Civil Divorce:A Personal Account/A Reader

Posted on March 17, 2011

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My wife and I were married more than twenty years, and we had several children. For their and her privacy, I avoid specifics. We met in college, began as enormously close friends, married mostly for the right reasons, and built a Bayit Ne’eman. My in-laws disliked me from Day One and before. They felt their daughter could have done better, and they did everything possible to prevent the marriage. My father-in-law never warmed up to me later either, and the in-laws were a major reason for the divorce.

By the time we reached divorce, my wife and I really did not like each other – I guess there was some hate. The kids felt it. To the outside world, we were a perfect couple, a perfect family. But we knew otherwise.

First, we almost divorced. We actually had the papers prepared for filing, but there was enough uncertainty to deter the serving of the divorce papers. A year later, we were back at divorce mode, and this time the papers were served. But, again, a doubt. More marriage counseling. And we gave the instructions to drop the civil case.

By Year Three, we knew what we really had known for many years – we just had to get divorced. We just had to. We just had to.

At this point we evaluated our options. We were in our 40s, and several other of our friends in their 40s were going through divorces, too, ending their respective twenty-plus-year marriages. All their stories had a common ring: they all were busy killing each other. Each case was a variation on the Michael Douglas-Kathleen Turner “Wars of the Roses” model. Their lawyers aggressively were advising them to fight to the death. Each couple’s attorney bills respectively was exceeding $50,000. In one family, the wife was falsely accusing her husband of having sexually molested the kids when they were younger. He had given his daughter baths twenty years earlier, when she was like a year old. In another family, the couple were tripping each other and bumping into each other, with instructions, like in the movie, not to abandon the house to the other. This one had taken a restraining order. That one had called the cops. Their kids watched all.

My wife and I decided, much as we finally had come to hate each other, that we did not really hate each other that much, nor did we desire to blow $50,000 on divorce lawyers. Divorce lawyers are an interesting breed. Go to most any other kind of lawyer, whatever your need, and your lawyer does not necessarily know how much money you have down to the penny. But your divorce lawyer finds out when (s)he has to turn over your financials to the opposing counsel. Your lawyer takes a peek, sees how much you have, and knows how much fighting you can afford to pay for. The opposing counsel does the same. Each then coaches the respective client to ask for more, to demand, to hurt the other guy, make him suffer for all he did to you, make her pay for the years wasted. The lawyers push and push until they determine you are out of money. Then they settle.

We did not want or need that. We learned that the usual system is to have each spouse’s income numbers fed into a computer program, called “Dissomaster,” along with the percentages of custody, and it spits out figures for alimony and child support. Usually, the guy’s lawyer then counsels fighting the number and arguing that it is too high and fails to consider unique factors affecting the paying ex-spouse, while the wife’s lawyer advises litigating, arguing that the number is too low and fails to consider extra needs. So my wife and I decided that, even if one of us wins a drag-out fight, the other is bound to lose. So one will pay legal fees in a losing fight, while the winner probably will end up paying in legal fees what he otherwise wins. And the added hate will not be worth it. Therefore, we agreed that we would go to an accountant and, separately, to a paralegal, and have each plug in the Dissomaster numbers. We would take the average and, no matter what, that is what I would pay in alimony and child support. No lawyers. And, yes, I thought the numbers with which I got stuck were too high, and she felt her numbers were too low. But we knew we could trust each other to honor our promise.

Next, dividing property. Maybe it reflected our having become very different from each other, but we wanted opposite things. She wanted furniture, kitchen stuff, china and crystal. I wanted the rugs and the wall treatments, the books and the VHS tapes and audiocassettes, the CDs and DVDs. We worked it out. She got the appliances, also the TV and sound system. She kept her car, and I kept mine. We had bumps and hiccups. In the end, I feel she got maybe $2,000 more property than she should have. Add that to the extra alimony and child support that I felt exceeded a fair amount – and I still was not feeling cheated out of more than $10-15,000 . . . well below the $25-30,000 I would have had to pay a divorce lawyer to save me from being cheated. And maybe I would have lost. And the smoldering hate between my wife and me would have been turned into a boiling cauldron of anger.

We had to work out the kids, too. Again, we saw things so differently. She wanted to meet a new guy and remarry, so felt a fellow gainfully employed in a good income bracket would be jammed all week, but would make some weekend time, so she wanted the kids all weekdays but was interested in having some flex on weekends. By contrast, I was in a killer profession that had me working crazy hours every day, so I knew I only would disappoint my children week after week by not being available on scheduled weeknights – but I would be “off work” on Shabbat and also would preserve Sundays. We agreed that I would pick up the kids from yeshiva on Friday afternoons and drop them back at school on Monday mornings.

We avoided war.

Through the first year of divorce, I was badly jolted. I felt hurt and wronged and had trouble holding it in. She, meanwhile, would phone me during my custody days, still giving me orders, telling me what to serve for meals, when to give ice cream, whether she approved of my letting the kids drink soda or eat candy. But she no longer was my wife. It was my home, my rules. The “davka-nik” in me wanted davka to give them soda and candy. I think they liked the davka-nik. But the sensible side won out. I was the father I always had wanted to be. And, over time, word came back through small comments from the kids that Mom seemed happier than they had remembered her. That hurt. But I was happier, too. We were meant to marry. And we were meant to divorce.

It is ten years later. Over that time, life moved on. The kids finished yeshiva high school, had Israel programs to consider, college, and decisions to make. My former wife and I necessarily would consult. A blessing of email – we could consult as needed without having to talk to each other. I found that helpful. We had to deal with shared expenses. Like every guy, I felt further abused: isn’t that what child support is for? I am paying all this child support, and yet the kids tell me that they do not get this basic thing, nor that. And the ex-wife sends me bills to share? I resented it.

Someone told me to talk to a fellow at work. He was the resident expert on divorce: four divorces, he. I sat with him for ten minutes and I got a wise lesson from a pro: “Just set aside an extra $2-3,000 a year to pay the things for which you are being cheated. Just pay it. By staying focused on your job and life, not on being cheated for 2-3K a year, you will earn more than you would if you become consumed with the fight. Just pay it, find a better wife, and move on.”

I did. I remarried. When my former wife remarried, a friend called to console me. I had to correct him – this was one of the happiest days of my life. The minute the new fellow broke the glass under the chupah, my alimony obligation ended. Of all the financial gifts I ever received from family, bonuses at work – this fellow did me the greatest favor of all. And he was not such a bad guy. Actually, he was OK. Yes, he really was an OK guy, particularly to me. And I married a wonderful lady who was the loving and encouraging wife I had not had before.

As my life came together, and as my former wife’s did, too, we slowly came to stop hating each other, then to stop resenting each other. When something happened in the Middle East, we would exchange an occasional email link to the story with a suitable comment, reflecting that we always had the same world view on Israel’s rights to Judea and Samaria. Sometimes one or another of the kids would do something annoying, and suddenly it was we – my former wife and her new husband, my new wife, and I – versus them: the nudnicky kids and their latest annoyance. And then one day, one of the kids asked: If Mom and [husband] would agree, would you and [wife] agree to join together with us kids at a restaurant for Mother’s Day?

Sure, why not? It’s food, right?

We did a Mother’s Day together, then a Father’s Day. Suddenly, this way, we did not have to split the kids and the holidays alternating years. In time, we started doing Thanksgiving dinners together and Pesach sedarim. Why not? It’s food, right? And that way I get the kids every year at Pesach, at Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day. After all, there always are other people at the Seder table, the Thanksgiving table, including people and relatives who are not your favorite. So, what the hey? We both cannot stand either of the Baraks – Ehud or Obama. My wife and she get along fine. I get along fine with her husband. We all share a common feeling about the great things in our kids and their crazy stuff.

The kids all are done with high school now. Child support is over. But life goes on. I know friends who had bitter, vicious, drag-out divorces – and still are at each others’ throats ten years later. Their war never will end, like the Frank Gorshin character in “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” the fourteenth episode of “Star Trek.” (The former wife and I both were big Trekkies.) They still fight, still hang up on each other, still alternate their years’ holidays with the kids, still give each other grief.) Not I. Not she. When we divorced, we made the single most important decision we could have made: considering the experiences of all our divorcing friends around us, we opted to divorce civilly, if not amicably. We made commitments to each other, and we stood by those promises. The hate and contempt softened over the years, never having taken hold in a bitter divorce fight. We moved on.

If the best revenge is living the good life, I have gotten my revenge on her. And she has gotten her revenge on me. And we both refused to let battling divorce lawyers ruin that chance for revenge.

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