is quite different to that in most other jurisdictions. This, of course, means that in certain circumstances our courts may be considered to be more generous than the courts in other countries, hence the phenomenon of ‘forum shopping’, whereby a spouse may seek to have the divorce dealt with in the country where they believe they will get the best outcome.

As one can imagine, these differences can sometimes lead to a clash between two countries’ legal systems.

This was the situation in the recent case Re MF, heard by Mr Justice Mostyn in the High Court in December.

The background to the case needs to be explained. Unfortunately, the judgment is quite brief, and I have had to make a few assumptions about certain details – I hope I am correct. The case concerned an English husband and a German wife. They cohabited in Germany from 1999, and were married in 2003. They lived all their married life in Germany, in a house owned by the wife. They had two children, born in 2003 and 2005. They marriage broke down in 2011, when the husband left the matrimonial home. He returned to England the following year. The wife and children continue to reside in the former matrimonial home.

The particular feature of the case is that the matrimonial home was the only asset of the parties, and it actually decreased in value over the course of the marriage (the judgment doesn’t explain why this was so). Accordingly, there were no ‘matrimonial assets’, i.e. assets accrued during the course of the marriage.

Under German law any capital provision made to a spouse on divorce can only come out of matrimonial assets. Accordingly, as there were no such assets, when the parties were divorced in Germany it was agreed that the husband would not make any claim for capital provision in the German courts.

However, the husband subsequently made an application in the English court “for financial relief following a foreign divorce in circumstances where the powers of this court would be wider than directing a division of the marital aquest [i.e. the matrimonial assets] and could extend to awarding a lump sum to the husband to meet his needs”, as explained by Mr Justice Mostyn. The husband’s particular need was to have the debts that he had incurred since the divorce in rehousing himself met by the wife.

The wife indicated to the English court that she opposed the husband’s application, on the basis that the matter had been dealt with by the German court. Other than that, the wife did not take any further part in the English proceedings, and the English court awarded the husband a lump sum of £20,000. However, as the only source of payment of that debt would be further borrowing on the matrimonial home, the judge decided that it was reasonable and fair for enforcement of that the lump sum to be deferred until completion of full-time tertiary education by the youngest surviving child of the family. In order to compensate the husband for being kept out of his money, he awarded interest on the outstanding sum at 2% per annum.

The decision was appealed (this is what Mr Justice Mostyn’s judgment was about), but the appeal was dismissed.

So we have a situation where a divorce had been dealt with, and apparently finalised, by the courts of a country whose courts one would expect to be fully ‘respected’, and yet the courts of another country make a different, and apparently conflicting, decision. I’m not sure that I feel that this outcome is the right one, even if, as Mr Justice Mostyn found, it is legally correct.

You can read the full judgment here (note that the first four paragraphs relate to the issue of whether or not the appeal should be heard in public).

The post England v Germany: A clash between two countries’ legal systems appeared first on Stowe Family Law.

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Author: John Bolch