Judges are not in the revenge business. They are not paid to punish a spouse for bad behavior. They are not paid to right wrongs, parent your children, or vindicate a wronged spouse. Judges are paid to make decisions according to the laws in the statute books and prior court decisions. That's it; the sum total of what they are paid to do. Keeping with our theme this week of magical thinking, many clients think that if, somehow, the Judge would just hear their story, they would announce who was the better spouse (them, of course), the better parent (them again), and most importantly, that their spouse was a bad parent or an evil person. Here in the Trenches, it doesn't work that way. Judges have seen it all, and very little is presented in their courtrooms that moves them to indict a party for behaving like a jerk (not that it doesn't sometimes happen, because it does). If it's money, they look at the numbers, and unless one party has done something extremely heinous, they divide it down the center. If it's children, they look at where and how the child will get his or her needs met, while having both parents be as full participants in their life as possible. Fault plays a part, but not nearly as large or important a part as most clients think. The reason why is that judges, having seen it all, know that at the end of a marriage or intimate relationship, people behave really badly. Emotions take over, and hurt feelings rule. The law is not emotional, so judges try to remove it from the equation. Does that create a disconnect between client expectations and judicial reality? You betcha. Managing client expectations is a huge, and sometimes the most difficult, part of what we do - here in the Trenches.
Nobody forced you to eat that extra scoop of ice cream, the candy bar on the road, McDonald's drive through at lunch. All of those little choices put an extra 20 pounds on your frame. You can't diet one day and lose it all; you can't run one mile or swim one lap and look like a supermodel. Losing that 20 pounds (and keeping it off) takes a mental shift, lifestyle changes and hard work. What I've just said is not a revelation to most people. That's why I'm hard pressed when clients expect that if they just leave their spouse, their life will be immediately and permanently different - like magic. It won't, without all of the same hard internal work that comes with losing those 20 pounds. If you chose an abusive, dismissive, or needy spouse before, unless you learn what it is about you that finds that type of person attractive, your next spouse will probably be just the same. If you have an alcohol, substance or other addiction, it took you years to get to the point where it is a huge problem, and it will take you years and a lot of introspection about your triggers to recover fully; a two or six month program is the beginning and not the end. I know it's human nature to want pain to go away, to want problems to resolve, and to want to avoid the hard work. It's human nature that makes us lie to ourselves about what we need to be happy and fulfilled. Sometimes, you just have to fight against human nature. Sure it's hard, but the results are worth it. After all, how many trips do you want to make to the Trenches?
The power of apology is truly amazing. Over the last week, we've been dealing with a highly contentious custody matter. The clients acted out of emotion not intellect, and more out of fear than anger. All of this means they did things they shouldn't have done, and said things they shouldn't have said. It all made matters that much worse. We were headed to a very contentious and ugly temporary custody hearing tomorrow. Luckily, one of my very favorite attorneys, who happened to be the other attorney on the case, suggested we try to find one of our favorite mediators to helps us resolve these issues before trial. Luckily, the mediator was available. What happened next was truly magical - the husband apologized. I don't mean one of those "I'm sorry" when you don't really mean it, when you're just saying it because you figure you should. I mean, a heart felt, from the gut, mea culpa. After he did that, you could feel the tension leave the room. Then, they began to talk...and talk. The couple began to work together as a team to make plans for their child. The wife apologized, another deeply felt profession of regret. They developed a plan. They settled. Days like this, I love the Trenches
Most of us here in the Trenches are extremely aware of how much legal services cost. We really try not to waste our clients' money. When I go to court and I know there is a possibility I am going to have to wait around before I can appear before a judge, I try very hard not to simply sit there and bill my client for the time spent waiting. I prepare witnesses, prepare my argument, and organize my witnesses, so the time for which I am charging my client is productive. Many times, if I bring work for other clients so I'm billing a client for work actually performed and not my other client for whom I am sitting there doing nothing. I know clients don't like me to bill them for doing nothing, and frankly, I don't enjoy billing them for it either. Today, therefore, really annoyed me. In my jurisdiction, family cases with significant property issues are sent to ADR (alternative dispute resolution). What that means is that, after all the information concerning the money issues is gathered, the two clients and their attorneys attend mediation with a court-appointed mediator for three hours. Court-appointed mediators charge $200 per hour. Assuming each attorney charges $300 per hour and each needs an hour to prepare beforehand, one of these mediation sessions costs the clients $3,000, and that doesn't include the income each of them loses by missing work for those hours. Today, the other attorney in a case suggested we go to ADR now rather than wait until a little later, when we had all the information. Then, when we got there and had spent some significant time suggesting options for settlement (the same options, I might add that I had sent a month ago and to which he never responded), it turned out that he was not prepared to have any substantive discussions toward settlement. That's right, he was not prepared to negotiate al all. That means our clients flushed $3,000 down the toilet today. I'm sure they could have used that money to send their children to camp, fix the roof on their house, for actually anything else at all. What a waste of time and money. Luckily, it doesn't happen often; it's a shame it happens at all. Here in the Trenches.
There are a lot of things I know how to do around my house. I can fix a toilet, replace electrical outlets, paint, patch drywall (OK, that I don't do so well!), replace flooring....well, you get the picture. I do those repairs myself, and don't pay someone else to do them for me. Some repairs, I probably could do if I read the manual carefully. I mean, I could probably rewire the lights in my basement, move the bathtub to another location in the bathroom, and replace the trim on the outside of the third story of my home. The point is, however, that just because I could do all of these things, doesn't mean I should do them. For one thing, it would take me an inordinate amount of time to learn how to do them, let alone how to comply with all the rules and regulations regarding the repairs. Then, I would actually have to do the repair itself, which would take me forever because I've never done it before. Finally, there's the risk to me and my home if I somehow don't do the repair right. If I called in an electrician, a plumber or a carpenter, they would be able to do the job quickly and correctly because they have the specialized knowledge to do the work. Would I have to pay them for their labor? Of course, but it's worth it to me because the job would be done right, I would have those hours and hours of free time back, and I wouldn't have the worry that I made a mistake that would burn down the house. That's the same thing with lawyers. There are some things the average citizen can do on their own, and when they can, I tell them so. There are some things, clients can do with a little guidance, and I help them with that too. There are, however, some things that clients should not do on their own. Sure, if they spent enough time studying and reading the rules and all of the cases, they could possibly handle their own legal matter. People do it all the time. The problem is that they usually don't do it well, and if they do it well, it's because it has become their entire existence. The entire time, they are wondering if there's something they missed. Plus, the emotions get in the way. Lawyers are trained to handle legal problems. That's how their minds work, and they are used to working with rules, facts, cases and deadlines to resolve legal disputes. They do it faster and better than the ordinary citizen, they don't have the emotion bogging them down, and they do it right. How much is your time and money worth? How about the course of the rest of your life? Yes, legal work can be expensive in the short haul, but done right, it's priceless. Here in the Trenches.
While you are going through your divorce, we have some rules to live by:
1. If you wouldn't do it with a friend of the same sex, don't do it with a friend of the opposite sex. If you are gay or lesbian, if you wouldn't do it with a friend of the opposite sex, don't do it with a friend of the same sex.
2. If the email you are about to send would make your mother or grandmother blush or ask you what you were thinking, don't send it.
3. Assume that everything you put in writing will be viewed by the world.
4. "Just this one time" is one time too many.
5. The children do not need to know the gory details of your relationship, either with their other parent or someone else.
6. Your children are not your best friends; they are your children. Act like their parent.
7. Your children are not possessions; they are people. Think about how you would feel if you had to live in two homes, with two sets of rules and without your other parent; then act accordingly.
8. If you hide it, they will find it, maybe not every time, but enough to make you worry.
9. A heartfelt apology is usually worth more than the entire marital estate.
10. Be kind to yourself, your spouse and your children. If you can't be kind, just don't be unnecessarily mean.
You can either make a funny face as you suck on it, or make lemonade. A couple of months ago, I hurt my toe. My hurt toe caused me to be off balance when I ran, so I hurt my knee. Luckily, none of the injuries is serious, but it does mean I can't run for a while. I had choices at that point. I could feel sorry for myself and sit on my rear side eating bon bons until they healed (I might have had just a few days of relaxing on the couch - I'm not perfect). I could find something else to keep my neurotic need for exercise endorphins at bay, hopefully something that I would enjoy as much as running. I chose the latter. After all, pool season is here, and I love to swim almost as much as I love to run. It's a little different, because I can only swim during the hours the pool is open, and I can run whenever I feel like it. Still, I'm satisfied. Now, I in no way compare my hurt knee to the pain of a divorce or custody case, but still...... When clients find that their marriages are ending or there are difficulties in their custody arrangements, they have choices. They can sit around and wallow in self pity (and that's OK for a short period of time - the emphasis on "short"), or they can find something to fill the void created by the end of their relationship or the free time created by not having their child with them all the time. Whatever it is, it won't be the same as what they lost, but it can still be satisfying. Here in the Trenches.
In any conflict, there are three stories. In divorce, each spouse has a story of the marriage, what went right and what went wrong and why. The most important story is the third story - that's the one told by the professionals in the case. What is the third story? It's a combination of the spouse's stories, with the addition of the impartial view of the professionals and their analysis of the underlying emotions and motivations. Why is it important? It seems like that should be obvious, but it's not. If all you have is two opposing stories, two rams butting horns with each other, the conflict never ends: the opposing sides continue to fight until exhausted. When you add the third story, a shared vision emerges, and it's no longer two opposing forces but one entity with a problem or set of problems that need resolution. The conflict no longer feels hopeless. All because of the addition of perspective of the professionals and their training and experience with individuals in conflict. When someone tells you lawyers only make conflict worse, think of the third story. We do every day - here in the Trenches.
Here in the Trenches, we are attorneys and counselors at law. We are not magicians or fairy godmothers. We didn't marry your spouse, have children with him or her, run you into bankruptcy, cause you to drink or abuse drugs, become addicted to online porn, gamble, or give up your career for your marriage. You did all those things, some of which are why you ended up in our office. We cannot wave a magic wand and make all your problems go away. What we can do is help you get the best possible settlement or court decision given the facts of your life. That's it. It's what we do. If the court ordered it or you agreed to it, you have to do it. That's it - end of discussion. That what was ordered or agreed is inconvenient or expensive to do is no excuse for your former spouse, for the judge, or for us. We can't and won't help you subvert the letter or spirit of a settlement or court order. We can't and won't pretend your problems don't matter or make a difference in the outcome of your case. It wasn't our behavior that got you here; yours did and now you need to deal with the consequences. Does it mean we're not sympathetic? Of course not. Does it mean we won't help you work on what you need to do in the best way possible for you? Of course not. Does it mean we don't care what happens once the case is over? No. Remember, we're on your side, and not just because you're paying us (usually not, at least). At the end of the day, however, your problems are yours with which to deal; not ours. So, stop yelling at us for things over which we have no control.
You know what sucks stinks? Being outside the mainstream. I don't mean that like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates. I mean like the retired elderly and (wait for it), the divorced. These folks don't fit in with the the pulse of our daily lives. The retired elderly aren't in our workplace, so we no longer share "what's happening at the office" with them. A lot of them are homebound, so we have to go out of our way to see them. Many of them don't go out and have new experiences, and lots of them talk more about the distant past than about today. In short, it takes an effort to interact with them and sometimes it's uncomfortable for us. The problem is that they, like the rest of us, need human contact and social interaction to survive and thrive. They are also our parents and grandparents, the relatives who raised us, loved us, and nurtured us when we were growing up, and who we loved. Not only are our retired elderly really interesting people (how many folks do you know who can tell first hand stories about World War II, the Korean War, life without TV, air conditioning and internet, icemen, home milk deliveries....You get the picture), but we owe them a lot. That doesn't mean most people make the effort to fit them into the rhythm of their lives. Actually, most people don't.
So, what about the divorced? When these people were part of a married couple, they were part of our regular social lives. We invited them out to dinner, we went to each other's houses, our children all played together, we vacationed and attended plays, movies and concerts together. Then, one day, the couple decided to divorce. Just like that, the people we really liked were excluded from our regular social lives. They became different, not gradually like the elderly, but suddenly. They continued to live in our neighborhood, but our children no longer played with theirs. We stopped inviting them to socialize with us, to eat at our homes, to go places together. Suddenly, they were no longer like us. Divorce made them different. How do we interact with only half of a couple? A table for three seems kind of odd, and who buys three tickets to the theater (I do, but that's another story)? We feel funny sharing "couple stories" with them, and we're uncomfortable listening to their dating stories. We no longer know where they fit in the structure of our lives. So, we treat them, in many ways, like the elderly. We exclude them. At a time when these people really need social interaction, when they really need positive human contact to help them through a painful emotional period in their lives, when they really need the people who care about them, we shun them. Maybe what we need to do is examine the reason for our discomfort, deal with it, and find a way to integrate these people who are important to us into our lives. I'm sure they'd thank us for it - here in the Trenches.
Daughter is here visiting with me and her grandparents for a few days. Whenever the two of us are visiting grandma and grandpa, we have some things that we always do. The things that we do, we do a certain way. It's our ritual, and it wouldn't feel right if we didn't follow it. Hard to believe, but it reminds me of....the Trenches (shocking, I know!). We have rituals for many things in our lives. Some of them are little informal rituals, like with Daughter and me. Some of them are more formal and structured, like weddings, graduations and funerals. We use rituals to mark important times, places and relationships. So why isn't there a ritual for divorce? Don't say it's because it's not a pleasant experience; there is nothing pleasant about a funeral, and yet we still have them. I suspect that there is no ritual for divorce because in our social order, it is still a transition and rite of passage infused with shame. In a lot of ways, our society has changed and we view divorce in a more benevolent light. Long life, greater equality between the sexes, and evolving definitions of family have led to an understanding that the reasons people remained in unhappy, unproductive marriages or marriages that no longer meet the needs of the partners don't apply, and that for many, divorce is as much a rite of passage as a graduation or a marriage. The problem is that we have not created a ritual that helps these folks and those who care about them move on. Not only do we not have a ritual for the divorcing partners, but we also lack one to help their friends and family begin to attain closure and to grieve for the loss of the marital relationship. Isn't it about time we did?
Have you ever noticed that it's not the big things that make a difference, but the little ones? Of course, I'm down here with Mom and Dad. As you know from reading this blog, there have been a lot of major things that have gone on with them recently. Those major things have caused a lot of changes in their (and my) lives. Once we got past the big things, however, it's been the little things that have made the difference in how they live their lives. The personality of the care provider, the frequency of meals and snacks, the temperature of the house, along with many other little pieces of the structure of the day, have a huge impact on how the day goes, not only for Dad, but for everyone else in the house as well. The good days add up to weeks, and all of our attitudes and outlooks are affected by whether those days are good or bad. You notice, I don't mention whether we have emotional support or not, because with or without it, if the structure of the day doesn't go well, those emotional supports have little impact. Being a part of this reminds me, of course (even on vacation), of the Trenches. Separation and Divorce are major events, and they cause major changes in our clients' lives. There'a a lot of upheaval that comes with the decision to separate or divorce. Our clients are emotional messes (that's a clinical term). Most of them think that if they only had the support of their family and friends, along with a good therapist, everything will be fine. The emotional support of those we love and who love us (or are trained to help us through trauma) is very important, to be sure. What we've found here in the Trenches is that it's not what makes the difference in how well our clients do in the short haul. What makes the difference in our client's lives is creating a new schedule and rhythm for their lives, one that flows in a different way than it did before but that flows nonetheless and is in sync with their new reality. There is enough in their lives which is not on an even keel while they are in the Trenches; their daily schedule is a quick, palpable change and a signal to them that everything will eventually feel normal. It's the little things that make the difference in how you view the big changes, and nowhere is that more true than here in the Trenches.