Are you or someone you know contemplating a divorce? Are there plans to hire a lawyer and take the matter to court? At the risk of raising the ire of matrimonial lawyers, I say, you might want to rethink that idea.
I've written in this space about alternative ideas to divorce court, the less painful process called "collaborative law" in which specially trained lawyers act as mediators not adversaries. More recently, I wrote about how the family court system is overwhelmed with divorce and custody cases. Some divorces take years to wind their way through the courts. In the meantime, the warring factions continue to funnel money to their divorce lawyers — lots of money — that would likely be put to better use in establishing a new household or college funds for the children.
I have been with the same man for three decades — happily married for more than 20 years — but since I began researching the family court crisis, I've been unable to stop thinking about the state of marriage today. The cold, hard statistics reveal shocking facts: 50 percent of all marriages in the United States end in divorce. There is a divorce every 13 seconds. Apply a little math and the staggering totals add up to 6,646 divorces each day, 46,523 divorces per week.
If the outcome is only 50-50, at best, why do people keep taking the plunge? And more important, when faced with the realization that the partnership is doomed, why do we fight so bitterly for the spoils — the house, the car, bank accounts and, of course, custody of the kids. What makes us turn so ugly?
It's not the job of the court system to try to figure out the human dynamics behind a divorce. So for answers, I turned to those who study the human condition.
"The attitude toward marriage and its longevity has changed," clinical psychologist and author Dr. Patricia Farrell told me, as she described why marriage is no longer a sacred institution. "Divorce is now a right that comes with marriage. Why else would people have pre-nups? There is flexibility in marriage now that didn't exist before."
In what other part of your life would you throw absolute caution to the wind knowing there's a 50-50 chance of failure? Yet millions of us blissfully marry every year. Why?
Dr. Patricia Saunders, Ph.D., a psychologist trained in psychotherapy, explained it by saying humans are hard-wired to need an intimate relationship.
"It's the 'attachment' hormone that we've all got vis-à-vis evolutionary biology," she explained. "Primitive parts of the brain release it, and our higher brain centers don't have much control over it."
The end effect, she says, is that it's really easy for us to "miss red flags or rationalize them" when looking at our partner's foibles.
In other words, love is blind. OK, I get that. But once the glow of contentment is gone and your spouse has morphed into someone you can't stand to be in the same room with, why don't people take the easy and logical way out? Fill out some forms, split the material goods and go on their separate ways. Why do we so often see the prolonged animosity depicted so well in the film The War of the Roses?
Dr. Robi Ludwig, a nationally known psychotherapist, told me that in many divorces all ability to calmly communicate and compromise goes out the window. At that point, "They're probably lucky they're not killing each other," she said. So, these couples often turn to matrimonial lawyers to advocate for them in court.
"A partner may like the idea of a pit-bull lawyer successfully fighting their battles for them; even if it costs them a fortune," Ludwig said. "Our more primal emotions are to win and to survive. Fighting helps us to feel — on a primal level — that we are right, we can win, and then, ultimately, we will survive."
Farrell, also a bestselling author whose latest book is Fired Up: A Shrink's Musings, blames lawyers for escalating tension and perpetuating the idea that you will suffer, financially, if you go the do-it-yourself-divorce route. "Couples are easily convinced, in their emotional state that they need this service and that each of them needs a lawyer (now there's two fees) in order for each of them to have their interests protected. It's lawyer PR all the way," Farrell said.
Saunders agreed: "The saddest part is that the kids are the ones who suffer from the chaos, anger and vengefulness. They can't understand why mom and dad are acting like different people and often wonder if that level of negative emotion will be turned on them."
According to Forbes (2006 figures), matrimonial law work is a $28 billion-a-year industry.
I will concede, in the case of a stay-at-home parent who is up against a wealthy and vengeful partner, it is a good idea to have a legal advocate on board. But I'm not referring to a high-powered or celebrity-type divorce where millions are at stake. I'm talking about the average Joe and Jane, who the latest statistics show, will spend about $15,000 (lawyer's fees, court costs, filing fees, refinancing) to undo their union. The more simple mediation route will still cost several thousands.
In these strained economic times, isn't it smarter to keep all that money in the family — even if it is a disintegrating family?
Doesn't someone out there have a better, easier idea for couples who no longer want to be married? Send me your ideas. If they seem plausible, I'll share them in a future column.
— Diane Dimond is the author of Be Careful Who You Love: Inside the Michael Jackson Case. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her on Twitter: @DiDimond, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.