Vulnerability in Divorce

The woman I spoke with the other day called to see if mediation would be appropriate for her.  In the course of her delicate discussions with her husband about a trial separation, she learned that he had lied to her about his intentions.  While trying to sort out the details of who will live where and how they will care for their children and pay for two homes, she learned he was hiding an affair and the costs- both financial and emotional-  associated with that. It hit her in that moment that he probably was not considering this a trial separation.

In that moment, she finds herself wondering if she can trust this man she has been living with for 18 years.  The one person she has conferred with to make all the major decisions of her adult life, including the dissolution of their marriage, is no longer her ally. Suddenly, he’s a stranger, unpredictable, like a shadowy figure in a dark alley.  She doesn’t know what he will do next or how he will operate.  Unlike the man she’s been married to, this one appears to make decisions based entirely on his own best interest. She realizes that his needs for money and space sit at odds with hers.  Right when she faces one of the greatest challenges of her life, she is utterly alone.

She asks herself whether to continue to work on agreements with this man when he has shown that he no longer adheres to their marital contract of openness and honesty.  Once trust is lost, everything is up in the air.  Will he uphold the agreements they’ve made so far?  Will he continue to care for their children?  Or will he spend their shared savings on a trip to Bali with his new girlfriend?  It’s bad enough to be left in a relationship.  Should she risk being ripped off as well?  

On the other hand, if she chooses to act cautiously and protect herself, what will that bring her?  She might pull her money from their shared accounts and hire a good (read: aggressive) attorney.  Naturally, her husband would respond in kind and the race is off.  While she doesn’t want to start a war, she definitely wants to protect her own best interest and what she sees as the best interest of their children.

So, what is one to do?  She asks a number of friends and they all give her different advice but nearly everyone tells her the first step is to find a good lawyer.

I was so glad she called me. (I’m not a lawyer, good or otherwise.)  

I began by explaining that how the situation is initially framed impacts the outcome.  Then I described the different perspectives of a lawyer and a mediator.  A lawyer’s obligation is to advocate for her client.  She’s trained to look for the vulnerability in her client’s situation and protect her from harm.  For most, the underlying assumption is that divorce is a battle and the lawyer’s job is to help her client win at any (legal) cost.

Mediators generally operate on the assumption that divorce is a process and it’s our job to assist people through it.  Central to this assumption is the belief that people make better decisions for themselves when they’re calm.  So part of our job is to help both parties feel safe during the discussion; safe to speak up for themselves and confident that they’re heard.  

We also assume that fear begets fear.  So if one person panics and withdraws all of the money from a shared account, the other person will probably hire the biggest, baddest attorney available to combat that move.  

Admittedly, not everyone has complete trust in the person they share a home or children with.  For some, trust diminishes slowly over the course of the relationship.  That brings a different set of challenges when the couple separates.  But for people caught off guard at the end of a relationship, the next steps rely on our basic human instinct for kindness in times of stress.  

In On Kindness Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor assert that kindness is a natural state for humans but in recent years we’ve sublimated it to “get ahead” in an increasingly competitive culture.  Treating not only family but even strangers gently and allowing ourselves to empathize with their vulnerability comes naturally to us when we aren’t fearing for our own safety. 

While it’s an enormous challenge to feel empathy toward the person who has broken the bond of trust, the alternative doesn’t look too appealing.  Making the person a monster and the cause of our pain forces us into a position of victimhood and practically compels us to fight back.  

We don’t know what will happen if we approach the stranger who was our partner with our hands open, naked and unarmed.  Vulnerability is a lot to ask of people going through this most raw and confusing of trials.  But I routinely see this play out in my office and each time I feel deep awe and appreciation for the human spirit of kindness.