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Jennifer Hargrave and Hannah Hembree Bell Discuss: Divorce and Family Life

Have you ever wondered what divorce lawyers talk about? Hannah Hembree Bell is the owner of Hembree Bell Law in Austin, Texas.

Jennifer Hargrave recently sat down with Hannah and talked about divorce, family law, managing a law firm, and the commitment necessary to help families.

Hannah Hembree Bell:

I know. This is so much fun. I think, Jen, whenever I think about how we met and how we became such fast, good friends, I think it’s because our jobs.’ Were both divorce lawyers, and that can mean very different things. I’m sure when some people hear this, they go, “Ooh,” and feel like, “Oh, God. Scary,” but for both of us, I think we keep the main thing, the main thing. I always say, “I fight hard, but smart.” I don’t like wasting clients’ money or just resources in general, emotional, financial, and otherwise on a big fight. Having that collaborative, work together approach, I love that we share that, and I don’t have that with a lot of other people, and being able to really just humbly and honestly say, “We didn’t create this problem. We’re just here to help.” There’s some good, there’s some bad, and bring in that approach to our clients, I love that we both have that. We send cases up to our Hargrave Family Law all the time in Dallas. We don’t work in Dallas. We’re mostly in Austin, and San Antonio, and down that way.

Jennifer Hargrave:

Yeah. You’re definitely our go-to down there. It really comes from first of all, for me, it’s really valuing family and knowing how important family is. Divorce can be a really difficult period of transition, but at the end of the day, I want the families that we’re working with to be in the best position possible. I know you share that too. Sometimes you have to have the fight. In that case, we do that, but so often it’s an avoidable battle.

Hannah Hembree Bell:

Well, and I think people will talk to me about getting divorced. I always say, “I love families,” because at first, when I very first started, I remember even on LinkedIn, because I was posting videos before that was really a thing on LinkedIn, and some of the comments would be basically, “You’re going to hell because you love divorce.” I’m like, “I love families, and I’m always about a family.”

Hannah Hembree Bell:

The best news that can happen is when I get a call from a client who says, “We’re actually reconciling. We’re going to stay together,” because they’ll be like, “Ew.” They don’t want to tell me because they think I’m going to be mad or sad or something, and that’s not the case at all. I cheer. I think that’s awesome. Every single time it’s possible, we will do… That’s one of the ways I think that, and I know your approach is like this, that we can help people end well. That’s the advice you get in the workplace. You put in your notice, and you’re going to leave and everything, to end well. For us, with our clients, we’re helping you end well, and it does leave the door cracked. If there’s any way for this not to happen, it’s not going to be because our firm, and I know you share this…

Jennifer Hargrave:

Absolutely.

Hannah Hembree Bell:

… because our firms burned it down in order to win, or to get the most fees, or whatever. We’re not like that at all. I always tell people, “I’m not in the business of tricking people out of their kids or their money.” I’m not coming in and trying to trick. I’m not coming in and trying to cause a ruckus. We’re really trying to help you end well, and that’s because we do care about families. I have four kids, and I am divorced. That brings certainly a very clear perspective to the whole thing, for me, I think a very practical perspective to the whole endeavor.

Jennifer Hargrave:

Absolutely. One of the things I wanted to talk with about today was your own personal journey because I think you are a living testament to the fact that life can be amazing post divorce, and that comes with work. It comes because you prioritize things, but let’s just talk a little bit about your experience and how that helps you working with families.

Hannah Hembree Bell:

Yeah. Well, one of the things I always say, and if you’ve been around me for more than two seconds in divorce context is, “Divorce can make you bitter or divorce can make you better.” It’s your choice, and I chose to be better. Oh, I got a chill when I just said that. I know I’m in the zone when I get the chill. For me, I got married when I was 21 years old, and I guess by then, I’d maybe had a couple of beers in my… Actually, no. That’s not true. My first beer was on my honeymoon.

Jennifer Hargrave:

Beer?

Hannah Hembree Bell:

Literal beer. I went to a small Christian college and grew up very, very churchy. At that point in my life, I do not think this anymore, thought that people who drink beer are going to hell or something, very East Texas, Southern Baptist thing. I was 21 years old, got married, had Dr. Pepper at my wedding, my first beer on my honeymoon because the people on the rafting thing had beer, and I was thirsty. There was nothing else to drink. Just to give you an idea of where I was in my life, so young. I’m from about an hour east of here, east of… We’re in Dallas today, and just didn’t have life experience, didn’t have wisdom, didn’t have maturity. I was the same person I am now in a lot of ways, personality wise, so just make a decision, that’s it, this is what we’re doing.

Hannah Hembree Bell:

That child made adult decisions and got married. Then very shortly thereafter, I was pregnant with my daughter when I was 23. She is now 15 and just the best kid. Shortly thereafter, I had two more boys. I have the best boys ever who are now 13 and 12, so married 21, having kids right away, and really was a baby raising babies and in the context of a marriage. What had ended up happening over the years, and for anybody who’s had that many little kids you know, and most moms we can relate to this, but particularly with that many so small, you were just surviving. That’s it. You’re just trying to make it. And I was in that space for, I want to say about five years, because either pregnant, breastfeeding somebody, or changing somebody’s diaper for over five years, and that puts you in a survival mode.

Then what ended up happening was I started to come out. It wasn’t quite as survival mode at the time, and much ado, I ended up going to law school at St. Mary’s in San Antonio. Through that process… I had a recruiting business and had some success at work. I was an entrepreneur. I’m always been entrepreneur. I always say I’m building something out of nothing. I was building something out of nothing with my recruiting business, but I didn’t feel fulfilled. I didn’t feel like this is my calling, this is my destiny, whatever. I got my MBA along the way and that was helpful, but it still wasn’t the thing.

I went back and got into law school at St. Mary’s, and that is really the left turn in my life. I don’t even think of it as a fork in the road. It’s a left turn. I just kiss the ground every day that I was able to do that and with kids. It was wild, and it was hard, but what started happening, and I think a lot of people especially who get married in your twenties, go through this experience, if you start to grow and your partner, and you start to change and they don’t because you took a left turn, and they kept going straight, before you know it, you’re so very far apart, and it was difficult.

Probably the net net net of the whole thing was a very bad match, a couple kids who should have gone on a couple dates and went on about their lives, not gotten married. The wonderful part of that is I have three of the best kids there are on the planet as a result, but when I went to law school, I started really becoming myself. Those layers of the onion started to strip away, and I felt that I was awakening. Awakening seems more purple flowy than I mean. I just mean like waking up, like fog off my eyes.

Jennifer Hargrave:

Sure. I mean, I think for so many of us as young adults, you are living under everybody else’s expectations of what your life should look like. There comes a point, that moment of growing up when you really realize that, “Oh, this is what I want and desire in my life.”

Hannah Hembree Bell:

Oh, yeah. I mean, that question, I thought about it this morning. I think that none of us, I mean most of anyway, I’m sure there’s some of us, need to stop and ask ourselves this, “What do I want?” I only recently, as in the last nine months, started asking myself that question, honestly, because I was a baby who had babies, that had to do kids.

One time I was in law school and my little friend Dana… Going to school, I commuted an hour and 20 minutes. I had three kids. I was home my first year to make dinner most of the days. I remember in the law library one time she said, “Hannah, I just don’t know how you do it. I just don’t know how you do it. Whenever it’s all this reading and stuff you’ve got to do, I just don’t…” She said, “I just don’t feel like doing it some days. I just can’t.” I said, “No, Dana. I haven’t asked myself what I feel like doing for the day in years.” It’s not relevant what do I want to do, what do I feel like doing. I’m just doing what I got to do in front of me, when you’re in that survival mode.

What started happening was who I was in my heart began to come forward and match up who I was in my practical life, but that was at law school an hour and 20 minutes from my home. Then I’d go back home, and I allowed myself to feel. I used to say made to feel, but I’m not the victim. I allowed myself to feel a little bit stupid, a little bit silly, a little bit irresponsible, all wrong all the time. That’s how I felt when I went home, but then when I was at law school, everybody acted like I was a law school fairy princess, and so sweet to me, and my teachers loved me. I’m a good little student. They say in law school, “Gunner,” so my little hand would just go up all the time. I’m very prepared because when I went to school, I really thought, I mean this is just so… I think divorce often unearths this whole other issue that was going on. It was my total lack of self worth and self respect.

Jennifer Hargrave:

The relationship, I mean that’s what I think can… In the unhealthy part of many relationships unfortunately, I think that that self-worth is something that, maybe especially as women, can be a real struggle to fight.

Hannah Hembree Bell:

It was because for me, as I grew and got my muscles under me in law school of, “Wait a minute, I’m this person and treated like this when I go to school, and I’m this person and treated like this when I go home. Wait a minute. The people at school are right. He’s wrong. The person I am here is who I really am. That other person is a shadow in a shell, like a Cicada that left their shell behind.” That’s how I felt, and then once… I always have had this knowing, and once I know, I cannot un-know, I can’t un-know things ever. My brain doesn’t allow me to move on.

Jennifer Hargrave:

That knowing was that moment of knowing that the marriage isn’t going to continue to work?

Hannah Hembree Bell:

Yeah. I think if I’m honest, the knowing was that my now ex-husband was never going to be different, no matter what I did, no matter how much I demanded, cajoled, et cetera. In hindsight, look, I should have allowed and been more understanding and respectful of that, just acknowledged this is wrong.

Jennifer Hargrave:

Oh, because what happens is the tension that’s created in trying to make somebody into something that they’re not and trying to get him to… Now that you found who you are over here, and you’re wanting to come here and have him meet you there, but that’s not who he is.

Hannah Hembree Bell:

Some people just can’t or won’t.

Jennifer Hargrave:

Yeah.

Hannah Hembree Bell:

There was just such a mismatch. It’s like being mad at an apple for not being an orange when that was just always just an apple, and maybe I don’t really care for apples clearly. It’s interesting because I’ve talked about this journey so much over the years, just in my job, I talk about it.

I talk about it very differently now, this last nine months of growth I’ve been going through to say, “Wait a minute.” Really, I mean, there was a lot of bad shit that went down, but at the root of this is two people who shouldn’t have been together. If both of us would’ve been more owning that sooner, and had I had more self-worth and self-respect, and said, “No, I will not be treated… This is how I’ll be treated,” those standards, and that level of taking up for myself, and that voice, had I found that a long time ago, I mean, would’ve been probably a divorced six months in or never gotten married in the first place.

It’s on me too. It’s on me that I made the decision to get married at 21 before I had done any of the personal work I needed to do to get to know myself, to become who I was, to make that effort to do that, and then to dump all this on another person. I was talking with a friend of mine who was talking about dating in his thirties now, and how so many women… I thought this was very insightful. So many women are unhappy in one way or the other, or unfulfilled, or dissatisfied in some way, so then they get into a relationship and they think the relationship is going to be the key that unlocks their door to happiness. They put all this pressure and dump everything on the relationship, and then things settle. Then they’re still that same person on the other side.

I think that’s what happens in marriages is we go in not having unearthed us. Then we expect the other person to fulfill all of our needs, and then they don’t and they have their own issues. Then we’re left on the other side.

Jennifer Hargrave:

We’re left in that state of conflict so often when we’re trying to get the other person to fill our bucket, and it’s that aha moment of, “Oh, it’s not their job to make me feel okay about myself. That’s really my work.”

Hannah Hembree Bell:

I mean, I’m still learning that. I have a lot of… You have expectations and you have standards, and what are the difference in that? The way I think of it is, what disappointment arises when we have unmet expectations? I definitely had unmet expectations in my marriage, very unrealistic expectations, both in a way that I think is fair and unfair, meaning expecting someone to be different than they were, but also just some baseline things that should have been that weren’t. I’m not going to let them off the hook, but the other piece of it is just that self contentment that allows those…

A lot of people get married who should never have got married, and so they stay in these relationships way longer than they should have, when really what should… My advice would be to come into any relationship, especially if you’re marriage minded, if you’re looking for that life partner, marriage, or otherwise, that life partner person, “Hey, let’s make a deal,” especially if you’re adults, which I recommend being an adult before you make this decision, at least 30, “I’ll let you know when I realize you are not the life partner for me, and you let me know. We’re both going to support each other in that decision and be grateful that neither one of us wasted each other’s time or heart energy anymore,” if we could be there. But, that takes a real fortitude and oomph inside you to say, “I’m okay. I’ll be okay if I’m not with this person. I don’t need someone else to fulfill or change me. I am enough and complete in a whole circle on my own.”

Jennifer Hargrave:

Really what marriage looks like when you are choosing every day to be in the marriage is a completely different experience than I’m stuck in this marriage, and I don’t know how to get out, and I don’t want to be here. When you realize you have the freedom… Nowadays, people have the freedom to end a marriage, and there are a lot of reasons why they don’t. We can talk about some of those things, but I think when you really look at your marriage is that it’s two free people who are choosing to stay in the marriage. It’s a choice that you honor and respect. It’s just a very different dynamic, a different type of relationship.

Hannah Hembree Bell:

Well, and the divorce will go better. If you’re those kinds of people, your divorce can end well. It’s going to save you money, time, and heartache if you both have that level of maturity, but hurt people hurt people. Usually marriage is two hurt people getting together who’ve not worked through that, and so they’re going to hurt until it becomes this all out war.

The way I think of marriage when I tried to describe it, I took in law school a bunch of international law classes, and marriage is like international law. You have two sovereign nations who choose, through a treaty, this marriage relationship, to interact and give up a little bit of their sovereignty to interact. Versus, I think people think of it more like one jurisdiction with the federal government and the state government, one power over the other, and this requirement, we’re all within the same jurisdiction, so you have to.

I think men are worse at this, men in their first marriage in my experience. They think that woman is always going to be there. In some ways, I think it goes back to a little bit, even if they don’t think this consciously, some part of their core thinks that a little bit she’s his property like in the old times, because we were. We were their property. We couldn’t even get credit until the seventies. I think that if you re-conceptualize marriage, not as you’re in one jurisdiction with the federal and state government hierarchy, but instead we’re basically like France and the US, to the extent we have treaties, to the extent we worked together because we want to and we choose it. That’s the reality of the situation.

I think guys, whoever might be watching this, in their first marriage, I see this mistake all the time. They don’t make it in their second marriage if they’ve made any growth of this notion that she doesn’t have to be there. She’s not under your jurisdiction because oh my god, they kill me, the guys who come in. They’re like, “I’m shocked. This came out of nowhere. What a surprise she’s leaving me.” I just say to them… I mean, I sit there, and I just roll my eyes. I’m not saying there can’t be an exception where that happens, but generally speaking, Jen, I know you know this…

Jennifer Hargrave:

Oh, yes.

Hannah Hembree Bell:

… women do not just wake up and say, especially women with children, “I think I’m going to just surprise and get divorced. I think today I’m going to get divorced.” We’re like Elle Woods like, “I think ill go to law school.” Women do not say, “I think I’ll get divorced,” especially women with kids. It is this erosion of personhood, of respect, of dignity, of concern, of affection over years. Guaranteed that woman has been telling you, “This, this, and this has to be different or else we’re done, or else I’m leaving.” Often, the man don’t believe her until she’s packed her bags and going. Then he says, “Oh, whoa. I’ll go to counseling. I’ll take you on date night.” He does everything she wished he would’ve been doing for the last five years.

Jennifer Hargrave:

But, it’s too late. It’s too late.

Hannah Hembree Bell:

It’s too late… Her give a damn is busted. You’ve done it. If a woman gets to that point where she’s ready to file for divorce for you, and she’s got minor children, pretty much she ain’t going to undo that. She already has a new plan. She’s already worked around in her life. She’s A, B tested that she’s going to be okay without you and that her and her kids… While you were on your work trips or whatever, she’s made sure she can run the home. She’s made sure she can bring her own groceries in. She’s made sure she’s got enough money. Anyway, this is not man bashing at all. I think there’s a whole different thing that women do wrong in the marriage too, but that’s what I see a lot of times.

At the end of the day, I think when I think about marriage, thinking about it as two people who choose to be in the relationship, and if at some point they’re going to un-choose to be in the relationship, if you can respect and just say like, “Look, you’re a nation state. I want you to do..” A lot of times it’ll come up with cheating and stuff for people. Everybody wants to be right. I’m right, and you’re wrong in breakup of this relationship and this family. When really it’s like, “Look. So what?” I mean, I don’t recommend that plan, but at the end of the day, clearly this person doesn’t want to be married to you anymore.

Watch the rest of our conversation on Youtube!