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Wednesday, January 23 , 2019, 1:19 pm | Fair 61º


Brian Burke: About Your Divorce (Letter 39)

Story illustrates how people behave during divorce in ways that don’t seem to have anything to do with mourning

Dear Pinky and Spike:

I need to interrupt my description of Stage VI Depression and how it might fit with Irvin Yalom’s notion of the four existential tasks because the following story needs to be told. We will return to the four tasks in a future letter.

I don’t get actively involved in many contested cases, but I do represent “Ralph.” I’ve changed his name and some of the facts to conceal the identities of all involved. His story illustrates how:

» People behave during divorce in ways that don’t seem to have anything to do with mourning. When you understand how and why grief manifests in certain behavior, however, you know what to look for and you are able to see it for what it is.

» The law and lawyers “work” in mysterious ways, especially in a divorce case.

Ralph married Irene, his high school girlfriend, as soon as they graduated from college, and they have two teenage boys. After 20 years of marriage, Ralph felt like he was dying in the relationship, so he “just left.” He met Rebecca shortly after his separation from Irene, when the company he worked for employed her as a receptionist.

He felt like he was dead with Irene; Rebecca brought him back to life. She was 15 years younger than Ralph, and she was hooked into the junior Santa Barbara social swirl. Ralph loved being included among the young spirits. Rebecca was everything Irene was not and, as it turned out, none of the things that Irene was.

Before starting her job, Rebecca had taken classes at City College. She loved college and high school, and she continued to live like a high school senior with her own place. Most people would agree that she was very pretty, though on occasion she wore too much makeup and would have looked much better without it. Makeup or no makeup, Ralph adored her.

Ralph’s divorce lumbered along. Rebecca wanted him to get it over with, but Ralph couldn’t bring himself to rush Irene. A judgment was entered two years after separation.

By then, Ralph’s monthly gross income was about $18,000. Irene also had a well-paying job, and they decided that child support of $3,000 a month should be enough. During a tender moment in mediation, Ralph assured Irene that if she ever needed more, all she had to do was let him know. He almost apologized for leaving her, but he had already done that twice, and he thought a third apology might undermine the sincerity of the first two. Where Rebecca inspired Ralph’s passion, Irene inspired the same admiration he had felt for her since the eighth grade.

When Ralph and Rebecca married, he had $3,000 a month directly deposited into Irene’s checking account and another $3,000 automatically deposited into a tax-deferred savings and retirement account.

Rebecca was supposed to “brighten up the workplace” and, given the increased male traffic through the reception area, she did her job well. Her gross income was $2,000 a month, which she thought was less than she was worth, but she stayed at the company out of loyalty to Ralph — and Ralph liked having her close so she could visit him in his office during her breaks. But he also told her more than once to take a better job if she ever found one.

Ralph and Rebecca married two weeks after Ralph’s divorce became final. She assumed responsibility for the household finances from the outset, saying to Ralph, “Paying bills is fun when you have money to cover the checks you write.” She knew about Ralph’s monthly support payment to Irene.

Before long, Rebecca found herself increasingly resentful over the money going to Irene. Irene had a good job of her own, and Rebecca was sure that Irene looked down on her. She was certain that Ralph’s oldest son thought she should be his girlfriend, and since she wasn’t, he didn’t like her and made sure that his younger brother didn’t either.

Early in the marriage, while Ralph was captivated by his adoration for Rebecca, he seriously considered making an attempt to lower the child support payment. All he had to do was ask Irene if they could make the payment less. He knew that she would agree without asking a single question because she’d assume his request was honorable and that his income had been reduced. If she ever discovered that Ralph asked because Rebecca insisted, Irene would be profoundly disappointed in Ralph — to which Ralph thought, “As she should be.” The prospect of such deserved disappointment and Irene’s disapproval trumped adoration. It was probably on this point that his adoration for Rebecca began to crumble.

After three years of marriage, Rebecca was still young but somewhat hard. She was becoming accustomed to getting what she wanted, and she was determined to get more. Ralph’s friends envied him for his young wife at first, but it wasn’t long before they felt sorry for him. Whenever Rebecca and Ralph were together, Ralph’s friends avoided the tension generated between them. Rebecca wanted to play, and Ralph wanted to be with an adult.

Rebecca and Ralph decided to end their marriage after being together for 50 months. Rebecca was heard saying that she hoped she still had the best years of her life ahead of her. Even though she paid the bills and handled the banking, she was surprised to find that, in addition to the $9,000 in the checking account and the various things she and Ralph had purchased to set up the house, the entire marital estate consisted of Ralph’s deferred compensation account, into which $3,000 was deposited every month — making it worth $150,000 plus some appreciation and interest.

“Half of $150,000 is $75,000,” Rebecca calculated. “Fifty months is about 200 weeks. $75,000 divided by 200 is $375. That’s all? For what he got from me? I’ve been violated.”

Rebecca did some more calculating before she went to see a lawyer reputed to be very sharp and good at sticking up for women.

During the 50 months of marriage:

Ralph had gross earnings of: $900,000
Rebecca had gross earnings of: $100,000
Ralph paid Irene support totaling: $150,000
The deferred comp/savings account balance: $50,000

Rebecca wasn’t hopeful about her meeting with the lawyer. She knew Ralph would have to pay hefty support, but she also knew that it wouldn’t last for long.

She was getting $75,000, and she was past her 30th birthday. While it would take her three years to earn $75,000, it was still chump change. As with Evita and Magaldi, Rebecca had given Ralph “all she had to offer.” After four years she felt like she had received very little in return. And yet she still had plenty going for her. She was going to be much more careful about accepting any future offers when they came her way.

Rebecca talked to the lawyer for almost two hours. She felt she was making a great new friend until the lawyer, Sylvia, asked her to write a check for the retainer. Some friend.

But what she learned was worth every penny. As Rebecca left her lawyer’s office, there was a bounce in her step, and she could hardly wait to see Ralph to tell him the good news — her good news. They still worked at the same company, but Ralph had moved his office to a different building. They talked, emailed and sent text messages to each other — most were still pretty hot — but they rarely met in person. When Rebecca got back to the office, she called Ralph and asked to meet with him in his office after work because she had something important to talk about.

Ralph didn’t want Rebecca in his new office, and yet he was overwhelmed by memories of the fun they had had in the old one. The possibility of one more encounter — wherever it took place — trumped caution and Ralph agreed to meet her at 5:30 p.m.

But will it be the meeting he’s hoping for? And why does Rebecca suddenly have a spring in her step? I’ll have the answer to these questions in the next letter.

Your friend,

— 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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