Thursday, November 15 , 2018, 6:34 pm | Fair 61º


Brian Burke: About Your Divorce (Letter 5)

The process will take you in one of two directions — toward becoming 'better' or toward the negative




I wasn’t there. I didn’t see or hear what happened. My information comes from Mary, and this is what she said:

She, Nora and several friends were having their monthly lunch together at their downtown club. Yesterday, when halfway through their meal, a deputy sheriff approached the table. He was in full regalia wearing his badge, gun, handcuffs, nightstick, mace, radio and extra ammunition. He asked for Nora, and she raised her hand to receive a 9-inch-by-12-inch envelope. He said, “You’ve just been served court documents,” and vanished.

Mary said the women at lunch had one of two reactions: Half wanted Nora to open the envelope and to tell them about whatever it contained; the other half imagined they were in Nora’s position and felt, vicariously, exposed and humiliated.

Mary said she was among the second group. Nora doesn’t spook easily, but she’s an extremely private person. Mary’s the same way, so she asked Nora if she wanted to leave the club immediately and offered to drive her home. Nora accepted. Neither said a word during the ride from downtown to the beach house.

When they arrived at the beach, Nora asked Mary to read the documents and to tell her what they were about. Mary told me that the envelope contained a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage, a Summons with a set of “Automatic Temporary Restraining Orders” and a letter to Nora from a local divorce lawyer well-known for her “vigorous representation.” The letter started with the statement: “I’ve been retained by your husband to represent him in an action for dissolution of his marriage to you.” Mary said the tone of what followed was mean-spirited and accusatory, and that neither she nor Nora had the stomach to read the whole thing.

That’s all I know about the so-called facts. To summarize: Mary reports that you hired an aggressive lawyer who had the Petition and Summons served on Nora in a public place and in front of her friends. In addition to the legal papers, the delivery included a letter from your lawyer to Nora that was perceived as being so nasty that neither Mary nor Nora was able to read the whole thing.

. . .

I can’t recall a single conversation about how you and Spike got the nicknames that have survived for 35 years. But I was there, and I’m going to make a record of what I remember. By telling this story, I want to remind you of something about yourself and about Nora.

We were in third grade at Wildwood School, and Nora was the new kid. It was so long ago that every girl wore a dress every day. It was literally a Dress Code, and it meant that if a girl wanted to make a swing go high or to hang from her knees on the monkey bars, her knickers would be exposed.

When this happened, the boys would rarely notice. If one did notice, he wouldn’t say anything out loud or even in private. There were no rules to this effect; it was an example of the spontaneous exercise of simple decency.

On the day in question, Nora was performing on the high bar. She was good and on the way to establishing herself as one of the alpha-girls in our class. She dismounted by doing a back flip — something we had never seen on the playground. Your response was unforgettable. You sang, “I see Paris, I see France, I see Nora’s pink underpants.” Bad move.

In Nora’s immediate vicinity was an air-filled rubber ball that was a little smaller than but just as firm as a volleyball. Nora picked it up and threw it at your midsection. I remember being scared because it took you so long to start breathing again. You spent the morning in the nurse’s office, and when you were released, you apologized to Nora and the two of you were inseparable for the next 35 years. From that day on, you have been known as Pinky and Nora has been known as Spike.

I’ve retold the story to remind you why you came out of third grade with the nickname “Pinky,” and why Nora’s nickname is “Spike.” It was because she was tougher than you. Has anything happened during the last three and a half decades to change that? There’s nothing I know about.

. . .

You and Spike have entered Stage II — “Anger and Rage” — of your psychological divorce.

In the context of death, Stage II Anger is directed toward someone who “doesn’t count” or someone within the family system who is “safe.” So long as the reaction to the anger is minimal, Stage II passes quickly.

Within the context of divorce, the other becomes the natural target of what can be reciprocal anger. The legal system seduces the couple with the false promise of immediate resolution by someone — a Superior Court judge — whose idea of what is best for you (plural) will be better than what you can figure out for yourselves. The idea is preposterous unless the couple are so impaired by grief that they can’t act.

Even in an instance where the court’s lousy solution is better than anything the couple can come up with at the time, psychological conflict is being presented in the form of a legal issue. The court might be able to solve the apparent problem, but it is often followed by the emergence of another problem — sometimes worse than the first.

As miserable and as painful as it is, divorce is one of the very few opportunities during a lifetime to reconsider values, beliefs and behavior. People going through it have choices to make. Each choice takes you in one of two directions. The first is toward becoming a “better person” once the process is complete. I won’t try to define what’s meant by “better” other than to say that many people experience a part of their being that “feels better” than the other parts. Although they would like to nurture that good part, the perceived opportunities for doing so are rare — and difficult.

The second kind of choice leads toward becoming a person whose negative traits and characteristics have been permanently amplified by the divorce experience.

You’ve just taken a step toward the amplification of your negative characteristics. And we know that Spike is likely to amplify her negative characteristics by retaliating — big time.

She will probably get a lawyer who is every bit as mean as yours. The two lawyers will take turns generating and responding to one conflict after another. Both you and Spike have made a lot of money, and you’ve been able to hang on to most of it. The size of the estate is not a predictor of the difficulty of the divorce. Even though your accumulated property (the dividend) is sizable, the divisor is two, just as it is for almost all couples.

How much “help” do you need to divide by two?

A mean lawyer is not all to expect from our Spike. I predict some kind of personal retaliation — no lawyers — just between you and her, and I’m afraid that you’re going to get “creamed.” Your only hope is to make peace before she acts. You could try sack cloth and ashes, but even that might not be enough.

There is a chance that Spike will decide that she’s weary of being the smartest and the toughest person in the room. Maybe she’ll try on for size a quality such as kindness or generosity. In that event, she will have made her grieving separate from yours, and you’ll both benefit. You would be relieved, at least for the moment, from being the direct target of her wrath. But maybe she’ll decide she doesn’t like being kind, so the potential of her retaliation will always hang over you. That could be her most effective form of revenge.

— 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 .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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