When "Duke" finally showed up for our first appointment, which he had canceled and rescheduled and canceled again, he shuffled into my office 15 minutes late with a lack of excitement notable even among the subset of people consulting with a divorce lawyer.
"I don't want a divorce," Duke sank down in the guest chair. "I'm only here because she told me I have to show up."
Even in the most amicable divorce proceedings, people expect disagreement, but what happens when the parties disagree on the very basic issue of whether to get divorced?
There are plenty of compelling arguments for wanting to stay married, including religious, financial and emotional ones. Clients have mentioned, for example, being desperate to have their kids grow up in a two-parent household or, even, as in Duke's case, still being in love with their spouse. "I don't understand why she wants this," he told me, "I just want to stay together."
How do you help someone reeling in pain to accept the divorce -- and more fundamentally -- should you even try?
From the perspective of a lawyer, the easy answer is "yes," primarily because the alternative to agreeing to the divorce is rarely ever staying married, let alone happily. In Duke's case, his wife had made clear that she intended to move forward with or without him. She'd hired a lawyer and filed papers in court and even taken the steps of separating out some of their joint accounts. Sure, Duke had the option of dragging his feet and drawing out the process, but to what end? Greater litigation costs and the racheting up of acrimony between them, which would undoubtedly increase tensions for their two children, as well as leave less money for their savings and household budgets.
And yet, pushing the divorce on Duke to get things done as efficiently as possible didn't feel right either. Not just because of the insensitivity, but also on a strategic level: no divorce lawyer wants a client who is too dazed to properly engage in the pretty crucial -- and unavoidable -- personal decisions attendant to every divorce. I was no therapist, and was ill-equipped to lead the process of Duke's soul-searching, but after observing other reluctant clients move through an unwanted divorce with strength and grace, I knew to suggest that he think about the following:
1. Are you sure it's over? Sometimes people start the divorce process only to ditch it halfway through and reconcile. Do you -- in your heart of hearts -- think there is some ambivalence in your partner? If so, there's no reason to rush into anything, but a separation -- and some negotiated ground rules in areas of day-to-day living -- might assist in giving necessary space for both of you to figure it out.
2. Examine why you want to stay married. Is it because your parents' divorce was especially grisly and you fear being doomed to repeat it? Do you have religious objections? As with everything in life, figuring out the underlying whys can help you ease that specific concern. I've had clients work with their church and/or rabbis to obtain a religious divorce on a parallel track to the court-granted one. And much of the divorce can be within a client's control--the breadth of scorched earth--for example, or how co-parenting is handled.
3. What exactly are you trying to hold on to? Not that a marriage or spouse is ever replaceable (although some might appear to believe otherwise) but it is possible to forge new support systems through friendships and various other, often new, networks. This question is especially key for those like Duke who are still romantically invested in their spouse. If you're stuck, a good therapist can be instrumental in assisting you through the emotional nuances and sadness.
4. How can you best engage in the decision-making aspect of the divorce proceedings? In Duke's case, there was an immediate concern: his wife's unilateral "account division." While it seemed minor to him when compared to his larger emotional concerns, to me, it wasn't minor at all. Ignoring her transfers could have been financially harmful. Do whatever necessary to access the sweet spot -- that area between too much to handle and doing a full-on ostrich impersonation. Your lawyer should be able to tell you which issues are time-sensitive. If one requires immediate attention, focus on just that.
5. Remember the power of the passage of time. Ah, such a cliché, but so, so true. Time has remarkable healing powers in eroding the pain of an unwanted transition. I've seen it repeatedly: someone feeling only the pain of their world crumbling and eventually moving through to a full, happy life that they never could've imagined. Never underestimate the power of time when matched with the human ability to persevere and renew.