Undeniably the most difficult and painful decision for any couple is the decision to end their marriage. All the dreams, hopes, and expectations come to a crashing halt, replaced by fears, anxieties and perhaps, too, anger. Still, as much as one might like to crawl into a deep hole and hibernate, hoping everything will just go away or get taken care of, this is not the time to opt out.
Let’s consider for the moment two individuals who, for a variety of different reasons, faced a fairly similar situation in his and her divorce.
Person number one is Cindy Falmouth. Cindy is 39 years old, married to Nick Falmouth who is also 39 years old. They have been married for 18 years and have two children: Alicia, who is 15 and Jon, who is 13. The Falmouths reside in an affluent community south of Boston. Both of their children attend private school. By every measure, they are a power couple—educated, successful, and seemingly happy. The problem here is that Jim has informed Cindy that he wants a divorce—he has been unhappy for a long time, he tells her. Cindy is surprised and more than a little angry. She has been living in a different marriage. She thought life was fine. The very idea of divorce is foreign to her.
Now for person number two: Margaret Towes. Margaret is also 39 years old, married to Jim Towes, who is 42 . They have been married for 17 years and have two children: Peter, who is 12 and Celia, who is 9. Both children attend private school. By every measure they, too, are a power couple, sharing the same attributes as the Falmouths. The major difference here is that in this example, Margaret, the wife, is the person who wants the divorce. Her explanation is very much like that of Nick. She has been unhappy for a long time, but the children and her feelings for Jim have prevented her from asking for a divorce. Now she feels she cannot continue living this kind of charade. She is unhappy and wants a divorce. Jim, like Cindy, is shocked. They just came back from a European vacation; life seemed just fine. He would never have imagined that he would be faced with divorce.
So here we have it. Two people from similar backgrounds faced with a personal upheaval in their lives that neither one could have visualized and that neither one quite knows how to handle. Do these two ‘like’ people follow ‘like’ paths? The answer is a resounding no!
Cindy, who gave up her career as a financial adviser to raise their two children, is furious with Nick for placing her in this position. Her relatives and friends are only too eager to give her all the advice they feel she should have—“get him”, they tell her. “Don’t let him take advantage of you. You need a lawyer who knows how to fight, who will make him pay.” And following the advice of friends and family, Cindy finds a lawyer who advertises that he will provide experienced and aggressive representation. This is exactly what Cindy feels she needs. She does not want to think about the divorce; she does not want to deal with Nick; she wants him and the situation handled. Cindy wants her life, with or without Nick, the way it was before. The aggressive lawyer is her answer to the best path.
Jim, person number two, did not give up his career to get married, nor did his wife. The Towes had decided all those years ago when their first child was born that Margaret should work part-time and Jim would be the primary wage earner. Jim, like Cindy, has relatives and friends who give him advice. “Don’t let her walk all over you,” they tell him. “She will get remarried the minute you divorce.” “Let her have her divorce, but not the kids and the money.” Although unsure what to do and bewildered and hurt, Jim decides to see a therapist. Despite Margaret’s urgings to leave the house and get on with the separation, he just can’t think straight; he needs help. The therapist paints a different picture than that of his very good friends and loving relatives. Dr. X says that a bitter, ugly divorce is not the answer, that this is not the time to seek revenge, not the time to let his pain dictate his divorcing strategy. Dr. X suggests mediation. You both need to work this through together; you need to preserve your assets and continue to parent your children. You aren’t divorcing the kids and they should not lose either parent. You owe the children something better, divorced or married.
Here we have it: two divorcing couples. Not very dissimilar circumstances or even finances. These couples could be neighbors or friends; they have much in common. But the decision on how to handle the divorcing process could not be more disparate. Cindy did hire an aggressive lawyer—he was everything he promised—hostile, combative, and offensive. Her husband picked a legal twin for representation and the battle waged on for over two years before the divorce was granted. Financially and personally the wounds were deep and the recovery from the battle was slow. It took five years after the divorce before Cindy and Nick would talk about problems their children were experiencing. Being parents together was destined to be another trial, a long and painful process.
Jim and Margaret had a different experience. Oh, they felt the pain and even the anger, but they were able, with the help of a mediator, to reach a settlement that preserved their ability to parent together. It was by no means easy; they had to face each other, while deep down inside the anger and tension were bubbling below the surface. They struggled with their own demons, forcing themselves to focus on their children. After much thought, they managed to structure an agreement that each felt was fair emotionally and financially. Ironically perhaps they were truly proud of their achievement, their ability to still the voices of those who cared about them, and to quell thoughts of revenge.
The real moral to this story is that divorce is truly a process that requires your attention and involvement. You cannot and should not wish it away. You cannot and should not put your lives in the hands of others, no matter how capable and how well meaning.
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