When this writer first began to practice matrimonial law in 1982, the period after November 1 of each year could be termed the “Quiet Time.” In those days, once Halloween had occurred people decided no matter how bad their situation, they would tough out the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas or Chanukah. They did so in order to minimize the disruption on their children, who justifiably saw the holidays as one of joy and family unity.
It is different today. In recent years we have been asked to do initial consultations even during the third and fourth weeks of December. This seems very odd but I have concluded that the arrival of year’s end and the holidays prompts people to take stock over the state of their marriages and to ask the difficult question: “Is this working?” And if that question prompts a negative reply it leads to the more difficult inquiry: “What next?”
Truth of the matter is that these are and should be very troubling questions. In 1980, when Pennsylvania became a “no fault” jurisdiction, the fear was that no fault would cause an explosion in the number of divorces and irrevocable damage to the institution of marriage. Thirty-five years of statistical data have shown that the explosion in divorce never occurred. Ironically, if there is an objective measure of how marriage was affected, it is shown in the number of people who decide to marry. The numbers tell us that divorce is down. But marriage is way down.
Meanwhile, the interviews we provide to people in November and December of each year tell us something more interesting. Most people we meet are clear that they don’t want to file for divorce or even start the process before 2017 arrives, but they are clearly troubled by where marriage has brought them and they want to know what divorce would mean for them and for their children.
They ask excellent questions. Many of these questions are economic. Those are easy because our lawyers have lots of experience with this kind of thing. But then we have lots of inquiries about their children and how they will be affected. Unlike money, children are tough to measure, especially from a distance. Obviously divorce is much more prevalent than it once was. So kids understand divorce in one sense because many of their classmates have had firsthand experience. But observing the divorce of your best friend in school is quite different than the firsthand experience of seeing your own parents dissolve the only marriage you have ever known close up.
From a distance we can say that children respond differently. Some kids seem completely unaffected by the breakup of a marriage. Others are profoundly affected. Age has little to do with it. We have witnessed eight year olds who tolerate their parents’ divorce as if it were a minor event while their seventeen-year-old brother is devastated.
In an odd twist we are also often asked by prospective clients whether they should divorce. Obviously, there is no objective test providing a definitive answer. What we do experience a fair measure of is an effort to evaluate whether personal happiness should be foregone “for the sake of the children.” In other words, should I just accept a miserable marriage for the next 10, 12, 16 years to spare the children the anguish of divorce.
This is a place where lawyers need to tread lightly just as physicians do in the world of pain management. Some of us pass out at the sign of blood. Others have survived being awake and alert during the amputation of a limb. Some people expect very little from marriage and don’t deeply experience the pain associated with a bad one. Their neighbors can become depressed to the point of self-harm by the same stimuli. So be wary of any attorney who has strong opinions either for or against your marital situation. They are not the patient in distress. You are.
Meanwhile, here are the questions you need to ponder when you feel the strong need to move on.
- How will each of my children be affected? If you ask a child whether he or she would want to see you separate, chances are that they will say they are against it. But then ask yourself, how much anxiety does this child experience living in a household where two parents no longer like each other. Many parents pretend that their children don’t know about the level of parental discord. Perhaps true but experience has taught me that it is the full time job of children to observe, evaluate and manipulate their parents during the 18 hours per day they are not in school. Don’t underestimate them.
- How will you be affected by sentencing yourself to another five, ten or fifteen years of unhappiness? For most of us, the damage of living in an unhappy marital situation is cumulative, just like smoking.
- Not that you care, but what is the effect on your spouse of living the “lie” for the same period you are. Perhaps you have a higher pain threshold. But when people are forced to live together while not liking each other, the effect is often more frequent and more serious “bad behavior.” Your children will witness all of this while you both tolerate it.
- What is the lesson the children get from a state of lasting armistice? Are you and your spouse each depriving yourselves and your children from experiencing marriage as a happy relationship? Many clients profess that they will never marry again so that the question is moot. Meanwhile our experience shows that most will move on to other relationships which provide differing degrees of satisfaction. But a question you have to grapple with is whether you would want your children to have a marital relationship similar to yours. Obviously, there is a faith element to this question. If you view marriage as a contract having divine qualities, the question may not require an answer at all. A higher being has determined that you will and should remain together and that this is required.
It is clear that the arrival of years’ end does prompt many people to evaluate the state of their marriage and its future prospects. Attorneys can provide useful answers to the worldly questions of how property division, custody and support issues work. But imbedded in these questions are far greater ones; questions for which lawyers cannot and should not pretend to have easy answers.