A Few Facts About Divorce – For Better and For Worse

In Love, Sex, and Relationships by Dr. Keith Witt

iStock_000020227562XSmall-300x199 I read an outstanding interview in the LA Times this week (Saturday, July 30), where Patt Morrison was asking high profile divorce lawyer Laura Wasser about the whole divorce process. Working with couples for forty years gives you an incredible range of experiences with divorce and divorce lawyers. I’ve seen the best and the worst of what the law profession has to offer marital dissolution, and Laura Wasser in her interview kept embodying the best of what family law has to help divorcing couples. I know attorneys like her in Santa Barbara, and they reflect what’s admirable about how the legal profession can help handle marital breakups in caring ways that minimize harm to spouses and children.

First of all, a few facts about divorce:

  • Weirdly, increased acceptance of divorce and higher divorce rates are characteristics of healthier cultures that allow women equal rights. That’s right, cultures that forbid or severely discourage divorce—specifically farming cultures where wealth is concentrated in non-portable assets like fields and herds—tend to treat women as property and tolerate rampant abuse of all sorts. Think Afghanistan, Africa, and rural India. When women gain economic power, life-style choice, and rights to be treated respectfully, divorce rates skyrocket—not a bad thing after centuries (eons) of discrimination, marital rape, and disempowerment of women. This is happening in urban China right now, as it happened in the United States and Europe over the last hundred years.
  • California has pioneered “no-fault” divorce (now the national model), where one partner just wanting to separate is enough to legally end a marriage. People don’t have to go to court and prove “My husband’s a cheating asshole,” or, “My wife’s a lying bitch,” to qualify for divorce—all one spouse has to do is consistently assert he or she wants to end the marriage. This is less costly, more dignified, and focuses on the basic right of adult people to congregate (conjugate? copulate?) with whomever they want without the government meddling in their personal lives.
  • Judges don’t weigh in on character unless someone looks like they might be an abusive or criminally neglectful parent—divorce courts are designed to create a fair distribution of community assets and to support the welfare of children.

Still, angry people hire unscrupulous lawyers to try to get some special edge on their partners.

This usually ends in thousands (or hundreds of thousands, or millions) of dollars going to greedy attorneys, while couples eventually get basically the same deal they would have if they agreed to just ask for what’s fair under the law. I’ve worked with people where one rigid, angry partner was so unwilling just to cooperatively make it happen—basically refused to accept what was fair under the law—that he or she squandered huge percentages of community assets in useless litigation, aided and abetted by self-serving lawyers. Laura Wasser is the exact opposite of such attorneys. Clearly someone who believes in marriage, fairness, and doing what’s best for her clients, she advocates mediation—cooperative divorce. Reading her interview, I kept say saying out loud at the breakfast table, “Yes! I love this woman! She really gets it!” until Becky said, “You should write a blog about it.” For instance, Wasser is a great advocate for helping people get on with their lives. “I’m not going to say divorce is good, but you don’t see people staying in unhappy marriages as much as you did. They realize that it may be better for their children to see what a happy parent looks like rather than miserable parents under the same roof. Being able to solve that problem, and then moving [clients] on to a new situation, is what gets me through; it makes me like my job.” Unlike many lawyers who represent high-profile cases (her clients include Maria Schriver, Angelina Jolie, Britney Spears, and Mrs. Mel Gibson), she avoids the spotlight and never makes the story about her. “I don’t think it’s fair to make the worst time of somebody else’s life a kind of career booster.” She demonstrates great compassion for her clients. Quoting her father (another lawyer) she says, “My dad once said that in criminal law you see terrible people on their best behavior; in family law you see great people on their worst behavior. I also believe that  [a lawyer can] help get them to the other side and people are so relieved and so appreciative.” When considering children she is a fierce advocate for parents sucking it up to be respectful of each other in service of the kids. “For all those passionate hateful feelings [in] the breakup, there must be some moment you had with this person that can carry you through that two-hour karate exhibition. If you can’t do that, I am going to be a little judgmental. That’s not OK. Figure it out.” As the guy people often ask to help them, “Figure it out,” it’s nice to know there are attorneys like Laura Wasser in the world, advocating for fairness, civility, and supporting children when guiding couples through legally untangling unhappy marriages. A big part of my personal mission is to help people choose wisely and love well, but I know some marriages become impossible and divorce is the best option. That’s when I send my clients to lawyers like Laura and tell them, “She wants what’s best for you, your ex, and the kids. Follow her advice, do what’s necessary, and get on with your life—hopefully wiser, stronger, and better able to love well.