“About our marriage … yada yada yada .. I want a divorce.”
“I don’t want to get divorce, it’s [spouse’s name goes here], not me.”
That’s the start of one of the toughest conversations I have to have with people. It’s a conversation, by the way, that cannot be avoided.
Although I’ve heard this for what seems countless times, the conversations never seem to get any easier. People come in for an initial consultation, introduce themselves, we share a few pleasantries about the weather or the Cubs or the latest movie, then they tell me they’re not in my office because they want to get divorced, they’re only here because their spouse, sometimes to their surprise, does.
It brings the conversation to a halt. It’s tough for them to tell me that, I’ve heard it enough where I know the person across from me is in a lot of pain. I totally understand. Barring fairly extreme situations – abuse, addictions, etc. – people generally don’t want significant relationships to end. It just kind of happens.
I don’t want these relationships to end for my clients either, if it can be avoided. That brings up a very knotty question, one books are countless daytime TV shows have been dedicated to: when can divorce be avoided, when can’t it, and how is anyone supposed to know?
From what I’ve seen, the question comes down to whether or not it’s past a point of no return, the point where there’s nothing the partners can do to save the relationship. That point where it’s obvious – at least to one spouse – that there’s nothing left to pursue or explore that can make a difference.. The legal term for that point is dry but straight to the point: “there has been a breakdown of the marital relationship to the extent that the legitimate objects of matrimony have been destroyed and there remains no reasonable likelihood that the marriage can be preserved.”
What does that really even mean to normal people anyway? I’ve never heard of anyone outside of a Seinfeld episode (except possibly a lawyer) tell his or her soon to be ex-spouse, “Sorry but the legitimate objects of our matrimony…yada yada yada…it’s over.” Leave it to attorneys to come up with a 33 word explanation for “we’re done.”
Even then, however, does this declaration make the relationship truly over. The person doing the “dumping,” or the leaving, can say it’s done, but that certainly doesn’t mean that the “dumpee” thinks it is. In fact, it may come as quite the shock.
I’ve talked to many marriage counselors about this over the years. A straight, honest question, “When can a marriage be saved?“ Unfortunately, to date, I’ve not received a satisfying answer. I usually get something along the lines of ‘if both parties want to save the marriage, then they can save it‘.
Obvious and simplistic, but only to objective third parties like me and the counselor I just spoke to. Not remotely obvious and simple or satisfying if you you’re the one who wants the relationship to continue, and you’re in the thick of the forest.
So, back to my conversation with my new client? Where do I go after I’m asked that question? First, here’s what we absolutely,under any circumstances, do not talk about – – promises – how much alimony am I going to pay, do I get to keep the kids 50/50, how much do I keep in my retirement plan.
In a little while, we’ll cover the basics of the process and the general law, give a basic idea of things,, but it’s way too early in the process for promises. First off, I have no crystal ball (and no other reasonable attorney does either, no matter what they may say). You might as well be asking That Guy In a Bar or Your Cousin Who Had a Divorce Once. Secondly the last thing I want to do is promise someone X, and have them use “the lawyer said I get X” as an excuse to move a case forward that they don’t want to move forward. Convoluted? Maybe. But I’m not filing a case unless it’s what the client truly wants, and “I don’t want it, but I think they want it, so then I want it” doesn’t count. I’m not in the business of selling divorce, I’m in the business of helping people build better lives when they have no other choice.
Now if we know divorce is inevitable, we have one type of conversation – one based around protecting my client’s interests as much as possible. But if divorce is only optional, we have a totally different conversation. Here’s what that second type of discussion looks like:
Goals. What do you really want and why do you want it? What do you want for your life? If your true goal is to save the marriage, then let’s talk about saving the marriage, not dividing up custody of the kids and Fido. But if saving the marriage is really not your true goal, it’s time to be honest with yourself. Whichever it is, let’s put together a plan to take action towards your real goals.
Counseling. Counseling is always a good start. Not “make that a-hole start going to counseling with me” type counseling, but individual counseling – for you – now. Also, the dumper may not want to go to marriage counseling at this point, but you can offer it, just don’t try to force or guilt the other person into doing it.
Personal development. Again, start with you, not them. Read The Seven Love Languages by Dr. Gary Chapman. Listen to Tony Robbins talk about the human needs of certainty, variety, love, significance, contribution, and growth. Figure out how you can give love to the other person; not take it.
Collaborative law. If a divorce case has already started or is inevitable, a traditional litigated, adversarial divorce case is not going to help you patch things up with your soon to be ex. Almost no one has ever won another person’s affections by suing them (again, except for possibly an attorney). However a low conflict, low stress , out of court collaborative divorce case can give you an opportunity to work together with your spouse, to learn to communicate better, and give you the opportunity to undo some damage. I’ve seen it work to save relationships before.
Free Will. Lastly we talk about free will. You may be the greatest husband, dad, wife, mother, breadwinner, homemaker, or lover; you may be super sexy, super successful, or super whatever, but if the other person wants to leave you, they will. You can’t control the other person, you’re not entitled to someone’s love or affection, and all you can do is try to become his or her best option.
And that’s it. We make a plan, then it’s up to the client to take action, and let the chips fall where they may. That’s it.
Sometimes I have a client by the end of the hour. Sometimes I don’t. And sometimes, six months, a year, two years down the road they come back because now it’s time to move forward. Sometimes that’s because they gave it an honest try and they know they’re ready. Sometimes they haven’t done anything new, are just stuck, and have realized that time and a better future are ticking away and it’s time to move on. Sometimes things work out and I never hear from them ever again. Whatever happens, I hope that I’ve been helpful in their story.
If someone you know or love is telling you “I don’t want a divorce, but he (or she) does,” we’ll be happy to talk with them about their options, and help them make a plan to move towards better days ahead.