When I got unmarried, over 40 years ago, I was a bit of an “outlier” as divorce was relatively rare in the frum community. For those of us who took this drastic step, it was tragically a necessary evil, and viewed like an amputation.
But to my great dismay, divorce has, in the last decade, exploded and become almost commonplace. So many of my friends have middle-aged children who are recently divorced or are in the process. Couples in their 20s-50s who have been married 15-25 years are deciding to go their separate ways.
In my day, those who divorced did so after months or within a few years, because they needed to, but it’s puzzling to me that after living together for over 15 years, it’s over. Mid-life crisis; boredom with what’s familiar; “FOMO” (fear of missing out) – each reason to end a marriage is unique.
Couples, however, who feel their marriage is unsalvageable, should at least salvage their divorce. In other words, it’s in the best interest of the couple to work out for themselves – in advance of the break-up – any potential post-marriage issues such as custody, visitation division of mutual assets, etc.
A few words of wisdom to each and every man and woman facing the reality of a divorce: Don’t allow your life and those of your children to be hijacked by outsiders – i.e., the officers of a secular or religious court – in the misguided belief, fueled by anger or greed or a vindictive desire to punish, that you will come out ahead. You, not your spouse, may well turn out to be the big-time loser, both financially and emotionally. If you think for a moment that the court will take what you say at face value and give you everything you ask for, you are as big a fool as a moth heading straight towards a burning light bulb.
When divorcing couples “out-source” the adjudication of their major disputes, they essentially give up the freedom and entitlement to make decisions on their children and assets. They effectively hand over their right to determine the course of their personal lives to total strangers – who do not know them at all. These strangers – for the most part indifferent and with their own ingrained biases – will make life-altering decisions for them, and either parent risks serious censor and punishment if he/she won’t comply with those decisions.
When you take your dispute to court you are effectively saying, “Your Honor, you don’t know me or my family from Adam, but I am going to let you and the officers of the court (lawyers, court-appointed psychologists, advisers) dictate if my kids will be living with me – and if not, when I will see them. If I don’t follow your orders exactly – if I try to see my son on Shabbat instead of Wednesday – you can find me in contempt and jail me. And for all this, I will end up paying a fortune, using up my savings and even going into debt or borrowing from everyone I know.
As for the custody battle, the lawyers can stretch out over several years a court case that should have been easily resolved in weeks. The legal fees amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Not too long ago I read in a frum publication of a frum lawyer who recommended to his client that she accuse her husband of being abusive to the kids so his access would be limited and she would get more child support. The writer commented that the wife told her soon to be ex-husband that she would not do that. But how many spouses would listen to “legal advice”?
I wonder how hard this lawyer righteously beat his chest on Yom Kippur?
I am well aware that if both spouses had the ability to compromise, capitulate and cooperate in order to emerge with an acceptable division of what is mutually theirs, they most likely wouldn’t be divorcing in the first place. If they were incapable of maintaining a “give and take” relationship while they were married, they obviously aren’t going to take on those abilities now that the marriage is coming to an end.
But all concerned should know that in an ironic kind of way a “good” divorce is as crucial for a family’s future well-being as a good marriage – maybe more so. And a good divorce means both spouses giving up, giving in and, most important, keeping third parties out of it – lawyers in particular, since it’s their job to do what’s best for their client, not what’s best for the family.
Perhaps the most horrific aspect of any custody fight is the Solomon-like role-reversal children find themselves in when asked which parent they’d prefer to live with. For these children it’s a lose-lose situation, as either answer will upset one of the parents. The extreme stress, anxiety and guilt accompanying this request – made by the judge and the respective lawyers, often in the judge’s chambers – can psychologically damage a child for life and compromise his or her relationship with both parents, siblings, and later with society in general.
Yes, having to sit down with a soon-to-be ex-spouse to try to resolve the distribution of mutual assets – children included – can be stressful and painful, especially if the parting couple can’t stand being in the same room anymore. But it’s nothing compared to the hell awaiting them if they don’t.