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‘The Good Divorce’: The smart way to untie a knot

Matrimonial attorney Raoul Felder shows how to approach divorce as an optimistic opportunity rather than a traumatic battle of wills in "The Good Divorce." Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

Who says divorce has to be a traumatic experience? Matrimonial attorney Raoul Felder and Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Barbara Victor spell out the steps to ensure a smooth, savvy and satisfyingly painless close to a marriage. Here’s an excerpt.


Marriage is never as blissful as people expect. Divorce is never as devastating as people imagine.

Divorce is a process that includes emotional, financial, and legal steps that ultimately end in the litigants being unmarried. Once the legalities are over, the hope is that the individuals involved will walk away, determined to begin a new and better life.

Whatever the motive to marry, it is always a conscious decision that happens from the inside out. Regardless of the reasons, marriage is an exercise in optimism. If divorce were viewed as an exercise in optimism as well, divorce lawyers would make less money. People would not waste years of their lives fighting over meaningless issues, which are remnants of a relationship that is already dead and only waiting to be buried.

The question divorce lawyers often ask potential clients who walk into their office is a variation of “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company today?” The answer would probably be that the client wants the attorney to represent them in a divorce. Perhaps a more precise question posed by lawyers should be “Why are you here today and not five years ago or six months ago or twenty years ago or last week?”

Most of the time, people focus on a mindless event that brought them to the point to begin divorce proceedings. They might respond that they have reached the end of their tethers. Many people would say the same thing: “Not one day more” or “I just couldn’t take it any longer.” Curiously, when asked to describe the “it” they are referring to, things become jumbled into disjointed memories, confusion, and an inability to pinpoint time.

Unless there has been a volcanic act of violence, when people finally decide to end a marriage, it is always a calculated act usually preceded by years of unhappiness, a change of circumstance, an emotional upheaval, or a fissure that becomes a canyon of regret.

Whatever the circumstances, fantasizing about a divorce will not result in freedom.

Consulting a lawyer about divorce does not mean the marriage is over.

Fighting, slandering, and whining during divorce negotiations only make it more difficult to walk away from the legal entanglements of marriage without unnecessary trauma.

In many cases, all the reasons why people marry are usually the same reasons people dread the idea of divorce. Whatever the age or gender, some will fall back on religious teachings that it is far better to sacrifice one’s own happiness in order to save the “sacred” institution of marriage. Others cite children as the reason for marrying and staying together. Many will claim that money was the motivation to marry and the reluctance to divorce is because finances are too complicated and intermingled to sort out a viable solution so that both could keep the same standard of living. Some marry and remain in a bad marriage because of habit. The majority, however, marry out of fear and avoid divorce out of fear — fear of living and dying alone. The truth is that there are far worse fates than being young and single or old and alone. Young or old and married to an incompatible or violent partner is a guarantee that life will never be better. Sacrificing for the sake of children usually means that offspring suffer the same or similar anxiety living in a home that has an absence of love, respect, and joy. Growing old with a partner where life is suffused with resentment, indifference, and a lack of respect and caring is a life wasted. Living in a marriage where love, respect, friendship, and compatibility are gone is a life without hope. Regardless of the reasons, many believe that nothing is perfect and living with someone whose flaws they know is more comfortable than trading the known for the unknown with someone new.

There is nothing more fulfilling than a good marriage. There is nothing more debilitating than a bad marriage. Divorce is a wrenching experience for everyone, whether you are the one leaving or the one being left. The choice, however, between a bad marriage and a good divorce would seem to be apparent. Obviously, for many who dread the idea of breaking up a home, or those who actually terminate a marriage, there is often regret, bitterness, and rage. If people really thought about the goal line, after the messy negotiations and arguments are over, they would realize that divorce gives people a fresh start to lead better lives. Approaching divorce as an adventure means viewing a bad marriage as a reparable mistake. One thing is certain: It takes courage, self-examination, confronting reality, and a sense of optimism to embark upon a process that will forever change your life and the lives of your children and spouse.

There are no perfect circumstances for embarking upon the process of divorce. Even if one or both litigants want the divorce, and no paramours are involved, and there are millions of dollars available to support two households in the same style as when there was one, people still suffer excruciating pain when they break up. That doesn’t mean that a good divorce lawyer or mediator who knows the law, understands a bit about psychology, and who is out for the best interests of the client does not make a positive difference when navigating the labyrinth of the judicial system. The problem about divorce is that it is never only a matter of breaking a legal contract or dividing up assets, or even adjusting to life without a familiar partner. It involves so many other emotions that not even a competent matrimonial lawyer with years of experience is able to convince clients that the anguish they feel is normal and only one part of the process. Matrimonial lawyers are also often unable to persuade their clients that their trauma, which renders them paralyzed, angry, or depressed, will disappear with time. Almost all the predictable irrational and vengeful reactions from litigants have little to do with the bureaucracy of the legal system, but rather are because people are consumed with their own failure, sense of rejection, and the harsh reality that life as they know it will forever change. It is difficult to assure those going through divorce that fault and self-loathing are useless emotions that only prolong the agony. It is often complicated to explain to people that there isn’t anyone, including a professional, who can force a man or a woman who has been left, or worse, left for another, to understand that divorce is the best alternative to beginning a new life. Nor can anyone, including a professional, force someone to love another. There isn’t anyone, regardless of how smart or skilled, who can compel another human being who faces financial ruin, inaccessibility to children, the loss of a home, routine, and the habit of waking up every morning with the same person, to comprehend that divorce is the only chance to start again. Those realizations must come from within the individual involved in the divorce. Only the individual himself or herself has the power to heal and take control of his or her life, with or without the help of a lawyer, therapist, friends, or family.

There are many obstacles on the way to recovery. Usually, when love dies, it is not a mutual happening where both parties wake up one morning and decide they don’t love each other anymore. The tragedy is that more often than not, one partner decides the marriage is over, for myriad reasons that begin and end with a loss of love, respect, caring, and a desire to work things out to keep the union and the home intact.

Another impediment is that people are unable to approach divorce as merely a matter of breaking a legal contract. Though divorce is a broken contract, covered under the law, monitored and adjudicated by attorneys and judges, it is one that is based on the most primal emotions, such as love, pride, ego, self-respect, and countless other feelings that color the reactions of the litigants, preventing them from making productive decisions.

The reality is that almost everybody knows about contracts, as they are made and broken every day. Most people have been involved in some kind of contract or employment agreement, partnership arrangement, or purchase understanding. Even when a dog is bought from a breeder, there is a contract of sorts governed by the American Kennel Corporation that either allows or forbids the owners to breed the dog. There is a modest price to register the dog with the promise of spaying the animal, or a higher price if the dog’s thoroughbred credentials will be used to reproduce puppies. Opening up a charge account at a local cleaners or department store, or having a credit card, involves a contract where the cardholder signs an agreement that he or she will be responsible for all bills. Most people understand that if a contract is broken without the agreement of the other party, there is some kind of penalty and ultimately a settlement for loss of income or services rendered. If an agreement is not reached, there are legal consequences.

Most people don’t become rabid when they break an employment contract or a lease, or any other legal accord. If a contract could never be broken, would anyone in their right mind ever sign one? What would happen if the contract of marriage could never be broken? Think about being forced to stay married to someone who was abusive, physically or emotionally, who shirked all responsibility and offered nothing in the relationship except to argue, ignore, or criticize. Think about living in a house where the atmosphere was constantly tense, hostile, unfriendly, and detrimental to the emotional well-being of the children. Obviously, if there were no divorce, people would be far more reluctant to marry. Common sense, therefore, would dictate that everyone who marries is aware that if the marriage doesn’t work out, there are legal ways to terminate the relationship.

Other than those who are not marrying for the first time or who are older and wiser, most people refuse to admit that the possibility of divorce entered their minds at the time they recited their marriage vows. But just as people sign other contracts knowing they can always break them, it would seem that an awareness of the possibility of divorce at the time of marriage is a normal, albeit unpleasant or fleeting, thought. Not that people marry with the idea that “this is the first step to divorce.” According to many divorce lawyers, people who are at the stage where they are actually considering divorce will admit that they fantasized about it for years before they finally had the nerve to consult a matrimonial attorney.

Though the act of marriage between two consenting individuals is highly personal, when it ends, it is an act ultimately controlled by laws. Couples in the throes of divorce find they are not only facing the death of love but also a loss of control over how they choose to end the union. Suddenly, often for the first time in their lives, courts, lawyers, and judges are in charge of their financial and emotional future, as well as those of their children. Acting out of revenge or the need to punish their spouse guarantees lifelong repercussions. Even those who have had experience in the divorce arena or have had contact with lawyers suddenly realize how unprepared they are to recount their entire lives to a total stranger. As they become increasingly involved in a bitter fray, it is even more shocking to learn that their spouses have also revealed intimate details about their habits, sexual preferences, financial practices, or other indulgences, and idiosyncrasies that they practiced in the privacy of what was once the marital home.

During the process of divorce, in addition to the legalities, people often leave a trail of misery in their wake — children, friends, and colleagues who will have definite reactions and judgments. The trick to having a good divorce is to accept the situation as irrevocable, sort out the true friends who lend support, ignore those who decide to judge you harshly, and, with the help of those loyal friends, family, a competent lawyer, and perhaps therapy, to work toward turning an ugly situation into a happy ending.

Taking steps to end a marriage is one of the most difficult decisions anyone can make. All the negative and destructive emotions people feel during the separation, negotiations, and court appearances are normal. Understanding these emotions at the beginning allows people to move beyond them to more rational thinking as the process evolves. Finding happiness and contentment after divorce is also a process. It is important that people understand that millions have gone through what they are going through and it is tough going. With the right attitude and perspective, even if that means cutting off from those who judge negatively or those who have sided with the enemy, it is not only possible but probable that life will be better — with or without another husband, wife, or partner.

When people choose the magic date to begin the dance of death, it is always premeditated. Though people often claim they were shocked to learn their spouse wanted a divorce, most had slipped into a routine where fighting, lack of communication, living separate lives, estrangement, and an absence of sexual relations became the normal components of their marriages. If they had reflected on their lives, most would realize that the surprise or shock they felt when they found themselves in a lawyer’s office was only that they were forced to face the reality — that their marriages had been a convenience at best, a sham at worst.

There is accidental birth.

There is accidental death.

There is never accidental divorce.

When someone enters a lawyer’s office with the intention of ending a marriage, it usually means that he or she has stopped dancing around problems and dissatisfactions, boredom, frustration, hatred, resentment, and despair and has made a conscious decision to take aim and begin the procedure that will kill the relationship. The moment of truth in any marriage is in some ways like the moment when the matador in the bullring stops his dance, ceases taunting and menacing the bull, and takes his sword to go in for the kill. For the matador, it is the passion for the sport and the adulation of the crowd that drives him to a flawless finish. Anything less than perfection and the matador is injured, killed, or humiliated. But unlike the moment of truth in a bullring, there is never a swift, clean kill to break up a home.

Everyone is curious about the travails of others. When celebrities divorce, details of the breakup are far more newsworthy than their marriages were. Even when noncelebrities divorce, the particulars about the process are a source of local and family gossip. Witnessing the unfolding of a divorce from the safety of an intact marriage is much like slowing down to gape at the gory remnants of a car accident. Grateful they are not the ones lying on the road, people still know, somewhere in the backs of their minds, that they are neither immune to nor exempt from becoming victims and ultimately statistics. Just as road accidents don’t always serve as cautionary examples of the consequences of speeding or drunk driving, however, the ugly and messy divorces of friends, family, or celebrities rarely give people an incentive to rein in their emotions so their divorces remain civilized and clean.

Statistics gathered in 2008 by the American Bar Association show that one out of two marriages ends in divorce. According to those figures, it is safe to say that marriage is a failing institution. If you add the married couples who live apart, for which there are no reliable statistics, those battling it out in divorce court who have not yet become statistics, litigants who opt for a quick divorce in the Dominican Republic or Haiti, or couples who simply live together in misery for economic, religious, or social reasons, the marriage failure rate must be far in excess of 50 percent. Yet marriage endures. People recite their vows every day. To quote the song made popular by Frank Sinatra, “love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage ... you can’t have one without the other.” But then again, horses and carriages are no longer in style.

Not believing in marriage is acceptable. Not believing in love is tantamount to not believing in the Easter Bunny. Love is life. Marriage is an institution. Some people, however, question the wisdom of living their lives in an institution. Yet for the majority of people throughout the world, the culmination of love, falling in love, being in love, is marriage.

There are many who claim that when they fell in love they were thinking with their hearts (or other portions of their anatomy) rather than their heads. They talk about love at first sight, having been overtaken by emotions that provoked myriad sentiments, how lust and attraction overcame them and they simply succumbed to those feelings. Others claim that their decision to marry was not governed by hormones or sentiments. Those people insist that they entered into marriage after much thought and decision, based on loneliness, habit, financial security, compatibility, procreation, the formation of a family unit, the education and nurturing of children, the legitimization of sexual relations, a public declaration of love, or the desire to obtain citizenship or tax benefits.

All kinds of people marry and all kinds of people marry for different reasons.

Christie Brinkley is the supermodel who was married to Billy Joel. Most recently, she was the focus of an ugly divorce from Peter Cook. Her middle husband was Richard Taubman, whom she married on December 22, 1994, in Telluride, Colorado. Their marriage ceremony was near where, according to press reports, they were both in a helicopter crash in March of that same year. For Brinkley and Taubman, their marriage was based on having survived what could have been a deadly accident. Taubman proposed while Brinkley was still married to Billy Joel. Brinkley and Taubman married, had a son, and less than a year into the marriage, they divorced. According to press reports, in the end, Brinkley was obliged to pay Taubman $2 million as a “parting gift.” When their divorce was final, both Brinkley and Taubman admitted, in their own words, that their marriage had been an impulsive act motivated by a “celebration of life.”

Elizabeth Taylor’s last marriage, to a construction worker named Larry Fortensky, was based on their mutual addictions. The media explained that they had met at the Betty Ford Clinic in Palm Springs, where both were determined to expiate their respective demons. It was Taylor’s second stay at the clinic, where she had been treated for addiction to prescription drugs. Fortensky had been ordered there by the court after a conviction for drunk driving. Their worlds spun at different corners of the universe. Taylor was an Oscar-winning actress and by virtue of her seven previous marriages (she married Richard Burton twice) owned some of the world’s most famous diamonds. Fortensky, as Taylor liked to describe him, was an employee of a “large engine equipment company.” Despite the chasm that separated their emotional, cultural, and intellectual sensibilities, Taylor proclaimed that this was the real thing and “this time was forever.” If Fortensky was swept away by the wealth and glamour or had motives that were less than pure, it did not impact on Taylor’s decision to walk down the aisle yet again. Whatever anyone says about Taylor, when it comes to marriage, she is an optimist.

Famous, infamous, ordinary, rich, or poor, people who marry can be divided into three categories: optimists, pessimists, and pragmatists.

Those who are optimists believe that love is the most fundamental and crucial aspect of a marriage. For them, love is the glue that will keep them together forever as they share joys and weather adversity. They assume that comfort, convention, and routine will ward off the desire to forge new intellectual or sexual frontiers, or quell dreams of what could have been. To the optimist, marriage is an act of faith. Divorce is an unthinkable and terrifying alternative.

Pessimists believe that love is ephemeral and marriage is an unnatural state that comprises but one stage of life. There is birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, career, and the vow to share a life, procreate, retire, and die. To the pessimist, love is an unrealistic emotion. Divorce is a probability. If and when divorce becomes a reality, it creates an irrational fear of accelerating the life process toward certain loneliness and death.

Pragmatists understand that love must be nurtured to make the relationship solid and enduring. They understand that expectations about love are often exaggerated and though passion may wane, with care, devotion, and friendship, the bond of marriage can remain unbroken. The pragmatist knows that love takes effort and marriage means constant work, tooling and retooling the various components of a relationship. To the pragmatist, marriage does not guarantee “happily ever after.” If divorce happens, it is tantamount to a broken contract that nonetheless often produces fear of the unknown.

When optimists are confronted with divorce, they often wallow in self-pity. Everything they believed in has been proven wrong, as some had never considered the possibility of facing life unmarried. Fear turns to grief and becomes rage at themselves and ultimately at their partner for destroying their sense of order.

When pessimists are in the throes of divorce, there is a sense of relief that they are finally living their own self-fulfilling prophecy of failure. Despite any psychological preparation for an eventual collapse of the union, they still experience anger at themselves for going against their own instincts, which turns to rage at their partner for his or her complicity in the failure.

When pragmatists meet with a matrimonial attorney to terminate a marriage, they fool themselves into thinking that their emotional clarity has rendered them blameless. As the process unwinds with all its complications and land mines, confidence turns into vengeance, which results in blame, which becomes fear that their judgment could be seriously flawed in every other area of their lives.

Whether faced by an optimist, pessimist, or pragmatist, the demise of a marriage begins with the breakdown of all rational communication, leading to arguments, recriminations, sometimes even violence, until the final death blow when one or the other partner walks into a lawyer’s office to begin divorce proceedings.

Despite the pain and acrimony that usually accompanies divorce, slugging it out in court in a rancorous battle is not only unnecessarily humiliating, but inordinately costly. Given the statistics of divorce and the fact that the majority are hostile, it would seem that regardless of why people married, when they divorce it is often a fight to the death.

The power, success, and financial rewards that divorce lawyers enjoy come about because the majority of people complicate what is already a complex course of action — the dissolution of a legal union.

The truth is that many of those embroiled in divorce can barely remember why they married in the first place, in the same way they are incapable of answering the question that might be posed by a matrimonial attorney: “Why do you want a divorce now and not six months ago or five or twenty years ago?” Most people refuse to confront the dynamic of their relationships. They are often unwilling to admit, even to themselves, that divorce was inevitable given that they had been living empty lives.

Extricating oneself from a dying or dead relationship should produce a sense of relief that divorce has the potential to be a life-affirming experience rather than proof of a failure. Yet the mystery remains why love and marriage, despite the statistics of failure, remain a celebration, while divorce often ends with social ostracism, criticism, misery, and alienation from friends and family.

Divorce is liberating. Liberation affords people choices. To have a positive divorce, people must learn how to use their impending freedom wisely. If the inevitable happens and people find themselves as defendants or plaintiffs in divorce cases, the first step is to take control of their lives. Taking control means thinking ahead, keeping the end goal in sight, and making rational decisions that are not colored by self-pity, vengeance, or spite.

Back to the original question a lawyer will ask a potential client during that first encounter. “Why are you here today and not five years ago or six months ago or twenty years ago or last week?” As explained, most people can’t answer that question. Before the process of divorce goes any further, people should understand when, rather than why, the time has come to consider ending the marriage. Perhaps even more important would be to identify what prospective brides and grooms expected out of marriage.

Excerpted from “The Good Divorce: How to Walk Away Financially Sound and Emotionally Happy.” Copyright © 2011 by Raoul Felder and Barbara Victor. Published by St. Martin’s Press. Reprinted with permission.