Monday, 12 December 2011

Divorce: Putting People in the Middle

You decide to get a divorce. You and your ex-spouse work out an agreement. That may or may not include alimony, who keeps the house, custody rights, and a host of other details which your lawyers write up in the final document. You sign. The situation is legally finalized and the two of you get on with the rest of your lives. However during the process and long after the process is complete, there is this little idea about moving on. Do we move on? Do we drop it, the past, in favour of the future?

I was prompted to write after reading an article by Annie Parker at The Bitter Divorcée. A 14 year old girl had written seeking advice about what to do with her mother. Apparently Mom had taken to bad-mouthing her ex-husband, the girl's Dad and the girl felt uncomfortable about this. In fact, the girl said that she thought Mom would be happier if she, the girl, hated her father as much as Mom did. But the girl didn't hate her father. What to do?

Carl and Irene
I am very much reminded of a story. Years ago, back when I was young, naive, inexperienced and, well, stupid (I'm now older and stupid), a high school buddy moved to a city where I was going to school and working part-time. Carl and I had known each other throughout high school and it seemed like a good fit, one friend helping another to get a start in the big city. Carl stayed with me for a bit, got a job, made some bucks then got his own place. Sometime afterwards Carl became involved with Irene, a nice lady. After several years of living together, the two of them decided to get married. I moved to another city to return to university full-time.

The marriage started falling apart. I talked with Carl several times and got a story which painted a somewhat unflattering portrait of Irene. Out of the blue, one time in phoning Carl, I ended up talking with Irene. Foolishly, I made the mistake of discussing the marriage in light of what Carl had told me. I discovered that my friend had not been totally truthful with me. In fact, I discovered that he had been interpreting the situation to his benefit and there was another side of the story, Irene's side.

In a nutshell, Irene got angry with me; Irene got angry with Carl; Carl got angry with me, and I've never seen either one of them again. That was over 30 years ago but I do know that they did divorce.

What did I learn from this? Divorce is not nice. People are not necessarily objective about it and there are very much two sides to every story. I jokingly said that the next time I ran into anybody getting a divorce, I was going to head for the hills and would not return until the divorce was over. In other words, I didn't want to hear about it and be drawn into the dispute. I didn't want to listen to any one side of the story knowing full well there was another side to the story and just what the heck was the objective version of the situation? If I knew both parties, I did not under any circumstances want to find myself obliged to take sides.

Greg and Marjorie
Nearly 30 years. That's a long time to be married. Add two children on top of it and you've got a fairly complex situation. I won't go into the details out of deference to the two of them or because Greg may someday punch me in the snoot, but the real question is not that they broke up, it's that the marriage lasted as long as it did. I guess I have more of a connection with Greg than with Marjorie but after such a long time and especially since I know both of the kids quite well even now that they're adults, do I take sides?

Marjorie is a decent woman. After the divorce, I wanted to assure her that I wasn't taking sides and said, "You and Greg are getting a divorce but you and I are not getting a divorce." I continue to see her from time to time. I visit the kids who are now grown up and are, well, great kids. And yes, I visit Greg. But I am careful with Greg. Once in a while he'll start to go off on a tangent about Marjorie and the kids and I'll steer the conversation in another direction. I'm not going to take sides. I visit Marjorie. I visit Greg. Maybe never the twain shall meet but I shall meet "the twain" (two) only separately.

Choosing sides
You side with the wife or you side with the husband. Is it inevitable? Does everybody end up taking sides, choosing to go with one or the other? It seems like a given that the wife's family sticks with the wife and the husband's family sticks with the husband and after the divorce does anybody still need to see anybody else? Whoever stays in the matrimonial home gets the neighbours. If possession is nine tenths of the law, I suppose proximity is nine tenths of the relationship. I suppose the same is true of friends but that may go either way. Some friends are really friends with only one of the spouses. Finally, if there are children involved, well, that is certainly the glue that binds people together for life whether they like it or not.

In the middle
However we are talking about a specific situation where one spouse or both spouses decide to speak negatively about the other. So now, what does a third party do? This third party may be a member of the family, a neighbour, a colleague, maybe the girl behind the counter at the coffee shop and yes, even the children. Are we asking the other person to pick a side? Are we trying to explain our side of the story? Are we trying to justify our actions, explain the ex-spouse's actions or what? Is it that we haven't resolved the issues we have about our own divorce?

Look at the example of the girl in the coffee shop. This is at the far end of the spectrum but explains the situation. Let's say your spouse visits the coffee shop. Your spouse could be in the eyes of the girl behind the counter a totally normal person. After all, the girl only knows your spouse in these circumstances, not in the circumstances surrounding the divorce. Should you, by speaking ill of your ex-spouse, force the girl to pick sides? In her eyes, to the extent of her experiences with your ex-spouse, everything is pretty much normal. The reasons which may have caused a divorce are not valid reasons for, let's say, not serving your ex-spouse or permanently barring your ex-spouse from the coffee shop.

Professional Therapist
Have an issue? Speak with a professional. Don't speak with your family. Don't speak with the neighbours. Don't speak with the girl in the coffee shop and don't speak with your children. Speak with a professional. A professional is much better equipped to help you in your struggle to make sense of it all but more importantly, it is imperative that you do not inadvertently or deliberately put those people around you "in the middle". You're the one getting the divorce from your spouse, not them.

The Psycho Ex-Wife
Anthony Morelli gets a divorce from Allison Morelli however he decides to voice his side of the story by setting up a web site called The Psycho Ex Wife. - I'm betting you can see where this one's going. - It is startling to see to what lengths the husband has gone to vilify his wife. He calls her a f**king psycho bitch and says she looks like Jabba the Hut.

On top of it, he has garnered quite a following as others have taken his lead and voiced their own diatribes against their spouses. If I found all this startling, I also found all this disheartening. It is a tsunami of ill will and anger in what amounts to being the most life-altering event anybody will face this side of the death of a loved one. Why make things more difficult for everybody involved?

As a follow-up, it seems Anthony's wife eventually found out about his web site and took him to court where a judge, a female judge, ruled that he had to take it down. Anthony is now fighting on the grounds that freedom of speech allows him to publish whatever he wants about his wife. I don't care whether anything Anthony says is true or not; what he is saying about his wife is not the type of thing he should be saying in public. (see The Psycho Ex Wife: ex bashing taken to the next level)

Tricia Walsh
Philip Smith decides to divorce his wife Tricia Walsh. Tricia retaliates by posting a YouTube video describing her husband's stash of Viagra and pornography and various details about their sex life together or lack thereof. In other words, she tries to humiliate him in front of, well, the entire world. Reports of this web based dust-up were calling it the first divorce on YouTube.

In the subsequent divorce proceedings, it seems the judge in the case did not take kindly to Ms. Walsh's negative publicity campaign and if she thought she was going to get a better settlement - she had signed a pre-nup - it didn't work. I have to give a tip of my hat to Philip Smith, however, as he never uttered a word against his wife or talked about the situation in public. He took the high road; that was the nobler thing to do. If you haven't got anything good to say, say nothing at all. (see Tricia Walsh: Let's divorce on YouTube!)

Are you being fair?
Your spouse is a @#$%^bastard. Your spouse is a @#$%^bitch. Okay, is this a fair assessment of the other person? Are they an axe murderer? A genocidal maniac? No? Is there any possibility that your description of your soon to be ex-spouse or your now ex-spouse is just a tad tainted with a slight bias? If you need to vent, how about a professional therapist?

By the way, I want to be fair. I have heard some stories where the spouse was an axe murderer. Okay, they weren't actually an axe murderer per se but they were a bad person or a crazy person. If you end up in a high conflict situation with a nut job, my advice is to get yourself a good lawyer - no, get a great one - spare no expense and lay in a good supply of Xanax. (see Raoul Felder: The Good Divorce)

Are you an idiot?
Anthony Morelli says his wife looks like Jabba the Hut. *laughs* What? Jabba the Hut? First of all, I have to laugh at what is patently so not objective but emotional. But secondly, and this is the important point, is Mr. Morelli so stupid, tasteless, or blind to marry a woman who looks like Jabba the Hut? Mr. Morelli, do you have some sort of fetish for ugly women? Are you a pervert to marry a fleshy blob which I guess is supposed to be an alien life form resembling a worm? Now at this point, Mr. Morelli may say he's merely employing a literary device, the hyperbole. However does he not realise that by portraying his wife in such a negative light, anybody would be justified in questioning his sanity for having married the woman in the first place. Was he drunk at the time? Was he high on drugs? Was he out on a day pass without supervision?

Final Word
There are no winners in divorce. I don't care if your settlement is a zillion dollars and you have your spouse locked up behind bars in solitary confinement with a sentence of twenty years of hard labour, you are going to carry around the emotional scare of what may be the most traumatic event of your life for years to come. It's the gift that just keeps on giving but oh how we seem to love to make things difficult for ourselves.

I've referred to this several times in this blog but it bears repeating. The sun is going to come up in the morning. There is absolutely nothing I can do about it. I may hate it; I may rally against my fate as the dawn breaks, but the sun is going to come up whether I like it or not. The lesson in this however is that as soon as I accept the sun is going to come up and there is nothing I can do about it, I can move on to those things in my life I can change. Yes, it's all Zen-like and a repeat of the Serenity Prayer, but as stupid as it may sound, it is the truth; it is how the world works. Accept what you can't change and change what you can. I'll wait here while you turn red in the face, steam comes out of your ears and you quietly say to yourself, "Fuuuuuuuuucccccccck!" Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying this is easy to do. Heck, how many times have I paced up and down in my apartment talking out loud to myself as I complain about my lot in life, how tough things are for me and how I've been wronged to the Nth degree?

Let me return to the original premise. Bad mouthing your spouse to the neighbours is one thing, but what about to your children? Do you tell your kids that Dad, or Mom as the case may be, is a terrible person? Do you force them to pick sides? After a divorce there is this concept of co-parenting but how can two people co-parent if one is saying bad things about the other? I'm mentioning children here because anybody could argue that the neighbours aren't that important but children? Ah, now that is a different kettle of fish. Yes, you're angry. Yes, you're upset. But that's what a professional therapist is for; not your neighbours, not the other members of your family, not your children. Don't make people pick sides. It's not fair. After all, you're the one divorcing your spouse, not them.

God, the anger I have seen. The hatred, the blind rage. A therapist told me the other day that he watched a couple use their own children as pawns in their drawn-out divorce and subsequent custody battle. Collectively, they had spent over a quarter of a million dollars in legal fees in the course of several of years and still had not yet finished. That is insanity.

For the zillionth time in this blog, I will mention Molly Monet of Postcards from a Peaceful Divorce. She gets a divorce, works out an arrangement with her ex-husband, becomes friends with him and the two of them co-parent their children. What better example is there for everyone to follow, to strive for, when getting a divorce? Life is going to go on no matter what we do. Why not make it a little less trying?

Postscript
Before publishing this blog entry, I shared it with Annie Parker in order to ask her permission to reference her work. Our exchanges got me thinking and I decided to add a postscript. However, my postscript started getting more long-winded than I had intended and I think it best be left to another post. I will add that some, based on their own particular experiences, may feel my article is impractical, critical or not applicable to their situation. I would like to come back this at a later date. If your particular situation can only be properly labelled as "high conflict", if your spouse is being unreasonable or just plain crazy, admittedly there is only one thing to do: get a lawyer. I would point you to this posting: Raoul Felder: The Good Divorce. And I would add that once one party decides to hire a lawyer, the marriage is over.

Postscript #2 - Dec 14/2011
Ms. Annie Parker of the The Bitter Divorcée has written a response to this blog posting: Hanging the Dirty Laundry (Dec 13/2011). She is measured and logical and I think not just a little patient with me. A couple of responses have given me the idea that I may be going home tonight to discover my home firebombed.

A divorce lawyer, who is divorced himself, told me the other day that in his experience only 10% of divorces turn into major confrontations. That is, the majority of divorces are settled reasonably with both parties being civil to one another. As a glimmer of hope to me, he went on to describe how he and his ex-wife had a nice trip to New York together to visit their daughter adding that now, he and his wife are friends. A glimmer of hope? I added the first postscript to underline the exception to the rule, the exception to anything I was saying in this article: the high conflict, no holds barred, I'm going to see you rot in hell post-marriage catastrophes. Children, on-going alimony payments, you may be divorced, that is, no longer legally married, but you are going to have a relationship with this other person for the rest of your life whether you like it or not.

I was prompted to write this article by the 14 year old girl who wrote to Annie Parks. Nothing more. It made me think of some of my experiences; it made me think of some of the people I've met throughout my life. I won't be going to New York.


References

The Bitter Divorcée
on bitterness, contradiction, culture, and kids

Dear Annie: Mom Hates Dad and I’m in the Middle
Dear Annie,
My parents divorced four years ago when I was ten. My mom doesn’t like my dad. She doesn’t actually call him names or anything, but she is negative about him.  I think she would be happier if I hated him like she does.  It really bothers me because I love both my parents. I don’t know what to do.  Do you have any ideas?
Jen

Huffington Post - Sep 5/2011
College Helps Renew Parent-Child Ties by Richard Warshak
Comment from divorcedpauline - Sep 5/2011
"This exact thing happened to a friend of mine. She got to college, starting listening to other kids talk about their parents, and realized for the first time how her mother had manipulated her to distrust her father. But it hadn't occurred to me this is a common phenomenon with alienated kids. Great piece."

my blog: The Psycho Ex Wife: ex bashing taken to the next level
Hate your ex? Ever have evil thoughts of retribution, hell and damnation? Envisaged fire and brimstone raining down upon their heads? One man has taken his misdirected feelings of ill will and channelled them into an online literary opus of such obsessive focus it would raise the most curious of questions as to why he ever married his ex-wife in the first place.

my blog: Tricia Walsh: Let's divorce on YouTube!
You bitch. You bastard. It's an emotionally charged time. Do we risk saying things we normally would not say? Do we need a mediator or a counsellor to reign us in, calm us down, and get us back to talking instead of yelling? Maybe looking at what other people do may just give us a better idea of what we ourselves should be doing.

my blog: Raoul Felder: The Good Divorce
In reading about this gentleman, I realised he was not just a lawyer but an expert in the field of divorce. He had been to the front lines; he had fought the battles, and he had been witness to the outcomes both good and bad. ... if your spouse gets a lawyer and here it doesn't matter if you're the man or you're the women, you must immediately get legal representation. The advice is this: you are an amateur playing against a professional. It is imperative you "arm" yourself with the same professionalism and level the playing field. ... once the retainer is paid to a lawyer, the entire nature of the proceedings has changed in both tone and objective and the likelihood of an 11th hour reprieve is slim to nil. That is to say, once one party decides to hire a lawyer, the marriage is over.

Dr. Richard A. Warshak
Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing
In this classic guide to preventing & overcoming parental alienation, Dr. Warshak helps parents shield children from the crossfire of divorce and separation.

Amazon
Divorce Poison New and Updated Edition by Dr. Richard A. Warshak
Your ex-spouse is bad mouthing you to your children, constantly portraying you in a negative light, perhaps even trying to turn them against you. If you handle the situation ineffectively, your relationship with your children could suffer. You could lose their respect, lose their affections-even, in extreme cases, lose all contact with them. The conventional advice is to do nothing, that fighting fire with fire will only result in greater injury to the children. But after years of consulting parents who heeded such advice with no success, Dr. Richard Warshak is convinced that this approach is wrong. It doesn't work, and parents are left feeling helpless and hopeless. DIVORCE POISON instead offers a blueprint for effective response. In it, you will learn how to distinguish different types of criticism, how and why parents manipulate their children, how to detect these maneuvers, and how these practices damage children. Most importantly, you'll discover powerful strategies to preserve and rebuild loving relationships with your children.

Amazon
The Co-Parenting Survival Guide: Letting Go of Conflict After a Difficult Divorce
by Elizabeth Thayer Ph.D. and Jeffrey Zimmerman Ph.D.
When couples have children, an acrimonious divorce can be painful for everyone involved. Couples can bear enormous resentment, anger and disappointment toward each other yet they still have to collaborate on one of the most complicated and difficult jobs in the world: child-rearing. Too often the intricacies of visitation, holiday plans and differences over discipline are left to lawyers, escalating the antagonism. Psychologists Elizabeth S. Thayer and Jeffrey Zimmerman argue that it doesn't have to be that way, and in The Co-Parenting Survival Guide: Letting Go of Conflict After a Difficult Divorce they help parents work harmoniously with their exes. Founders of Parents Allied to Co-Parent Effectively (PEACE), a service for high-conflict divorced or divorcing parents, the authors offer advice from conflict resolution to dealing with stepparents that could save parents thousands of dollars in legal fees and protect kids from needless misery and trauma.

2011-12-12

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4 comments:

perilsofdivorcedpauline.com said...

I had my daughter tested recently because her teacher felt she was behind in reading. As part of the academic testing, the psychologist administered psych tests and said that, while Franny is essentaially a resilient, happy kid, she's anxious because she's afraid of losing people and there's ambient tension in the house...meaning much is not being said. I think my reaction, aftern going through such a horrible divorce and so much being said to my son, has been to not say much of anything. But kids DO pick up on feelings in the air. The psychologist advised me to talk about the fact that her dad and I don't agree on things and this has caused conflict. What's my point? My point is that sometimes it's impossible to stay out of the middle and saying nothing to children can be crazy-making. A lot of it is intention, I think. Is the intention to destroy your ex's relationship with your kid? Or is your intention to address the elephant in the room so that your kid doesn't feel that that he/she is crazy for picking up on bad vibes?

Molly @ Postcards from a Peaceful Divorce said...

Nice point, Pauline. I have a good relationship with my ex, but that doesn't mean there isn't tension. And I have to address that tension at times with my kids, especially as they get older and understand more. We can try to teach our kids how to deal with conflict or that sometimes conflict exists and we just have to accept the fact that it is irreconcilable.

Thanks, Billy, for another shout out!

BigLittleWolf said...

Some of your givens are not givens, WQ. And that changes a great deal. Especially when things go on for years. Many years.

That said, the occasional negative remark will slip out - under the best of circumstances and certainly under the worst.

Still, every child wants to love both parents. The pain a child goes through when put in the middle is dreadful, and I don't think we know the full extent of that legacy until they're adults. All the more reason to avoid that at all cost.

Not always possible, but always desirable.

Thepsychoexwife said...

Hmmmmm maybe you should have read the comments that Allison Morelli actually said to Anthony Morelli and the children, things like wishing him dead in front of a 4 and 6 year old, or calling him a faggot, gay, impotent, asshole, psycho, mentally ill. Oh you didn't read those emails? I guess that's why Allison wanted the site down, so no one would see her abuse over the years. Don't worry, you can read it all when it comes back up, like the time she broke into his house and he had to get a restraining order against her. Why oh why would she marry someone who was an impotent faggot, and then when she finally got away from him, break back into his house and try to move back in with him? Why over the course of the last 7 years would she beg him to come back to her? The man that supposedly abused her so? But I guess calling her jabba (which if you read the description was about her personality) is so much worse than being an abusive alcoholic that abused her kids. There are two sides, and his side was working through all of that abuse and trying to make life better for his kids, and others that are dealing with the same issues. What is Allison's side? The one that continues to stalk Anthony and his girlfriend of almost 8 years, now stalking all of their family and friends as well. Because that is what a stable ex wife does.