Sunday, February 18 , 2018, 11:15 am | Partly Cloudy 60º


Brian Burke: About Your Divorce (Letter 98) — The Power of a Litter of Puppies

Dear Pinky and Spike:

Lie in the midst of 10 golden retriever puppies.

This and the last two letters have their origin in an attempt to record what I’ve learned about divorce during the course of 35 years as a divorce lawyer. I’ve divided the project into three parts.

The first and most urgently necessary part exposed how lax the Rules of Professional Conduct are and how a surfeit of divorce lawyers have corrupted “Conventional Practice” so that it’s not uncommon for the client to be the victim of his or her own attorney’s zealous representation.

The second part of the project was a series of online “White Papers” explaining that there is a small part of the divorcing population — less than 5 percent — who have cases I describe as “toxic.” This is a subject with cobra-like attraction I have been deliberately avoiding for 25 years. For my own contentment, the less I’m involved with it the better. The series of White Papers:

» Provided a way for the reader to identify a case as Toxic or Ordinary.

» Explained that the site has nothing helpful for those involved in a Toxic Divorce.

» Explained why the Toxic Divorce is so radically different from an Ordinary Divorce.

» Explained how this small population has a contaminating effect on Ordinary Divorces.

» Explained the pernicious effect of Toxic Divorce on anyone involved and why voluntary involvement is dangerous to one’s health.

The third and essential part of the project is a description of the positive things I’ve learned from my clients — the joy of divorce. This project — a book on bad lawyering — is now complete and available on Amazon, Divorce: Don’t Let the Lawyers Make It Ugly.

It turned out that The White Papers on the Toxic Divorce required the creation of a set of questions to generate sufficient data to make a prediction about toxicity. This involved, among other things, the creation of an algorithm. (Mr. Killian, our favorite high school English teacher, insists that you can’t appreciate a sonnet until you’ve written a few. This might be true of algorithms! Here’s the link to mine.)

It took three White Papers to tell the story about a subject that is not only distasteful but also somewhat frightening to me. The three White Papers have been completed — together with supporting blog notes and damn “tweets” — at

I shouldn’t be surprised to find that Toxic Divorce could affect me merely by writing about it in the abstract. And that toxicity can leak. My wife, Alice, has pointed out that my mood grew increasingly dysthymic as I became more and more involved in research on the Broderick divorce, Tina Swithin’s “divorce by full engagement,” and then the popular and disturbing Gone Girl.

I’m no stranger to dysthymia. When it gets a purchase on me it manifests in Pernicious Lethargy, which is either a gift or a curse that causes me to simply go to sleep if I’m uncomfortable and don’t want spend the energy to figure out why. As this persists it seems to get increasingly difficult to snap out of it, eventually requiring the will to pull myself together or await an external event that will “snap” me out of it.

This self-indulgent description pertains to the experience of divorce because it describes the inevitable experience of Stage IV Depression, albeit at a low level of intensity.

When we picked up our dog, Lollipop, from her breeder many years ago, all nine of her brothers and sisters were still at home. I acted on an urge to lie down in the midst of 10 9-week-old golden retriever puppies, and I think that experience could cure many ills. I didn’t know of a litter of puppies, so I did the next best thing and submitted to an “outpatient procedure” at Cottage Hospital, which turned into an overnight stay. I got poked a lot but there is no question in my mind that whatever healing occurred was mostly occasioned by the care of dozens of healthy, fit and kind people young enough to be my grandchildren.

In 1980 I attended a weekend class at the medical school at UC San Francisco on the “healing brain.” The keynote speaker opened with this thought experiment: “Imagine you live in an hunter-gatherer tribe. You are suddenly very sick. You are taken to shelter where you are made as comfortable as possible and attended by one or more kind nurses. In the meantime the entire tribe has assembled itself around your shelter and will remain there until you recover or die. This, of course, is not what we in the West think of as the practice of medicine, but subjectively, do you think this attention would promote, retard or have no effect on recovery?”

It was a self-selecting audience but the overwhelming vote was in favor of the promotion of recovery, which was exactly my experience at Cottage regardless of the clinical interventions.

Yes, the interaction between human beings can be insidiously venomous. By “insidious” I mean that it gets on you and it doesn’t wash off. At a recent memorial for a good guy who happened to be a divorce lawyer, one of his eulogizers attributed his premature death to “his work.”

At the depth of serious depression the “good” seems to disappear. For the sufferer, nothing is good — at least if it’s in any way associated with her. This is the loss of “Hope.” As used here, Hope doesn’t mean an expectation of something better in the future. It means the capacity to observe both the positive and negative aspects of a situation or "the world" at the same time.

To be swarmed by so many healthy, vibrant, and kind young puppies in medical costume was the anti-toxin to the effects of exposure, however indirect, to Toxic Divorce.

                                                                        •        •

Eighteen years ago I got a call from the police department at 5:30 a.m. to inform me that my son had been involved in a very serious automobile accident. He was at the Cottage ER. I was urged to go there as quickly as possible.

It was really bad — every parent’s nightmare. It was a defining event for all the members of the family and also for others who became involved with our family’s crisis. Uncharacteristically, I listened to the advice offered, and a lot of it was useful.

The most powerful suggestion came from Annie Bennett, who I knew when she was a teacher at Santa Barbara Middle School. She said, “Don’t label it as tragedy until five years have passed.”

In the next letter I’ll describe a recent experience that lasted less than a minute but demonstrated the wisdom of this counsel and might justify the extension of “five years” to 20.

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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