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Brian Burke: About Your Divorce (Letter 142) — Is Divorce Among Nations Like Divorce Among Spouses?

Oblique Strategy #36 — What can you learn about your divorce from “Brexit?”

Though I regularly listen to several BBC podcasts, I paid no attention to the United Kingdom’s referendum over whether it should leave the European Union until the vote had been taken, counted and announced: “Brexit” had prevailed.

The significance of the vote was routinely described as a decision by the U.K. to divorce the European Union.

The next step would be the British government’s official expression of its intent to withdraw from the EU by invocation of Article 50, which would start a two-year countdown in which to complete the divorce.

A change in scale may allow for an understanding of one subject in terms of another. The composition of an atom is first explained by comparing the electrons circling a nucleus to the planets circling the sun.

It will take a couple of years, however, to see whether “Brexit” can teach us anything about divorce or whether divorce can teach us something about the behavior of nations.

In addition to the commonality of language and the two-year interval between commencement and completion, there are some early signs that a vast reorganization of international relationships may resemble the reorganization of a family after divorce.

The marriage of Daniel and Elisabeth Broderick comes to mind as the worst, and in a sense the “biggest,” case in California since we went to a “no fault” system.

Daniel Broderick was a graduate of both Columbia Medical School and Harvard Law School. Betty Broderick, the mother of five of their children, had been pregnant 10 times during the marriage, including two births and three pregnancies while Daniel was at Harvard.

Both entered the marriage after completing sixteen years of Catholic education. Dan treated Betty so cruelly that she was provoked to behave irrationally and illegally. He then skillfully employed the linear and logical processes of the court to punish her for that behavior.

The judicial punishment, predictably, caused more irrational behavior, which led to more judicial sanctioning until he had won “everything.” His victory was so complete that one can understand why Betty felt she was left with no options other than to murder Dan...and his new wife.

The Broderick story may be instructive for the spouse who inflames the other into irrational and illegal behavior — and then enlists the court to punish the behavior he has provoked.

The lesson is biblical. Sow the wind, and you will reap the whirlwind. (I’ve written a series of monographs on the subject of Toxic Divorce. The third study focuses on the Brodericks as an example.)

In this column I have described divorce as the psychological process of grief, driven by the emotions associated with grief. The legal process is secondary and derivative.

When given sufficient time (typically 18-36 months), more than 95 percent of the divorcing population will come to terms with each other without the necessity of a trial on any issue.

The remaining 5 percent consists of a minority population of toxic cases that get virtually all of the attention of the court, the legislature, the media and our own gossip. They are qualitatively different from the overwhelming majority of divorces. 

They are the cases that are interesting to discuss; they are the cases that generate attorneys’ fees; they have given divorce a bad name; and they have created negative expectations that can become self-fulfilling.

Normal grief in the context of divorce is the same as grief experienced in the context of death, which has been empirically investigated and shown to conform to the Five-Stage Model proposed in the 1969 book On Death and Dying by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.

Will the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EU evoke in nations the manifestations of grief we see in a family during divorce?

An attempt to understand the behavior of an entire country in terms of a divorcing couple would seem to invite the distortion of facts to support a comparison that will be, at best, dubious. However, events of the eight weeks since the vote look so much like early grief that this hypothesis could prove useful and instructive as the separation progresses during the next two years.

Before making a comparison on the basis of what has occurred during the 60 days since the election, here is a description of the Kübler-Ross Model (slightly modified and validated by the findings of the Yale Bereavement Study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Feb. 21, 2007):

“The Yale study showed that Stage V, Acceptance, of the original model is not a destination but rather an emotional state that starts near zero at the beginning of the process and steadily increases as the other emotional states begin, intensify, peak and conclude.

“Stage I is Shock and Denial; Stage II is Anger & Rage; Stage III is False Bargaining; Stage IV is Depression.”

If spousal and national divorce are comparable we would expect to see early evidence of Stage I, Shock and Denial.

It would start right after the vote and peak rather quickly, though it might persist in an increasingly weak form for months or even years.

Stage II, Anger, is often expressed by one party while the other is “in shock.” Because the anger of one is likely to play off the anger of the other, this emotional state should be seen relatively early and it will persist well into the process.

Stage III, False Bargaining, can also begin quite early as a response by one to the anger of the other.

Here is a brief (and superficial) review of the evidence:

Expressions of Shock & Denial?

» Prime Minister David Cameron, the man responsible for the vote in the first place, was so shocked by the outcome that he promised to resign as prime minister “by October.”

» The value of the British pound fell, and the decline was attributed to “fear of uncertainty.”

» On June 27, 2016, four days after the election, CNN reported that an online petition for re-vote had collected 3.5 million signatures.

» On June 25, the British online paper Good reported: “The people of the U.K. shocked the world by voting in favor of leaving the European Union. The news was also shocking to a number of people living in the U.K. who apparently did not believe their vote counted at all.”

» Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling, tweeted, “I don’t think I’ve ever wanted magic more.” (Presumably, to reverse the vote.)

The words “shock” and “divorce” appeared frequently in the online articles during the three weeks following the vote.

But, after four weeks, there were many articles indicating that the negative effect of the vote may have been overestimated.

For example, British consumer spending has not declined, the German stock market has recovered. the U.K. job market has not been affected and the price of U.K. housing has risen.

Expressions of Anger & Rage?

» There were widespread reports of anger in Scotland, which voted to stay in the EU after its own vote to remain part of the U.K.

» Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was angry when she addressed a meeting of EU nationals and told them she didn’t know if they would be able to stay in the country.

» There were also widespread reports of anger and fear in Northern Ireland, which also voted to remain in the EU. When the U.K. withdraws from the EU there will no longer be an international mandate for open borders between Northern Ireland (a part of the U.K.) and the Republic of Ireland (a member of the EU), and there was fear in both the north and south of a return of The Troubles when formal borders are restored.

» The Guardian ran a front-page story about a “frenzy of anger and hatred” following the vote (June 29).

» The June 28 edition of The Telegraph ran the headline: “Young people have a right to be angry at Brexit.”

» On the same day, CNN reported, “Racist abuse in UK growing since vote to leave EU.”

» The shocked David Cameron promised to resign by October, before being subjected to heated criticism from every quarter for putting the measure on the ballot in the first place and his party’s utter failure to prepare for the outcome. The party didn’t wait for him to leave at his convenience.

» In a fight for leadership of the party, Member of Parliament Andrea Leadsom suggested that her experience as a “mum” helped qualify her to be prime minister while insisting that the childlessness of her opponent Theresa May should not become a political issue. The implicit politicization of motherhood by means of an explicit claim to the contrary didn’t fool a single person in the United Kingdom, and Leadsom was compelled to withdraw her candidacy. Theresa May was named the new prime minister one month after the election — and two months sooner than Cameron expected to leave office. (The few people I know in England are “gobsmacked” by our presidential campaign.)

» In the meantime, Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn is under attack within his own party. A July 14 poll found that 66 percent of Labour Party members want new leadership, while 23 percent support Corbyn (whose organization of the Labour opposition to Brexit has been criticized as inadequate).

Beginning of False Bargaining

Within a month of the Brexit vote German Chancellor Angela Merkel and new British Prime Minister Theresa May met in Berlin.

May said of the meeting: “We have two women here, who have had a very constructive discussion, who get on with the job and want to deliver the best results for the people of the U.K. and the people of Germany.”

Merkel was receptive to May’s intention to delay invocation of Article 50.

Are the adults in charge of the breach?

The Independent reported July 20, “Whatever it was that Prime Minister May came to Berlin hoping to get, she will leave without it. The message from Chancellor Merkel was clear: ‘If you wish to take your time over leaving the European Union, then do, but don’t expect anything in the meantime.’

Other online papers admonish their readers that free trade with EU countries was part of a package that included freedom to travel and work and an expectation of one without the other is unrealistic.

I suspect that our own election will overwhelm political news from Great Britain, but the comparison between the divorce of countries and the divorce of individuals will be a subject available for study for the next two or three years.

Oblique Strategy #37: Should you throw a dead fish on the negotiating table?

— 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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