Dear Pinky and Spike:
Before Ashley could announce her good and bad news, Ralph said, “Given the context, the ‘good news-bad news’ trope feels wrong.”
Jennifer met Ralph’s gaze and said, very slowly, “Ralph, there is going to have to be an attitude change if we are going to make it through this thing.”
“We need an attitude change? Somehow that sounds like ‘Ralph, you need to change your attitude.’ Whether it’s my attitude or our attitudes, what do you mean? I’ve never understood what is meant when one person tells another to ‘change your attitude.’ Obviously, the person giving the order doesn’t like whatever the person receiving the order — in this case, me — is doing or saying or thinking, so it’s that person’s opinion that decides whether someone else’s attitude is bad and therefore needs changing. It’s only your disapproval that makes my attitude or our attitudes bad.”
Ashley spoke up, “Jennifer meant your attitude — not hers or mine.”
Being with Rebecca had made Ralph accustomed to receiving criticism from a woman many years his junior, so he said, “Let’s be clear. You two are telling me that you think I’ve got a bad attitude. Is that correct?”
Jennifer responded, “Not bad as a moral judgment. Your attitude is ‘bad’ only because it makes it more difficult — or even impossible — for you to accomplish your goal.”
“And just what is the ‘goal’ here?”
“I hope your goal is to be a better person when your divorce is over than you were at the start,” replied Jennifer, who had taken over the conversation.
“A better person? What does that mean?”
“It’s up to you. Do you think you are a perfect person right now?”
“Right now, I’m a wreck.”
“Fair enough. But during the best times of your marriage, did you ever feel satisfied with yourself while at the same time realizing that you could be an even better person — maybe some ideal version of yourself that’s been developing since you were a child?”
“Yes, but then I realized it would take a lot of work and that I was basically OK with the status quo.”
“So, then, the status quo wasn’t good enough toward the end of two marriages?”
“I guess you could say that, but …”
“But what, Ralph?” Jennifer interrupted.
“I was going to say that as far as I was concerned, my personal status quo has always been good enough for me, but it wasn’t so great for my spouse — either one of them. The first time this happened I really respected my wife’s opinion, so I started to do some soul searching, but it was painful and I thought, ‘Why am I doing this to myself?’ With Rebecca, I am honored by the fact that I don’t meet her standards for an acceptable spouse, so I haven’t even considered any kind of self-analysis-paralysis; keeping the lid on myself is uncomfortable enough.”
“Uncomfortable is the word doctors and dentists use to tell you that you are about to experience excruciating pain. What I’m explaining to you is that divorce is the last best chance to become more like the man you want to be. You’ve already begun a psychological process. It follows a predictable course, but it is unlike a disease because at least one party makes a deliberate decision to start it. Nevertheless, once the process begins, you lose control over some of the external and internal events that are going to happen no matter what. The attitudes you have toward both will determine whether you end up as a better or worse person at the end.”
“Listen, ladies. My attitude right now is angry, frightened, frustrated and cynical. That’s who I am. I can’t change it, and wouldn’t want to if I could.”
Ashley stepped in: “Ralph, if nothing else emerges from the conversation we are having right now, ruminate on what you just said: ‘I couldn’t change my attitude if I wanted to.’ Is that what you really believe? How does it stand up to a lifetime of experience? Are you saying that you’ve never forced yourself to change an attitude that was not useful or even dangerous to one that was better for dealing with a particular situation? Say, for example, that a kid falls out of a tree and is on the ground with a bone sticking out of his leg. The parent in you might be passed out on the lawn, while the effective man in you takes over, makes a realistic evaluation and then does everything he can to help his child — or anyone’s child. Have you ever had an experience like that? If you haven’t, don’t you think it could happen to you?”
“Are you trying to say that I’m supposed to create and then somehow implement an attitude of my choice?”
“Exactly,” Jennifer said, taking back the lead. “You decide what a more functional attitude looks like, and then you figure out how to change it.”
“OK, I want to have the same attitude as a soldier in Afghanistan or Iraq. I like the idea of a free-fire zone — I’m speaking metaphorically — and of myself in Kevlar protective gear, with an automatic weapon and the rest of the 85 pounds of protective and destructive equipment those guys carry around.”
“So you want to treat your divorce like a lethal battle?” Jennifer asked.
“What choice do I have?”
“The only limitation is your imagination.”
“This is too touchy-feely for me.”
Jennifer replied, “Whenever I hear that from a client — and it’s not an uncommon sentiment around here — I’ve come to realize that while it sounds like a put-down against what we are doing with this practice, or even a put-down directed toward one of us in a personal way, the fear of the ‘touchy-feely’ is born of ignorance and comes from a lack of self-awareness.”
“Fine, the term ‘touchy-feely’ is withdrawn from this conversation, in deference to counsel. Now, could you possibly assist a poor, unaware and self-delusional scientist — who has spent a lifetime using logic to understand facts or facts to generate understanding — to understand what the hell you’re talking about?”
“You want an example of how one could change an attitude from one that’s dysfunctional to one that’s useful? Let’s say there was this scientist who is going through a divorce and he is using every legal weapon he can think of in order to beat his wife into submission and thereby emerge from the struggle victorious. But as time goes by, he finds himself getting more and more exhausted — and he has a growing realization that his wife is putting very little of herself into the conflict. Instead, she’s turned the problem — her soon-to-be-ex-husband — over to her lawyer. The scientist eventually realizes that what exhausts him energizes the lawyer because the lawyer has different goals. The lawyer emerges victoriously by converting the husband’s fight into money for himself.
“The scientist realizes that he can’t win and most certainly will lose — his money, at the very least — under the rules he’s set up for himself. He decides that a very different approach would be for him to act like a scientist studying this problem of divorce, which affects about half of the nation’s population. The subject of his study cannot be defeated, and it cannot be fully understood. Like so many other subjects of scientific inquiry, knowledge will come in small increments, and if he can contribute something to one of those increments, he has succeeded as a scientist, and this attitude is one that would limit the riches a lawyer can take from the estate. How is that for an example?”
“How am I going to study something as amorphous as divorce?”
“You could start by going limp. Those who soldier through a divorce emerge at the end with post-traumatic stress syndrome and traumatic brain injuries. You, Ralph, are about to be subjected to a series of insistent demands for documents and other information. You will know that there is nothing of interest in some. You will strongly suspect that some of the documents demanded no longer exist. Once you produce the requested documents, more of the same kind will be the subject of a second or third request. If you are unable to produce a requested document, a motion will be made to the court for an order to compel you to find something that doesn’t exist. Your inability — your failure to produce any document requested — will be cited as evidence that you have in the past or are now stealing from Rebecca.
“No matter what you do or do not provide to Eunice Heep, she will argue the combined inferences from the material you’ve given her and the inferences to be drawn from what you are ‘withholding,’ and she will prove fraud, deceit, theft or, at the very least, a failure to meet the fiduciary standard imposed on you by law with respect to your stewardship over the community assets.”
Ralph stopped paying attention when he was told to go limp and, paradoxically, he has gone limp while his intentions are to the contrary. “If that was the bad news, what’s the good? If that was the good news, I’m going to have to come back later to hear the bad.”
Jennifer explained, “While you two have been working on what’s going on in court, I had a chance to talk to three lawyers who have had success in getting Judge Maryland to ‘sever’ one issue from the rest of the case and hold a trial on that issue alone. They all thought that the most intractable issue in this case — whether a wife has reimbursement rights against a husband who used some of his income to comply with a court order to support his children and his former wife — was the kind of thing she likes to try without having to deal with any of the other issues in the case until a later date. She thinks that knocking out the stumbling block — no matter what she decides — will make settlement of the other issues easy. It’s not something we can do now, and the timing has to be just right when we try to do it later in the case, but I think it’s our best shot for shortening the legal aspects of your case. It won’t have any effect on the psychological divorce.
“We’ll come back to what I’ve called the good news, and to me that’s what it is, but right now or tomorrow or the next day at the latest we need to talk to you Ralph about suffering. We need to find out what you think you can tolerate and what we can do to alleviate what’s intolerable.”
— Brian H. Burke is a certified family law specialist practicing family law and mediation in Santa Barbara. A researcher and educator in the field of divorce and family conflicts, he is also the creator of the Legal Road Map™. Click here for more information, call 805.965.2888 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.