The Interior Design of Divorce - Toward Artisanal Relationships
Today, we look at certain things with a fresher pair of eyes than we did just 20 or 30 years ago. Whether it is race, gender, religious tolerance, human sexuality or the benefits of eating healthy saturated fats - we have been moving (haltingly at times) toward (hopefully) a more sensible, sane and nuanced view on matters large and small. This is not to discount the myriad ways in which our historic baggage (both individual and societal) continues to blinker us regarding our shortcomings, deficits, prejudices and blind spots. There is work to be done on many fronts. "Progress" being what it is, a relative term, is always a half-full glass sort of exercise. There are also good arguments about what progress can ever really yield, what its limits are, and what its unintended consequences can be.
But, I do not want to wade into controversial, political or philosophical matters. People of true good will can agree and disagree (up to a point). I do, however, want to turn the focus to the primary material we address here: divorce. There is a lot of dialogue these days about the gender "binary" (and other binaries to boot). It is interesting stuff to be sure. But I am interested in the "relationship binary." In other words, exploring the binarism of marriage/divorce. Marriage and divorce are the creatures of a breathtaking number of social factors that have been at work for an extremely long time. There are many good academic examinations of the history and sociology of marriage and divorce that exhaustively and thoughtfully cover these subjects. Moreover, marriage and divorce also cannot be understood fully without also considering those other areas from above (i.e., race, gender, sexuality, religion, etc.)
But, this being a regular blog from a "regular" guy - a mere lawyer and dad - I won't wade into those waters either. So let us look at this simply and practically. From a lens of lived experience both personal and professional.
In my experience, few people truly explore what kind of divorce they really want and why. By contrast, I know a lot of people who readily will spend weeks pouring over color swatches and fabric samples with an array of design professionals to create the perfect room in their home. I know other people who will research extensively various other aspects of their home - from woods and granites to metals for pipes and the best forms of foliage for their yards. This is all well and good. One wants to have a nice and comfortable home. A home that looks good and expresses one's sense of style and individuality is not a bad thing.
But - just as we know we can create a house beautiful that could be anything from Spanish Colonial to Prairie Style and everything in between, and just as we know we can choose that big SUV or that little convertible coupe, and just as we know we can choose to adorn our bodies with clothes ranging from Preppy to Haute Couture to Grunge, and just as we know we can fuel our bodies with diets from LCHF and Vegan to Paleo and Pescetarian, and just as we know we can feed our minds and souls with a dizzying diversity of books, music, art, philosophy, cinema -- we do not seem to know that we can do a form of this with our relationships. And make no mistake - divorce is still a relationship, especially when children are involved.
Think about the real effect of what I just outlined. The time and attention we spend on: what we feed our bodies and minds, what we wrap our bodies in, and what we house or drive our bodies around in -- homes, clothes, cars, food, personal entertainment/education -- it is a truly significant investment. It is such a significant investment of time and resources because these things are given great weight by many of us. And that is ok too. I'm not here to knock those things. I have my own areas of interest and focus just like you.
But when it comes time to divorce - what do most (or many) of us do? We may call a relative or friend. Or several. We see a therapist maybe. We get advice. We read books and blogs. We hire a lawyer. And then what?
Like Robert Redford in "The Candidate" - we say to our lawyer: "what do we do now?" And we stand there. Blinking. Not knowing. Exposed. Our lawyer doesn't really know either - at least not in the ways we want or need him or her to know. He or she will know what to file, how to proceed formalistically, what to say and write, etc. He or she will handle the legal side of the equation ably. But that is like entrusting the entirety of your heart bypass solely to the cardiac surgeon and ignoring what is required from the entire team (i.e., anesthesiologist, nurses, etc.) to make the surgery possible.
Your lawyer is not a relationship guru or sherpa. Your lawyer isn't your decorator, isn't your personal trainer and isn't your personal chef. He or she is definitely not a therapist (although it feels like we are most days). He or she is not a "Divorce Designer." All of this said, there are new and creative ways in divorce. There is collaborative law. There are many other forms of alternative dispute resolution. This is all great. People need these alternatives to litigation. But it is not quite enough, by my lights.
We lawyers can work cooperatively with professionals in mental health and finance. And we should. We can work with coaches and others to help you through the minefield of divorce. And we should. But what I am imploring you and my profession to give greater thought to is the "interior design of divorce." What do I mean by that?
Returning to the notion of binarism from above, what I mean is for all parties to, and all professionals involved in, a divorce to break out of our blinkers and challenge our assumptions. If we all truly appreciate the complexity of human relationships more, I think that we can do ourselves and our clients a greater service. There is no one-size-fits-all marriage or fits-all-sizes divorce. You know this and I know this -- but do we really understand this deeply? Do our lawyers and therapists always keep this in mind when they assist us? I find that most do - but many still succumb to simply making divorce a less damaging legal process and don't always take the line out to sea far enough and consider why we label and conceptualize divorce in the "either/or" way that we do.
I have written here regarding divorces that look like marriages and marriages that look like divorces. I have encouraged us to shed some of the myths and bogeymen of marriage, love, divorce and relationships. I have done this because, from my perspective, the marriage/divorce binary is a sucker's game. It needlessly establishes an automatic and overly stark line of demarcation in our lives and relationships. Like the 38th Parallel of life - this line is something we all assume must exist. But must it?
For some people, yes it will. For many others, it may not. For all of us - it need not. Why is it that we can have artisanal cheese, beers, charcuterie and gin - but we seem to think our divorces must come from Costco? We are all bombarded from birth with movies, articles, shows and news that depict the landscape of divorce as, necessarily, a desolate, Cormac McCarthy-like world. Lawyers and others sometimes inadvertently feed this beast through our own professional biases, our ways of approaching problems, and ignoring some of the tools we have at our disposal but don't often use. But we all know "those people" -- the ones that didn't destroy each other in divorce like the couple in "The War of the Roses."
We can, with effort and hard work, almost all be the artisans of our own "divorces." We can take part, in tandem with our spouse or partner, in the legal dismantling of our marital status. But what we call it, how we live it, what we DO with it - that is ours to fashion creatively and thoughtfully. When Gwyneth Paltrow divorced, many people chided and gibed about the locution "conscious uncoupling." The degree to which many people pounced on this phrase was, to me, quite telling regarding how far we still need to come in matters of divorce.
We have no problem speaking with a straight face the words: "venti no-foam soy latte with an extra shot" - but our hackles are raised by someone trying to talk about their marriage and divorce in a more nuanced and contemporary way. We no longer use loaded and difficult terms for persons with different abilities and we increasingly speak about gender in more thoughtful and sensitive ways. These are good developments. But we are stuck in an outdated universe relative to "divorce." And it is not enough to not beat each other up in court. That is a necessary but insufficient step. The additional assumption that divorce must end relationships and friendships, result in balkanized or fraught territories of living, and result in a termination of sorts is a faulty one.
Breaking out of these boxes is important work both for us practitioners and for those of us who experience divorce as parties to it. When we ask ourselves as divorcing persons: what do we really want and how do we want it to look - let us expend at least as much time as we do on our offices and livings rooms. As professionals, let us consider that the legal work is only one small part of a larger interpersonal dynamic that we know only dimly and partially. Perhaps we should, as lawyers, be more mindful of the iatrogenic effect our treatments have on our clients.
And maybe, we all (lawyers and laypeople) don't have to stay in those boxes that we assumed all or most divorced people reside. With the help of thoughtful legal, mental health and financial professionals - but taking the laboring oar ourselves - we can become skilled in the interior design of divorce and can fashion an artisanal relationship that works for both parties and the children involved. It may not be perfect, but nothing is; and, its imperfections provide the ground for future growth.
Let us think about these things and consider moving toward a place where the labels of marriage and divorce become more fluid, flexible and free of the damaging weight they now carry. It is my own belief that when we do - space opens up for us to live more fully.