Oblique Strategy #8 — My wife’s lawyer doesn’t understand me.

Credit for this line goes to New Yorker cartoonist Mischa Richter, who uses it as the confession of an older, portly man dressed in formal attire to his much younger, pulchritudinous dinner date. This and many more divorce cartoons can be seen and purchased at the magazine’s Cartoon Archive. [We will return to this entertaining and instructional resource for at least one more Oblique Strategy.]

The joke works in a number of ways. The toll taken by decades of involvement in the marital disharmony of others is suggested by the fact that I understood many of them before noticing the most obvious, which is a twist on the line, “My wife doesn’t understand me.”

Those words imply a perceived entitlement to be understood by one’s spouse, and they are expressed with a hint of unintended irony. She may understand him all too well.

As a divorce lawyer, I first understood the cartoon and found humor in the speaker’s belief that understanding him might be one of his wife’s attorney’s concerns. There is a twist to this second meaning that’s similar to the first. If the wife’s lawyer is interested in understanding this guy, neither the motive for the curiosity nor the conclusion will work in the subject’s favor.

There are at least four interpretations of the speaker’s lament suggesting that his sentiments are ridiculous, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility that the wife’s lawyer wants to understand him. Perhaps a lawyer is obliged to seek an understanding of a client’s spouse in connection with the duty to provide the client with effective representation. As a matter of practice, I suspect that most divorce lawyers do seek to understand the opposition. Such curiosity, to the extent it is based in legal ethics, is practical. If I poke here, he’ll do this; if I poke there, he’ll do that.

Some lawyers have an excellent understanding of the psychology of motivation. Many lawyers believe that there are usually mutually beneficial ways to resolve the issues typical of divorce; they are the same lawyers who are baffled by the presumption that a divorce case can be won (or lost). They are also puzzled by the view that it is possible to win an equal division.

Regardless of how kind or how enlightened one’s spouse’s lawyer may be, the joke still works because it is preposterous to feel entitled to understanding; it’s even worse to rely on it. The caption for this cartoon is the basis of an Oblique Strategy for anyone who doesn’t get the joke — immediately.

How often are any of us understood? When are we obliged to try to understand another person? If we think we understand someone else or if someone else thinks they understand us, how often will the perception be accurate? If accurate, when would that understanding be employed for our benefit instead of against our interests or, most probably, used without regard to what’s good or bad for us?

For those in the divorcing population, the failure to see the joke’s absurdity diagnoses a cognitive glitch that could be temporary and circumstantial or a congenital condition. In either event the divorce could be an opportunity to fix it.

Understanding someone else is a difficult and risky enterprise. How often do we understand ourselves? Any adult who expects to be “understood” by another — even some of the time — is likely to be disappointed. Any adult who expects to be understood by others as he understands himself will be perpetually disheartened. To feel entitled to both understanding from an adversary and to a benign utilization is delusional. It’s the delusion — not the lawyer — that requires correction.

Next column: Oblique Strategy #9 — Sometimes you’re the windshield, and sometimes you’re the bug.

— 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 info@burkefamilylaw.com. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.