Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D
Having worked with couples for a long time, I used to think that as to marital conflicts, I had seen and heard it all. Then I participated in a weeklong training on family and divorce mediation. The training gave me an opportunity to listen to the horror stories told by family law attorneys regarding divorce disputes. It was a rude awakening for me. I realized that I have hardly seen and heard it all, far from it.
There is much more conflict out there than I would ever see in therapy. The truly warring couples rarely go for counseling or mediation. They just try to settle old scores (and some new ones) through their lawyers. I asked a participating attorney in the workshop, "Why do you make them fight so much?" and he said, "You know, clients get really upset when I advise them to settle. Some would scream at me complaining, 'Why are you not fighting for me?'" Then he added with a chuckle, "Haven't you heard, 'My attorney can beat up your attorney any time.' That's what happens in the real world "
Nearly one hundred and fifty years ago, Abraham Lincoln, to discourage litigation once said, "…the nominal winner is often a real loser: fees, expenses and waste of time."
About 50 percent of divorces are settled peacefully. Thirty percent involve some form of litigation, and the remaining 20 percent continue going to court for one reason or the other. That twenty percent never reach a satisfactory resolution about anything. Their children are at significant risk for long-term harm that negatively impacts their education, career, earning capacity, and, above all, the capacity to form meaningful and intimate relationships. Some of these children grow up extremely frustrated and angry and often run into conflict with authorities.
Lois Gold in her book, Between Love and Hate: A Guide to Civilized Divorce regards divorce disputes as "professionally orchestrated and ritualized combats" that tear families forever. The paranoia and hostility between couples starts raging from the minute the "D" word is spoken. The author laments that we are fast becoming accustomed to such socially approved and even encouraged rituals as, "finding the best attorney in town first, jockeying for legal advantage, closing bank accounts, staking claim to the family residence, and grabbing whatever you can get your hands on before your spouse does." Gold says that the way we conduct ourselves during divorce dishonors the institution of marriage itself.
The obsession for revenge takes such a hold on some divorcing couples that they are not interested in merely ending the relationship, they actually want to destroy the other. A participant in my group discussion on divorce mediation said, "Your love for your children has to be greater than your hate for your ex." If not, children are bound to suffer.
How much does it financially cost to divorce? One of the lawyer jokes tells it all, "Before the divorce, a marital property is owned by two people, husband and wife. After the divorce, it is owned by four people, the two "ex-" and the two lawyers."
It is not so much the divorce that harms the children, it is the fighting after the divorce that does it. The research consistently shows that that it is parental conflict that causes long-term harm to the child, not the divorce itself.
Couples understandably divorce to end the fighting and they want to save their children the agony of their conflicts. It is ironical that for many, fighting increases after divorce. Couples divorce because they don't want to see the face of the other partner but after the divorce they see each other even more, though in a court of law. One divorced partner said, "We did not fight so much even during the bitter end of our relationship. Prior to the divorce, we fought only at home. Since the divorce we have been fighting in the court and everyplace else."
The truth is that both parties can get more of what they want and get it quicker and cheaper if they would simply resolve not to fight. They would do much better for themselves and their children if they would sit down in good faith with a firm intention to negotiate and to find mutually satisfactory solutions.
Here are two cardinal questions that separating or divorcing couples should discuss right away :
1. How shall we share the responsibility of parenting now that we will be living in separate households.
2. How shall we assure our children that they will always have the love and involvement of both of us.
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