Divorcing With Good Karma

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Dear Judge Michele,

My wife brought her new boyfriend to court. It made me so angry I had to walk out. We have been separated for only a month. I can't even look at her, let alone divide our belongings. What can I do?

--Separated for a Month

Dear Separated for a Month,

You've got a classic problem that happens more than you think. The wife wants to have moral support, show off her desirability and, at the same time, show you what you are losing. A trifecta, yes. A hostile angry act? Definitely. Probably crystallizes most of what has been going on in the marriage for months or years. She wanted to hurt you and she did. What are your options?

You could probably confront them, maybe tell him the "truth" about her or maybe even go "Springer" on him. But then you would have turned your contempt for her into the court's contempt for you. The truth is, when someone hooks up that fast, we often think they haven't paid sufficient dues. It always violates our sense of justice because we don't think they have suffered enough.

Or you could have your lawyer complain to me about the situation. Legally, though, if he's behaving himself, the boyfriend has a right to be in the courtroom -- though your lawyer could ask that the courtroom be cleared of visitors. I might grant that motion, but now he's waiting out in the hall -- big deal. He still hasn't disappeared. The court only has a gavel, not a magic wand. This kind of thing is going to undermine the potential for settlement, which will impact her down the road; this is a divorce case and not show-and-tell. An act like is sure to turn a rain shower into a tsunami. And judges don't like it because it has the smell of vengeance.

But the best thing you can do is focus on reducing your anger. Or you will lose control of your case and maybe your life. Your anger is natural, but not helpful. To the extent that you're reacting to her antics, you're not controlling your life -- she is. Just about everyone comes into the divorce court wanting to win. Trust me, the first one who stops reacting to their anger and their hurt is the real winner.

Dear Judge Michele,

My husband John is very wealthy. Over the years, I have accumulated a secret stash of a few thousand dollars. My lawyer is asking me to disclose all my assets. How can I protect this rainy day fund?

--Worried

Dear Worried,

The fact you are (a) married to a wealthy man and yet, (b) you've had to squirrel away money for years in secret, tells me that the whole marriage may have been a course in economic oppression. I always get cases where the one with the huge assets is asking their spouse to account for the lids on the Tupperware. It's a diversion, and a way to intimidate you.

My advice: don't be intimidated and don't be diverted. And certainly don't commit perjury and conceal assets from the court. Make a proper disclosure, and insist he do the same. The judge will appreciate your candor. Even under oath some people may lie. But, you must not lie. I have seen people lie about small things; one husband even lied about throwing out his wife's favorite shoes. Even the tiniest lie, once revealed, can completely ruin credibility. Even well-rehearsed witness who is usually honest can be infected by the nervous dread of being caught in a small lie. A small lie is like a tiny pebble in your shoe not only gets you off balance but destroys your comfort. The couple thousand dollars you have in your sock drawer and didn't disclose, if revealed in trial, could shatter your case. If your credibility is gone, the judge is free to decide not to believe all of what you said. You don't want to give up that much power to the court or your husband. The fact that you disclose your little emergency fund doesn't mean that you don't get to keep it. You're entitled to this nest egg, and probably to a great deal more.

As you disclose this secret fund, it may help to realize that this is not just about the money. This is usually an intimidation tactic. People hate to produce documentation of their financial affairs. If he is going to be miserable, he wants to make sure you are miserable as well. If he is spending Saturday afternoon going through stacks of checks, he wants to be sure you are not on some sailboat with the wind blowing through your hair. A demand for financial accounting is also a way for his lawyer to appear to be doing his job (this is part of the attorney's obligation to his client), and attorney's fees are often calibrated to the tune of rustling paper. It takes two to torture.

Dear Judge Michele,

Several years ago I had an affair. My husband forgave me and we remained together happily since that time. Just last week, he informed me that he had sex with his coworker on a business trip. We have been together for ten years and I still can't find it in my heart to forgive him. I want a divorce but feel like I am being unfair to him after he forgave me.

--Confused

Dear Confused,

The devastating knowledge of betrayal winds its way through every square inch of the relationship: trust, security, love, and ego. It maims the spirit in a way we think we will never get over. Forgiveness seems impossible and is often a misunderstood sentiment. People, when injured, not only can't get to that sentiment right away, but some also fault themselves for not being able to get there fast enough. Forgiveness cannot be microwaved, and the journey from anger to forgiveness has a gestation period and comes in stages.

When the opportunity arose, maybe your husband thought he had "one" coming, or maybe he feels forgiving your affair gives him a get out of jail free card. Maybe this is payback time, and maybe that was his tipping point. Becoming Sherlock Holmes to find out his motivation, or your theory of the crime, is not what will save you or the marriage, should you choose to.

The aspiration toward forgiveness does not require forgetting the past or preclude learning from it; it gives you control and power over how you will let the past define who you are in the present and the future. Forgiveness doesn't happen over night, especially when there is betrayal. In fact, it has a gestation period, with four distinct stages.

Stage 1. You are in the thick of the pain, and you are actually harmed. If someone puts your hand over a flame, at that moment you will be in capable of thinking your way into not hurting. At this stage it is okay to let your emotions steep. Think of it like the flu, something that has to run its course.

Stage 2. You begin to notice how resentment from the injury is prevalent in your life. It affects everything you do. It undermines your peace and can impact your health. You decide you don't want to live this way.

Stage 3. At the turning point, you decide not to nurture your resentment, but to rid yourself of it. You no longer want to live like this; you decide to redecorate the swamp even though you are not sure how.

Stage 4. You take matters into your own hands and decide to diffuse the power that the betrayal has over you. You can't change what has happened, but you can become more committed to not letting yourself be defined by your anger and resentment.

How does your affair affect your situation? Not as much as you would think. But be sure of one thing: There is no spreadsheet in marriage and there is no way to balance the emotional accounts. If you are looking for that to happen, you will stay confused. You have to accept that you've got an imperfect husband, an imperfect you, and an imperfect marriage.

When you have been betrayed, it is hard to know what to do. Divorce is the heavy artillery, which you may have picked up too soon. You may think that it will get you out of pain, but it may well result in overkill. Divorce is not a lighthouse in a storm, and if you haven't gone through the stages, you will still be in pain. Sometimes the best action is inaction. Let the process of the stages have a chance.

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