Laura Wasser is a high profile Los Angeles-based divorce attorney who has represented big name celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, Angelina Jolie and Maria Shriver. In her new book, “It Doesn't Have to Be That Way: How to Divorce Without Destroying Your Family or Bankrupting Yourself,” she helps with navigating the landscape of divorce with minimal financial and emotional damage. Click here to read an excerpt.
How Do You Know?
OLIVER ROSE: I think you owe me a solid reason. I worked my ass off for you and the kids to have a nice life, and you owe me a reason that makes sense. I want to hear it.
BARBARA ROSE: Because. When I watch you eat, when I see you asleep, when I look at you lately, I just want to smash your face in.
—THE WAR OF THE ROSES
It is not always so cut-and-dried. A woman I’ll call Lisa phoned my office asking if she could come in for a preliminary consultation. It happens all the time. A relationship has gone sour in a big way, and even though the person has not yet said the word “divorce” or even the word “separation” aloud, he or she nonetheless wonders if it might be a good idea to get some guidance on what’s what.
I certainly understand the impulse. For one thing, I’ve been in those exact same shoes: pretty sure this wasn’t working out but not yet really at the point of calling it quits. And for a lot of people, a first meeting with a lawyer—no pressure, nothing to sign—is an integral part of the process. There’s something about sitting face-to-face with an attorney in an office that enables people to come to grips with the very idea of divorce—or to reconsider the idea. Like a number of my colleagues—not all—I offer that preliminary consultation for free. I’ll ask a few questions, deliver what I call my Family Law 101 lecture, and let the prospective client size me up as well.
That’s just what happened with Lisa. As do so many of the people who ask for a preliminary consultation, Lisa began by saying how strange it felt to be sitting in a divorce lawyer’s office at all. It was “surreal,” she said—“unbelievable” to be in this situation and to be actually uttering the word “divorce.” It just didn’t fit with the way she thought about herself and her life. Then she talked a little about her husband, her children, and her circumstances. I told her some facts about financial settlements and custody agreements under California law. We shook hands, she said she still wasn’t sure she was ready to go forward, and she left.
A year later, Lisa scheduled another appointment. We talked about what had changed in a year—very little—and I answered some more questions about finances and custody. Lisa sighed and said she still wasn’t sure she was ready, and again we shook hands before she left.
Once a year for the next three years—a total of five years in all—Lisa came into my office to reiterate her story and listen to me reiterate my Family Law 101 lecture. By year three, we were hugging good-bye, and in year four, we showed each other photos of our children. Finally, in year five, Lisa said she was ready to dissolve her marriage, retained the firm, and asked me to begin proceedings.
Five years from the preliminary consultation to the decision to separate may be a record for my law office, but it is not a particularly long time for a marriage to unravel. The rarity is the sudden epiphany or single turning point showing you with dramatic clarity that your marriage is over, although that does happen. Most relationships hover on a precipice for years before one party or the other finally decides it is time to jump, and coming to the decision isn’t easy. The expectations you assumed when you entered into the relationship and the responsibilities you have as a partner in the life and family the two of you have created loom large. You’re aware that any and every action you take can have a ripple effect on those expectations and responsibilities—and on other people—and you want to tread carefully. You are right to do so.
First, Get Some Counseling
BERNARD: Joan, let me ask you something. All that work I did at the end of our marriage, making dinners, cleaning up, being more attentive. It never was going to make a difference, was it? You were leaving no matter what.…
JOAN: You never made a dinner.
BERNARD: I made burgers that time you had pneumonia.
—THE SQUID AND THE WHALE
People get married because they fall in love. They get divorced, however, for one of three reasons.
One reason—and it is perhaps the most compelling driver of divorce—is unacceptable behavior on the part of one or the other partner. Abuse—physical or psychological—tops the list, but excessive or out-of-control drinking, drugs, gambling, serial or random adultery, or resorting to prostitutes all qualify.
One caveat here: People can and do change their behavior. As the affected but powerless spouse, you may be able to spur your badly behaving spouse to do just that. I know of a number of instances where ultimatums have been issued—e.g., “Either you go to rehab or I am out”—and the situations have been resolved and the marriages saved. The key is to be particularly clear-eyed in facing the reality of your partner’s behavior. How many chances has he or she squandered? What is the real likelihood of a change this time? How far are you willing to go to help? What line can’t you cross? But once you’re sure in your mind about the answers to these questions, it can be well worth it to try again to save the relationship.
The second major reason for divorce is the proverbial inability to communicate; you just don’t get each other anymore. Except for exchanging logistical details about who has to pick up whom from soccer practice and when the dry cleaning is supposed to be ready, you no longer even have much to say to each other. There are no more of those deep, endless conversations that used to keep you up til two in the morning; now when you converse, you find you’re talking past each other.
The third reason people split up is that they grow apart. It happens—period. You get older, and your interests and goals change. Or one of you falls in love with someone else. Or you both do. Or you simply fall out of love with each other and do not want to be together as a couple anymore.
In all three cases, before you say the word “divorce” aloud, it is important that you make the effort to go to couples counseling first. After all, coming together was a major step; so is splitting apart, and the feelings you once had for each other should not be set aside lightly. If there’s still something there—if there’s enough there—don’t you owe it to yourself, not to mention to each other, to see if you can salvage and revive it? If there’s a chance of that, counseling is likely to find it, and once it has been identified, you can decide if it’s worth pursuing.
When my significant other and I were going through a difficult time, we found ourselves arguing loudly, frequently, and ineffectually. He got so aggravated so much of the time that he would literally pivot on his heel and walk out of the room. (Yes, I have that effect on people.) What infuriated him was what he saw as my tendency to treat every argument as a courtroom battle and to turn into, basically, the prosecutor.
A few sessions of therapy were immediately helpful: He could not leave—that’s simply not allowed in counseling—and I was checked each time I started to litigate our issues. Once we were both talking like normal people and listening to each other, we worked it out.
The idea in counseling is to sit down with an unbiased third party to whom you both can express grievances in the presence of the other. That unbiased third party might be a qualified Marriage-Family-Child counselor (MFCC) or a psychiatrist or a psychologist or a social worker or the clergyperson of your choice. You meet in a room containing just the three of you, with no distractions, and with time enough for both of you to have your say.
Sometimes, just the act of venting is helpful. Counseling provides a safe haven for precisely that kind of free-ranging release: You can say things in the therapist’s office, with the therapist present, that would be incendiary or hurtful in your living room. And often when you let ’er rip, you get all sorts of things off your chest and out of the way. I have known couples who realized it was time to quit therapy when the issues they were venting about were down to minor matters—in one case, her distaste for the way he had “decorated” his man cave and his annoyance that she had signed up for yet another evening course at the local college. That couple figured that “if this is what we’re venting about, we must be okay,” and they sure didn’t need to pay a therapist to adjudicate those low-level issues. They stayed together and routinely turned to a therapist when the high-level issues threatened to get out of hand again.
It is the safe-haven aspect of counseling and the presence of the third party that make it so effective and important. Both ensure that each of you can be heard, and qualified couples counselors know what to do with what they hear. They can help you cut through the resentments that have built up and find a renewed civility with each other—useful whether you end up dissolving your relationship or not. They can also pinpoint suggestions and recommend tools that open a valve through which you may be reminded of why you got together in the first place. In a great many cases, it’s a matter of finding ways to spark a sex life that has become routine, infrequent, and unfulfilling. There are counselors for that, too, and such renewal is often enough to move you to a reconciliation.
There is even a case to be made that any couple that can afford the luxury of counseling should indulge in it. Just as you go to the gym regularly to keep your body fit, regular couples counseling can keep your relationship fit as well.
But for couples in difficulty or on the brink, counseling is essential. What you must understand about it is that it can be hard work. The operating motto for counseling, however, is that if a relationship can work, you should work for it. Things may never be as fresh and rosy as they were when you first came together—that kind of passionate excitement does fade—but you did marry each other, and maybe it was meant to be. If so, counseling can help you rediscover the reasons.
Couples counseling gets many couples back together. But not all, and not always. For your own sake and that of your children, however, I recommend it—I almost insist on it—as the first step for anyone unhappy in a relationship. The truth is, however, that the great preponderance of prospective clients who come to my office for a preliminary consultation have gone the couples-counseling route already—and in their case, it has failed. They’ve made the attempt and exhausted the possibilities—in fact, the counseling may have helped clarify their thinking—and they are ready now to dissolve their relationship and move on.
As a part of this soul-searching, indulge me in something. Make a list of at least five things your spouse or your marriage holds you back from—things that you would really like to be doing. Items on the list can be as simple as sleeping with others, working out more, or spending more time with friends, or as complex as getting a degree, finally seeing April in Paris, or learning ancient Greek. Put the list aside; we’ll get back to it in chapter 15.