Ugly Divorce!

Dear Robin:

My wife of 23 years recently filed for divorce.  I just discovered she was having a three-year affair with a married man and apparently once she convinced him to leave his wife, I was toast.  In retrospect, I can see that our marriage had been in trouble for a long time, and I don’t think either one of us was happy.  In the end, the divorce may be a good thing for both of us and for our kids, the youngest of whom just started college.

Here is my problem: from the moment she announced our marriage was over, every issue connected to the divorce has been a knock-down, drag out fight.  I have truly made an effort to be accommodating in some aspects, but in others I feel I should hold my ground.  

Making matters worse, she has retained a lawyer who is well-known in our city for unreasonable, unethical and ugly tactics.  At every turn. this man has encouraged my wife to fight with me and involve our children in the disagreements, which my kids hate.  When my wife and I were still able to communicate with each other, often we would agree on a particular issue.  For example, at one point we had agreed that I would keep our sedan and she would keep the SUV.  Once her lawyer got involved, she suddenly insisted that she should have both the cars and I should have to buy a new one!

Her lawyer has now told her not to communicate with me at all, and every detail of our divorce has to be run through our attorneys, which is costing me tens of thousands of dollars.  I am at my wits’ end and don’t know what to do.  I’m losing my focus at work, I’m losing weight and I’m losing hope that I will ever get through this thing intact.

Robin, how can I convince my wife that her behavior and approach to this divorce is detrimental to both of us and our kids, not to mention our bank accounts?

-Ted

Dear Ted:

I welcome the opportunity to answer your letter, because it is the Perfect Storm of divorce-related issues: money, kids, resentment, hideous counsel, stubborn position-taking, etc.  I feel for you, man.  I truly do.

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That little boat?  That’s you.  The menacing ugly wave of terror?  That’s your divorce today.  Note that I said that’s “your” divorce today, not divorce in general and not necessarily your divorce in the future.  

Ted, it doesn’t have to be that way, but unfortunately for you and as I think you already know, a low-conflict dissolution cannot occur unless all parties commit to making it that way and insist that their lawyers follow that directive.  Until then, every time you are faced with an event in your divorce, be it property distribution, spousal support or who gets the dog, you will probably look like this:

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When normally, you probably look like this:

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Hold on, I need a moment.  (five minute break)

Oh, George, I love you so.  I’m happily married but I think we could be the best of friends.  You’ve got a house in Italy, I have a house in Portland.  You are an international film star and accomplished director, and I am an unknown advice blogger and currently-out-of-work corporate lawyer.  You date younger women, I fell in love with an older man.  It’s like it was meant to be!  Call me…

OK Ted, back to you.  Let’s break it down into bite-sized pieces.  From our email chat, I know that your perspective is that the marriage was generally OK but not satisfying for either of you for some time.  You told me you rarely fought but that the marriage had become more of a roommate situation than a partnership.  

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Here are my thoughts in no particular order:

1. You sound like a nice guy.  If I take everything you told me at face value, I think your attitude is remarkable considering the circumstances.  While I’d love to hear from your wife to get the full story, I don’t want to add to your attorney fees by generating that request.  Perhaps she reads my blog and will recognize herself.  Meghan, if you are out there, please contact me.

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2. When we chatted you voiced your extreme surprise at her intensely confrontational and unreasonable approach to the divorce, seeing as how she cheated for so long and she was the one who filed.  In order for you to understand why she is acting this way, you need to consider that she may be feeling guilt, shame and embarrassment over the affair and the subsequent divorce.  

While some people take those feelings and bend over backward to be reasonable and to facilitate a quick end to the litigation, others project their feelings of anger at themselves onto their spouse.  It sounds like that is your first problem: she feels like an asshole and to soothe herself, she is fighting with you.  If she fights with you about something petty, like the dining room table or who gets the unused Secrets of the Kama Sutra book, she doesn’t have to fight with you about the stuff that really matters and which puts her in a bad light.

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3. Assuming I am right, and I think we can make that assumption because I have an advice blog and you do not, what does this mean for you and your efforts to make things better?  It’s simple really, and it relates back to an earlier blog about the freedom of forgiveness (Getting Past the Guilt of Infidelity).  You need to forgive Meghan and tell her as much so she can forgive herself.  I’ll go one step further: if you can’t forgive her yet, you have to at least tell her you have.  

You know that expression “fake it ’till ya make it?”  I don’t sense from our communications that you are especially bitter about what happened, which means you have either forgiven her or you will in the future.  The sooner you and she can move past the affair and other lingering resentments, the sooner you may be able to get your communication back on track.  Write her an AskDesCamp Litigation Control™ letter and use the following template:

1 paragraph of Fond Memories

3 paragraphs of Our Kids are Wonderful and you were and are a Great Mom

2 short declarative statements of Regret

2-3 paragraphs of We are Running out of Money, Let’s Not Make the Lawyers Rich (include specific financial data)

1-2 paragraphs of I Forgive You and Want us to be OK, and

1 closing paragraph of Let’s Not Fight Anymore, it’s Hurting Us and our Children

Combine all elements above using a pen and paper (email does not work for this template) and follow up with an offer to meet and discuss how you both can move on.  Use this cute cartoon as a closer:

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4. I am an advice blogger, not a psychic.  For that reason, I cannot predict Meghan’s reaction to your efforts to clear the air. I can, however, predict her attorney’s reaction.  Before I say something that is sure to offend some of my readers who practice family law, let me state that there are good divorce lawyers out there.  I know a couple, and they both operate within the paradigm of doing as little damage as possible as quickly as possible and retaining as much good will between the parties as possible.

That being said, it’s pretty pathetic that with the number of divorce lawyers I am familiar with, very few practice with this collaborative approach.  The others are more like your wife’s lawyer, who I am naming Joe D.

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Joe D. does not want you and your wife to get along.  Why?  Because promoting acrimony and dousing the flames of your divorce with emotional gasoline is a very effective way to make Joe D. fabulously wealthy.  Let’s assume his billable rate is $450/hour.

If you and Meghan talk without lawyers and agree that you get the dusty Kama Sutra book and she gets the dining room set (you never liked it anyway; her taste is hideous), you just cost Joe D. about 5 hours in billable time.  Joe D. is really good at romancing the file for billables.  Therefore, that’s $2,250 that could have gone to his favorite charity, Divorce Lawyers Need Second Homes Too.

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Honestly, I could go on and on about this subject, but I won’t.  I want to help you and I also want to go back to looking at pictures of George Clooney online, so I’ll get to the point as quickly as possible.  

If you are able to get your wife to agree to work with you instead of against you, her lawyer has an ethical duty to abide by her wishes.  If problems continue to crop up, your lawyer should take that up with Joe D., and you should do your best to continue improving your relationship with Meghan and let her know when Joe D. is being an asshole.  She may have no idea.  She’s busy getting busy with the new guy, after all.

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Sorry, was that insensitive?  I’m working on that.

5. If you write the letter as prescribed and you do not get a favorable response, you need to have a very direct conversation with your attorney about your expectations.  I know of a family law firm in Portland that has a strict .2 minimum billing practice.  What that means is an attorney must bill at least 12 minutes to the client for any work done, even if it takes less time.  

For example, if you and your lawyer have a one-minute phone call, a three minute email exchange and a few short texts that take only a few second to write, there is a chance your lawyer is billing you for every action separately, without cumulating the time.  

For the firm mentioned above, the lawyer would be expected to bill 12 minutes for each event, regardless of how much time it actually took.  That’s 48 minutes of billable time for less than 5 minutes of work.  As bad as that sounds, imagine how quickly you can go broke if your lawyer screws you like this for months.  It adds up, and it adds up BIG.

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Make sure your lawyer bills you for ACTUAL time worked and cumulates his or her time rather than hitting you with a minimum for the most trivial of interactions.

You play a role here too.  Don’t reach out to your attorney every time you have a thought about your case.  Write them down over the course of a few days, unless you have an emergency of course, and handle them all at once.  Above all else, record the time you spend interacting with your attorney and compare it to the bills you receive.  If there are discrepancies on a regular basis, you’ve got a problem.

Finally, even if you don’t get the response you’d like from your wife, do what you can to keep trying to improve your relationship.  Some day in the not-too-distant future, your kids will be having graduations, weddings, and babies.  You and your wife owe it to each other to not ruin these major life events for your children because you can’t get along.

I don’t think every couple can have the sort of divorce that I have.  Patrick and Crista, love you guys.  Here they are at the reception which followed my mother-in-law’s funeral: 

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Good looking couple, right?  Our friendship and respect for each other is a constant source of comfort for me, and I know our son appreciates the wonderful relationship we all share.  Many kids aren’t so lucky, and just because your children are almost adults doesn’t mean that a contentious relationship with your wife won’t impact their lives, both now and into the future.

Therefore, don’t stop trying.  If she won’t meet you halfway, consider scooting up to 75%.  If she steadfastly refuses to ever improve things, she’s got some fairly deep problems which won’t be resolved by divorcing you and marrying the new guy.  Above all else, be there for your children, let them know you love them, and if mom continues to be a raging bitch, they will figure out her game soon enough.

Whatever you do, don’t be a martyr.  Accept that the marriage is over (it sounds like you have already done this), forgive your wife for her bad behavior, both pre and post-filing, forgive yourself for whatever role you may have played in the breakdown of the marriage, try to communicate with your wife using the AskDesCamp Litigation Control™ Letter and jump into your new life with enthusiasm and vigor.  

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Best of luck, and keep in touch.

Robin

 

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Jeanna

    Bravo!

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