Divorce Disaster Preparedness, Part I: Duck, Cover, and Hold.
So, it’s Halloween. But you know what’s really scary? Divorce. Like I’ve said in a previous post, going through one is like getting your insides scraped out with the rusty lid of a cat food can. Mine certainly was. If I were to tell you about mine, it would read like something from Lord of the Rings: a Halloween tale complete with dark secrets, forbidden love, a mysterious letter, sinister threats, private investigators sifting through my van, strange cases of mistaken identity, being smuggled in and out of paper signings, family feuds on two fronts, my heroic parents riding to the rescue more than once, my long-suffering children and step-daughter, a lawyer with an old axe to grind, two near-death experiences, paranormal activity, crimes and misdemeanors, and a lost kingdom. My divorce got so crazy that my own lawyer stopped charging me at one point. I am not kidding. It was that bad. But I will spare you.
However, divorce can also be a virtual fright night for other people too, like co-workers, family, and friends. If you find yourself suddenly in the position of being one of those other people, here’s some things to keep in mind (please feel free to add your own advice to the comments section — I’m in no way claiming to be an expert). And by the way, as you’re reading this, and especially if you know me, please keep in mind that what follows is not directed at anyone. Yes, some of it comes from my own experience, but it also is taken from the experiences of other people I have known, people I have eavesdropped on, and a draft pick to be named later
Okay, let’s get started. So, you are confronted with someone getting a divorce. What do you do? First of all, this is a disaster in the making. So remember your kindergarten disaster drill, like the one we used to do for nuclear bombs:
- Duck. When you find out, be prepared to seek some cover. Things are going to fly. You don’t want to be exposed to the initial blast, forced to take sides before you’re ready, or be made to make proclamations that you’ll later regret.
- Cover. Put a lid on what you initially think. It will probably change. Don’t react off the cuff.
- Hold. This is the most important part. You need to give things a moment to settle. You should probably take that moment to talk things over with anyone else who will be living with you in the aftermath (spouse, etc.) before going rogue. Here’s some things to hold on to:
#1: Hold onto your perspective. It’s just not about you.
We all know that divorce is bad news. No matter what, everyone is going to lose something. If the couple are your friends or your family, you are probably going to lose one or both of them. Sure, it hurts and sure, you want to hang on to what you had. But it’s just not about you, so don’t make it about you. I remember my sister-in-law telling me as the dust was settling when my first marriage exploded, “You’ve been running around trying to make sure that we’re all okay, and it should be the other way around.” Hearing that was such a relief. And please —
- Don’t tell them “We’re devastated!” and act as if they have shattered your perfect life. You’re devastated? Their entire world is in ruins.
- Don’t act like you’re their victim. These people know that there is collateral damage in their disaster, and they generally feel awful about it. But they’re not doing this to spite you.
- And however shocked you are, don’t ask them to, in some way, perform CPR on or validate your relationship with them. Trust me, they’re the ones in shock. Unless they’re one of those strange people who have a “friendly divorce,”** they’re stumbling around bleeding sorrow, grief, rage, regret, and fear from every emotional orifice. In comparison, you’re doing just fine.
#2: Hold off on the firehose. Some things need to burn down.
When a relationship is burning, it’s natural for others to try and put out the fire. But running into a burning building without knowing what you’re really getting into is, well, just plain stupid. You’re likely to get burned without really accomplishing anything. And if it’s a divorce, don’t do it. Marriages burn down because there’s a toxic mixture buried behind the nice, neat, facade that the couple presents to others and that others want to see. If you’re really good friends with these people you’ve probably smelled the fumes from this mixture from time to time. Sometimes it smolders over years, kept in check by denial, guilt, or fear, until it finally gets out of control. Other times it spontaneously ignites and — ka-BOOM — there’s an explosion. But in either case, by the time things get to a divorce there’s a generally good reason for the fire and it’s best to contain the damage rather than try to save the building. But as you watch it burn —
- Don’t don’t start lamenting their “failed” marriage, as if success or failure in marriage is determined by whether it ends in death or divorce. Maintaining a bad marriage is not saving anything except the ability to inflict a different, and often more insidious and lasting, damage to the people involved and those around them.
- Whatever you do, don’t try to make them “save” the facade. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But if you try to shove them back because you need them to save the facade, it means that you need the facade more than they do. And that’s something to think about before trying to solve other people’s problems.
#3: Hold your fire. You probably don’t really know what you’re shooting at or why.
It’s also a natural inclination to open fire on the party that seems the easiest to blame and rally around the person who appears to be the victim. Don’t.
Appearances can be deceiving, even if things seem cut and dried. That certainly happened with me. I left a wife of 17 years, a beautiful home that I and my father had built on the water, and a facade that I had struggled for years to make into something real — for another woman. It came out of the blue to everyone except my ex-wife. I wish now that I had done so much differently for everyone’s sake, although, even knowing what I do now, I’m not sure what that would have been. Shocked bystanders rushed in to support the aggrieved spouse and many, understandably, opened fire on me.
Gradually, as more and more came out, many of them came around to the position that my own lawyer, Mike, came to. When he took my case, Mike pretty much thought that I was just another deluded schmuck, and that he just wanted to try and help me and my family get through things as best he could. He was good about it. But about three months in, he stopped in the parking lot as we were leaving a meeting with the other side and looked at me. “You poor bastard,” he said, shaking his head, “I had no idea.” The moral is that, at the beginning, you probably have no idea about that person in your sights, either.
And even if you do, you may regret pulling the trigger. Once a fire-fight starts, it’s hard to stop. There’s no telling what will eventually come of it, except that it won’t be good and that you can expect to take a few rounds in return fire. While the need to get in a good kill shot is almost irresistible–and I know, I was a walking bullseye–what comes of it is not usually something that people want to live with in the long term. There were things done and said during that time that did pointless, needless, and irreparable damage. You’re may have to pick your battles later, so save your ammo. Hopefully, by then, you won’t need it, and you won’t need to regret having used it.
#3: Hold your judgment.
Early bystander faux pas generally happen during the first-blush rush to judgment and deepen amid demands for explanations that makes sense to the outsiders. Don’t join in. You’re going to find out more — much, much, more — than you ever wanted to know in time. Asking for elaborate justifications and explanations early on only makes each person feel like they have to plead their case in ever more hyperbolic terms. Besides, setting up your own personal divorce court leads to a cascade of unnecessary trouble, usually of one’s own making. From the perspective of the person going through the divorce:
Judgments beget pontifications: on marriage, commitment, western civilization, your upbringing, diet, mental health, sin, family traumas, and the evils of the internet. It doesn’t matter what the bad news is, it has something to do with your divorce.
Pontifications beget predictions: statistics of all kinds are paraded out, dire warnings are issued, threats of disaster are brought to bear at every turn. I swear people are sometimes rooting for your life to implode, and disappointed when if it doesn’t.
Predictions beget calls for action: Snippets of magazines and newspaper articles begin to show up in your mail and under your door (not directed at you, Mom, trust me: it happens to many people); links to helpful sites and articles appear in your email along with suggestions for treatment options.
But you know, it just shouldn’t be the role of the people going through the divorce to convince you that their divorce would be okay for you. It isn’t your divorce. It isn’t up to you. You’re not their judge and jury. If you’re their friend, be a friend. If you’re their family, be their family. Maybe you do know better. Good for you. But this is not your moment to play Judge Judy, Dear Abby, Solomon, or Freud. Do everyone a favor and shut the fuck up.
What am I saying? Run for cover and hide? Don’t try to help? Don’t get in there and get involved? Leave your friend(s) to stumble around initially like a Zombie, to be chain-sawed by some lawyer, former in-law, or soon-to-be ex?
Well, to be honest, kinda. Not for long, but yeah. Because you have to get a grip on yourself. Once the initial shock an awe phase is over, it’s time to face what comes next, and that will be harder if you don’t get a grip. It’s gonna be a different world, and before you venture out you have to be ready to face the realities. And some of what you need to face before you do that is my next post.
**I have heard that there is such a thing as a “friendly” divorces, but I cannot as yet establish any real evidence for them. They may be an urban legend, or perhaps just something therapists have made up to get in on the lucrative family law market before the legal fireworks begin.