It’s Not All the War of the Roses

There’s a very common myth that all divorces are bitter cat-and-dog struggles like the movie, The War of the Roses.  (Of course, many cats and dogs get along just fine, like mine do.)

This myth just ain’t so.  Although the couple in Marriage Story had some angry fights, they retained a reservoir of love and affection.  Many couples divorce because they eventually move in different directions from when they married, not out of hatred.

That has been my observation from my personal and professional experience.  When I had a private divorce mediation practice, I was touched by how much many of the couples still deeply cared about each other.  I remember one couple who seemed like they were flirting with each other in my office.

When I became involved with my first wife, Janet, she was still closely involved with her former husband’s (Mike’s) family.  They were part of a social circle that regularly gathered at Mike’s parents’ house.  Wouldn’t you know it, I became part of that circle too.  Indeed, I spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s at their house in the first year that Janet and I were together.

One day, I was called for jury duty and, lo and behold, Mike was in the same jury pool.  During voir dire, the judge asked if any of us knew each other.  I spoke up and the judge asked how we knew each other.  “We have a mutual friend,” I said.

Mike and his brother came to our wedding.  After we moved away, Mike would stay with us when he came to visit his and Janet’s kids.

Although it’s well known that I’m a bit odd, it turns out that I am not that odd.  I have heard of other blended families where divorced spouses and new partners regularly spend time together.  I wouldn’t be surprised if you know of similar relationships.

Some lawyers and mediators say that they would never do family cases because they are too emotional.  Some are emotional – in a bad way, with hatred, dishonesty, recriminations, and damage to children and everyone else involved.

Others are emotional in a good, bittersweet way.  Some couples recognize that they can’t continue to be married but they still care deeply about each other and mourn the loss of their relationships.

I had some family cases in which the parties didn’t display much emotion.  A friend described some couples as “pre-shrunk,” meaning that they had previously worked out their emotional issues in couples counseling.  These couples came to me to work out the legal and financial details.

I am bemused (?) when lawyers and mediators who handle other types of civil cases complain about the emotionality of family law cases as if there are no emotions in business disputes (just like there’s no crying in baseball).  Listen to corporate executives, inside counsel, and outside counsel talk about each other, and that will disabuse you of this notion.

I was prompted to write about all this by a touching story, “I Do. Take 2,” about a couple who divorced after being married for 37 years and then remarried several years later.  You might want some tissues nearby when you read it.

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Update: I sent a draft of this post to Janet and she told me that she and Mike are talking about living together now, more than 20 years after they divorced.

2 thoughts on “It’s Not All the War of the Roses”

  1. This is a very interesting take on the common, but often still taboo, subject of divorce. Obviously with divorce there are two distinct ends. First, there are the bitter and harsh ones. These conflicts often go on for many years after the fact and cause crippling family divisions. These types of divorces only lead to more conflicts down the road between the individual parties and sometimes even people who become directly or indirectly involved.

    On the other hand there are the divorces like the ones discussed above. The ones that are mutually uplifting and not full of deceit or backstabbing by the parties. These conflicts also are much less of a struggle and usually are completely finished when an understanding of separation is agreed upon. It is also worth noting that it is helpful as a student just beginning to learn topics associated with conflict resolution that not all issues are meant to be an adversarial struggle.

  2. Thank you for this article. I loved “Marriage Story.” I’m currently a 2L at Marquette University Law School, and that film only reinforced my desire to become a divorce attorney. I’d say my favorite part was the juxtaposition in the court scene between the adversarial lawyers gouging wounds in the couple’s marriage and Nicole and Charlie listening silently. It’s almost like the lawyers had been appointed to have the nasty fights the couple themselves wanted to have. We are studying the reasons why one might hire a lawyer in Alternative Dispute Resolution right now. Some of those reasons include detachment and expertise. In “Marriage Story,” the detachment was simultaneously there and not there; the lawyers are detached enough from the situation to expose the party’s dirtiest laundry in court (affairs, alcohol problems) and yet Laura Dern’s character is seen as an emotional and empathetic advocate for Nicole. The way that media depicts the role of lawyers as adversarial, nasty fighters has not changed, it seems, for many years. The film really made me think about the role a lawyer plays in a divorce and whether it’s necessary good to involve a lawyer in your divorce.

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