• Brendan

The Redesign of Divorce: Crafting Artisanal Relationships After the Music Ends

Today, we look at many things with a fresher pair of eyes than we did just 20 years ago. Whether it is race, gender, religious tolerance, human sexuality, or the benefits of eating saturated fats — we have been moving, haltingly at times, along a path that represents (or so we hope), a more sensible, sane and nuanced view of matters both large and small. Acknowledging this trajectory is not to discount the many ways in which our historical baggage continues to blinker us relative to our biases, deficits, prejudices and blind spots. There is, as most of us would fairly admit, much work to be done on many fronts. And “progress” — a relative term — is always a glass half full/empty proposition. For all that recommends it, there are very good arguments about what progress can ever truly yield, what its limits are, and what its unintended consequences, can produce.

That said, I do not want to wade into these controversial, political, or philosophical matters of the day. People of true good will can agree and disagree on those topics (up to a point). Instead, my focus relative to “progress” pertains to my area of vocation: divorce. This also happens to be a topic I am familiar with on a personal level, as a divorced father for the last six years. It just so happens that my ex-spouse is also a divorce lawyer. In my world, divorce is both personal and professional.

So when we consider the nature of “progress” relative to divorce, it is useful to momentarily orient ourselves with reference to one critical aspect of modern thinking. As we all know, there is much discussion of late about the sex/gender “binary” (and other binaries to boot). The notion of the binary is applied frequently, as we unpack previously definitive distinctions. As a word with a mathematical and digital provenance, binary refers to something being this or that, typically 0 or 1. In many areas, we now perceive of the previously on/off, either/or, this/that as being more complicated, variable and flexible.

However, in our culture, even our 2021 culture, we often look at divorce as binary. It makes sense, to a degree, one either has the legal status of being married or they do not. One has either severed that relationship via divorce or they have not. But there is much more going on in human relationships than that simplistic binarism can capture. Marriage and divorce are both the creatures of a breathtaking number of economic and political factors, cultural features, and sociological and psychological elements.

These factors, features and elements have been at work for a very long time. There are many good academic examinations of the history and sociology of marriage and divorce that exhaustively and thoughtfully cover those subjects. The better of these analyses situate marriage and divorce within a consideration of other positions such as class, race, gender, sex, sexuality, religion, etc.

My thoughts, however, are more experiential, anecdotal and observational — they come from and reside at a granular level. In my experience as an attorney, few people truly explore what kind of post-divorce relationship with their former spouse they really want to design and why. This is not their fault. Our clients come to us, often depressed, confused, demoralized and distracted. One of the core relationships in their lives has been turned upside down. It is hard enough to process the reality of getting divorced, and thinking about what the divorce could be and how it could look, feel and operate is often just too much at that time. Often, the divorce ship simply begins to sail of its own accord and from there it takes on a life of its own and ultimately reaches whatever destination it reaches. Often that destination is not a good one.

By contrast, we all know many people who do think prospectively and proactively about matters of construction and design in far less emotionally fraught situations. People will readily spend days and weeks pouring over color swatches and fabric samples with an array of design professionals, all to create the perfect room or home. Others will extensively research woods, granites, metals and foliage. This is all well and good. Our homes matter. We live, work and entertain in them. We raise children in them. We want homes that capture and express our individuality, our style, and our taste. If we are inclined toward a care for the environment or tradition, perhaps our homes even express our particular values.

We know that we can create for ourselves a house beautiful using a Spanish Colonial or Prairie Style and everything in between. We comprehend that we can choose the large SUV, the convertible coupe or the electric sedan. We are aware that we can swathe ourselves in haute couture, normcore or preppy. We understand that we can fuel our bodies with LCHF, vegan and pescatarian diets. We are acutely aware (sometimes painfully so) of the dizzying array of books, music, cinema, and art that can feed our minds and souls.

All of these things are a function of choices we make for a variety of reasons, not all of them voluntary. But too often, we do not seem to know that we can do a form of this with respect to our divorce relationship. And make no mistake, divorce is still a relationship, particularly where children are involved. Think for a moment about the real impact and effect of what I am suggesting here. The time and attention that allocate to what we feed our bodies and minds, what we wrap our bodies in, what we house or bodies in, what we use to transport ourselves — it is a significant investment. It occupies so much of our conscious consideration because these are things upon which so many of us place great weight.

Why then do so many of us not make a similar investment in the design of our divorce relationship? In most instances, we will call or text or lean on a friend or family member. We may see a therapist. Perhaps we read some books or blogs and we listen to some advice. And then we go and hire a lawyer, often not knowing what we want that lawyer to do or how we want to proceed. And then what?

We may, like Robert Redford in “The Candidate,” turn to our lawyer and say aloud: “what do we do now?” And we, as clients, stand there blinking. Not knowing. Exposed. The truth is that our lawyer does not really know either — at least not in the ways we want or need him or her to know. Our attorney will know what to file, how to proceed formalistically, what to say and what to write. Our lawyer is skilled and trained in handling the legal aspects of our divorces. But any expectations we have of them beyond that are often misplaced.

Your lawyer is not a relationship guru or Sherpa. I know I am not. And unlike the interior designer or private chef, the lawyer cannot create. He or she can only facilitate. The lawyer also is not a therapist, although most days it feels like we are. All of this said, there are creative ways to approach divorce that are gaining more attention and traction. There is collaborative law, mediation, arbitration, and a multitude of ways in which to fashion alternative dispute resolution. Those various processes can help to be sure, but they are not enough.

Lawyers can work cooperatively with each other and with a team of mental health and financial experts. We can team with coaches and consultants to navigate the minefield of divorce. But what needs to be done, by both divorce professionals and divorcing parties, is to give greater conscious thought to the interior design of divorce relationships.

At its heart, this means breaking free of our blinders and challenging our assumptions. If we more truly appreciate the complexity of human relationships, even fractured ones, we will do ourselves and our clients a greater service. Just as there is no One-Size-Fits-All marriage, there is no universally appropriate divorce. While we can acknowledge and hold this fact in our minds at an intellectual level, and probably already do, we often fail to take the line out to sea far enough to appreciate what it truly means and compels.

Simply making divorce a less acrimonious process is good, but not good enough for many people. Part of the reason for this is that it is often still inflected by the binary of either/or, this/that, on/off. We all know people who have divorces that look like marriages and marriages that look like business ventures. We would do well to consider that more and shed many of the myths and bogeymen of love, marriage, divorce and relationships.

The marriage/divorce divide, is ultimately, a bit of a red herring. The naming and labeling involved in the divide needlessly establishes an automatic and overly stark line of demarcation in our lives and relationships and those of our clients. Like the 38th Parallel of Life, this line is something we assume must exist. But must it?

For some people, perhaps many people, the answer will be a resounding yes. For many others it may not. And for all of us, it need not. We can have artisanal cheeses, beer, charcuterie and gin. Yet we act as though our divorce relationships must come pre-packaged and ready to eat from Aisle 6.

We are bombarded from birth with movies, music, articles, books, shows and news that depict the landscape of divorce as a desolate, Cormac McCarthy-like world. A dystopian hellscape. Even in our more current depictions of divorce in cinema, we see angst, anger, rage and resentment boiling over as wives and husbands attempt to navigate through the process, often unaided or diserved by their lawyers. We expect it will be thus. We assume it is a feature and not a bug of divorce. And because we accept the inevitability of it, it often becomes inevitable.

But this is not my personal experience in divorce, which I realize is unique. Professionally, I know that the “War of the Roses” presents a outlying caricature of what divorce is and how it proceeds. What I have tried to do and what I have seen so many clients do is to lean into the fact that we all can take the lead, in tandem with our spouse or partner, in the bespoke dismantling of our legal status in marriage. There are already mechanisms to help facilitate that amicably.

But what we call it, how we live it, what we do with it — that is ours and our opposite’s opportunity to fashion and create an artisan and authentic relationship. It is telling that we have no problem speaking about a water and bean beverage with the a straight face the following words: “venti no-foam soy latte with an extra shot” — but our hackles are raised by someone speaking about their marriage and divorce in a more nuanced way than simply saying: “he’s my ex.” When Gwyneth Paltrow divorced, many people chided her and gibed glibly about the phrase “conscious uncoupling.” The degree to which people pounced on the phrase was revealing of how far we need to go in making progress relative to our concepts about divorce and our discourse surrounding it.

We no longer use loaded, derisive, painful terms for people with different abilities. We increasingly speak about race and gender and sex in more thoughtful and nuanced ways. These are good developments, overall. We do that because we appreciate complexities that we did not previously. But we remain mired in an outdated vocabulary and mindset relative to divorce. The assumption remains that divorce must end relationships and friendships and that it results in a Balkanized emotional territory always and forever fraught with closure, termination, cessation and finality.

Breaking out of these boxes is important work for both professionals and for those 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 no less time and effort and thoughtfulness that we do in planning our careers, plotting our vacations, working on our waistlines and reinvisioning our homes. To our credit, we often put in a great deal of working attempting to save our marriages or discern our path, but when the decision is made to end the marriage, we often pull up stakes and step away — not realizing that there is more that can and should be done. When we step away, we have embarked on a particular path and the second order effects of that are profound.

We do not, as lay people or lawyers dealing with divorce, have to accept those boxes where we assume divorced people must reside or these paths we think they must take. With mindful professionals, but taking the laboring oar for ourselves, we can become skilled in the interior design of our divorce and can fashion an artisanal relationship that works for the parties and the children involved. It may not be perfect, but nothing ever is; and, even the imperfections can provide the soil for future growth.

Putting aside theological concerns, divorce is only the legal cessation of a marriage. It does not need to, necessarily, mark the end of a family. It can be a pivot point and a transformation into a second act of life, a relationship sequel, where people are not entirely “together” but also not inevitably “apart.” That level of togetherness and apartness is, itself, not static. It is negotiated, navigated and it is dynamic, much as the ebb and flow of all relationships are. But fully embracing the nature of it as another complex system to navigate is critical. Treating it like an imposed and mandatory final line in Act III of the play is not.

Let us think broadly about this and consider moving toward a place where these language and labels we apply in divorce break down and our thinking and talking about the experience becomes more fluid, flexible and free of the damaging weight they now carry. When we do that, a space opens up for us to consider ways to live more fully, freely and authentically. Not in the universe of either/or — but instead, the possible world of both/and. Regardless of whether that is the route we ultimately choose in our own divorce, irrespective of whether it is doable in our own circumstances, we owe it to ourselves, our children, and to others to at least consider it. Those who take this path can be and often are models and heralds for a new way — a way where we do not simply end our marriage, but we reboot, remodel and redesign our relationship into a new version optimized for present circumstances.

So what does this look like? That is up to you and yours. Intimacy, communication, finances, vacations, housing, expenses — all the things you did or decided together are on the table for fresh reconsideration. It isn’t just coparenting, but a transformative reconceptualization of the possibilities of areas of continuity after separation. Unlike an off the rack suit or a prix fixe meal with limited selections — you can order a la carte, you can fashion as needed, and you can refine as it suits you both.

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