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Tuesday, January 22 , 2019, 9:42 pm | Fair 46º


Brian Burke: About Your Divorce (Letter 100) — Schadenfreude?

Dear Pinky and Spike:


In the last letter I described how we have been brainwashed by the ongoing discourse On Divorce because we talk about and hear about the interesting cases, which are Toxic. The effect is to create a self-fulfilling prophecy only because we believe it.

When we think that Ordinary Divorce will in some respects resemble a Toxic Divorce, we supply the precursors for Toxicity that the Divorce Industry — whose financial interests are at one with the propagation of Toxicity — will transform into the real thing.

This centenary letter describes a method to rinse after exposure to the [brain] wash. This is something Ordinary People can do to protect or to rid themselves — and their divorce — from Toxins.

If you, your child, your parents or someone else to whom you provide close support is going through or about to go though a divorce, study a really bad one and compare the details of that case with yours. Each of the differentiated details might not seem significant, but the exercise can have a cumulative and indirect effect of causing you to see your own case more positively — in a different light and from a fresh perspective.

For me, this idea originated nearly 30 years ago when Randy Jaffe and other local therapists arranged for one of the founders of Family Systems Therapy to speak in Santa Barbara. Carl Whitaker, trained as an obstetrician, got into the mental health business during World War II. He spent most of his career at the University of Wisconsin where he got the latitude necessary to work out ideas, which were then unconventional. [To me, as a lay observer, they were still unconventional when I heard him speak sometime around 1990.] Family Systems Theory is very well explained in the book The Family Crucible, which Whitaker wrote with Augustus Napier. It is still in print and available online.

Whitaker was a winsome and charming old guy, but I couldn’t make much sense of what he said, and I could make even less sense of what he did. Jaffe and his colleagues arranged for a “Jerry Springer Family” to participate in a single session with Whitaker on the stage of the old Miramar Hotel auditorium in front of an audience of about three hundred therapists and a few interlopers like myself.

I recall none of the details other than that the volunteer family had lots of problems. There were addictions, adolescent misbehavior, depression, domestic violence and surely at least a couple of other diagnosed forms of mental illness.

But they all came for help. What they came to was a “three generation family meeting.” Whitaker didn’t have direct contact with the family before this meeting, but he did learn enough during the course of a couple of phone conversations to decide who should be in attendance. The person making the initial contact was responsible for getting them all to attend the meeting, including and especially the ones who didn’t want to.

On the Miramar stage was Whitaker and three generations of the family: grandparents, their children (the primary population of interest) and the grandchildren. The first quarter hour was spent collecting descriptions of psychological pathology and dysfunctional behavior. Whitaker created a list of what the family thought was “wrong,” and the family expressed collective agreement with his depiction.

Then came the “intervention.” I don’t know what he did other than ask bizarre questions to specific individuals. The question I remember is: “Would you describe your parents’ (or “your child’s”) marriage relationship as “hot,” “cool” or “cold?” Questions like these got everyone engaged and at least half were angered by something Whitaker asked. He asked questions. I don’t think he told them anything.

I don’t know what he did, and I don’t know how he did it, but when it was over I was sure the family would never be the same. It might become more functional or even less functional, but it wasn’t going to be the same. He blasted them out of their rut by asking provocative questions.

                                                                        •        •

At the time I saw the Whitaker demonstration, I was struggling with the divorce of Susan and Raymond Archibald. This was before I understood behavior in terms of grief, so the progressive intensification of litigation looked like the signs of what I’d now call a Toxic Divorce.

I represented Ray, who invariably insisted to me that he wanted to come to terms with Susan both before and after he did something that would provoke Susan’s attorney into legitimate, predictable and expensive court action. What was especially troubling was the inconsistency between Ray’s self-sabotaging behavior and the nature of his expressed intent and goals.

From the outset of the case, Ray spoke fondly of his older brother, Charlie, and his parents. He seemed to spend a lot of time getting support from Charlie, who had been “through it all.”  Both his parents and his brother lived in the Los Angeles area, and they frequently visited Ray in Santa Barbara to spend time with their grandchildren.

After seeing Whitaker, I suggested to Ray that we meet with Charlie and their parents to see if we could get some fresh perspective on the case. Ray agreed without hesitation and the meeting took place within the week.

I followed the Whitaker format by limiting the conversation to answers to my questions and nothing else. I’m pretty sure that I presumed to ask both sons to describe their parent’s marriage as “hot,” “cool” or “cold,” and I asked each parent to do the same with respect to each son’s marriage. I probably asked each person to describe his or her own marriage in the same way. I came up with a lot of whacky questions and enjoyed asking them, and I could have kept it up for a long time.

After 30 minutes or so, I asked Ray’s mother a question that permitted her to answer with a diagnosis of Ray’s divorce.

She said, “I’ve been worrying about Ray and Susan and the kids since the divorce started. There’s stress in every marriage. At first they thought, and I agreed, that being business partners would strengthen the marriage. That was one of the reasons we were willing to lend them some of the money they needed to buy it.

“Well, that might be true for some marriages but not this one. The business made money — they paid us back faster than expected — but the stress of business amplified the stress of being married. I’m saddened by the divorce but not surprised. What surprises me is the anger and hostility, and — excuse me — all the money they are throwing away on lawyers.

“Susan and Ray have produced two fine children. They’ve always been considerate of me and Jim (Ray’s father), and they built the business, which I guess is what they are fighting over. I’ve been flummoxed until this meeting today. Now I think I know what’s happening.” She turned to her older son,

“Charlie and Rachael separated, what was it Charlie, seven years ago?”

Charlie supplied, “It was eight, almost nine years ago — good riddance.”

“When was the divorce final, five years ago?”

Charlie said, “More like four and a half, Mom.”

Mom continued, “Charlie and Rachael started their divorce nine years ago and, after listening to Charlie talk about it (and nothing else) for four years, it was supposed to be over. But I realize today that it isn’t over. Every time Charlie says anything about the divorce between Ray and Susan, Rachael’s name comes up. Charlie, I think you are trying to relive your divorce through Ray’s divorce.”

That was a bombshell stunning everyone into a prolonged silence.

Ray was the first and last to speak. “Mom’s right. I’ve been treating Susan in the same way Charlie would have treated Rachael if he had it to do over again. Charlie’s advice always made sense to me because I thought we were talking about my divorce, but just like Mom said, we weren’t. We were talking about Rachael.

“Rachael was a beauty, and the plastic surgery Charlie paid for worked out well.  But Rachael was always selfish, greedy and mean. She got even worse during your divorce.

“Susan and I both have our shortcomings, but she’s not selfish or greedy. She worked on the business just as hard as I did and she’s a damn good mom; I’ve never said she wasn’t. So Susan and Rachael aren’t alike and my divorce shouldn’t be anything like Charlie’s divorce — I see that now.”

That was it. There was an immediate change in the case dynamic and it was ripe for the couple to reach terms with each other within two or three months. The Whitaker Intervention seemed like a complete success; yet, I’ve never had another case where it seemed like the right thing to try.

As a self-administered substitute, I suggest that those involved with a nasty divorce study a well-known Toxic divorce (real or fictional) and compare details of that case with their own. At worst, it could be a waste of time and temporarily demoralizing. Any demoralization will be temporary because the cooties described in the last letter eventually disappear if they come from someone else’s case.

Here are some unqualified family law disasters:

» 1. War of the Roses. The movie is available at Amazon.com.

» 2. Marriage of Daniel and Elisabeth Anne Broderick. Los Angeles Times reporter Bella Stumbo’s Until the Twelfth of Never is the most complete depiction of both the divorce and murder trials that followed. It is out-of-print, but an online search always turns up a few copies and it’s also available on Kindle.

» 3. Meredith Baxter plays a convincing Betty Broderick in the 1992 TV movie A Woman Scorned, but it took Baxter a long time to learn from the story (see her Huffington Post blog entry from July 29, 2011).

» 4. Kramer vs. Kramer. A classic starring Hoffman and Streep. It’s an Amazon instant download and also available on Netflix.

» 5. Tina Swithin’s popular audiobook Divorcing a Narcissist: One Woman’s Story. Available on Audible.com or Kindle. This book was also discussed in Letter No. 96.

» 6. Disorder Peculiar to the Country by Ken Kalfus. Divorcing couple forced by the economy to share their Brooklyn apartment during divorce. Each thinks the other has been killed on 9/11, and is saddened until s/he finds the other is alive and well. Hostility and dysfunction escalate as the apartment becomes a crucible from which neither can escape to grieve in safety.

» 7. An Unmarried Woman. Jill Clayburgh and Alan Bates. Available on Netflix.

                                                                        •        •

The exercise seeks to have an indirect effect. The same objective is sought directly by the Toxicity Inventory and also explained in Toxic Divorce White Paper #2.

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 [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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