Divorce Strategy 101

by Mel Feit

The most critical component of a successful divorce is also the one thing many men struggle with the most.

At the risk of stating the obvious, divorce can be horrendous. A marriage seldom falls apart gracefully. The one thing in this world that should never end, eternal love, often ends with a fury.

The contentiousness of divorce makes the pain of separation all the more unbearable. In the midst of grief and despair, when a person’s thinking is muddled and confused, he may find himself in a legal setting that requires him to think and act with precision. At this low point in his life, when he is most in need of compassion and sympathy, he may be greeted by a heavy-handed, apparently uncaring judiciary that will treat him as if he were a criminal.

Over the years, I have counseled thousands of men trying to get through this ordeal. The initial contact with me is usually a phone call in which a man introduces himself by describing the shocking events leading up to his divorce. Since my preferred style of counseling is to start in the present and then work my way back, I generally interrupt the recitation of prior events with a simple, not-so-shocking question, “What is happening right now?”

“Okay, well, three years ago she left with the kids when I was at work and I had no idea where they were…”

It usually takes me several tries before I can get an answer to my question. “What is happening right now,” is a direct question in search of a direct answer, grounded in the present. It should be a fairly simple question to answer but it turns out it almost never is. The answers I receive are usually convoluted and tortured, tangled up with a thousand emotional insults from the past.

Maybe the mind plays tricks. Maybe the present is just too painful, so the mind won’t allow these men to go there. Maybe the past is so incredibly confusing that the mind replays historical events, over and over, hoping to find some comprehension or peace that never comes. Maybe unraveling a marriage is simply too traumatic. I don’t exactly know why divorcing men have such difficulty focusing their thoughts, but this much I do know:

If you want your lawyer and the judge and the children’s lawyer and the forensic psychologist and everyone else to understand what is most important about your divorce, you have to tell them. You have to tell them without the clutter. If you are distracted, they will be, too. If you share with them important but peripheral details, they will inevitably focus on the least important of those and they will never really understand your side of the divorce.

I have come to believe that in every person’s divorce there is an essential story. It is usually a story about how unresolved conflicts in the marriage shape and drive the divorce. Divorce stories may be similar but each person’s story is also unique. And each story, however complicated and involved and messy and intricate and sordid, can be summed up in a single paragraph, without losing any of the essential elements. It may seem impossible to do that but, actually, the doing of it will focus your attention and the world’s attention on what matters most.

And so, if you are entering a divorce, I suggest that you take the time to understand your essential story and write it down in one paragraph, a few carefully worded sentences. Focus.

Read your paragraph and come to an appreciation of what is truly important about your story, the important details you want everyone to know, immediately, without distraction. Focus.

Practice telling your story to others. You don’t need to become robotic. You should tell your story with conviction and with passion but stay on message. Focus.

This is the technique that I often use with my own clients. After I spend a couple of hours with a client, I will usually write down in one paragraph my understanding of his essential story and then I will read it to him. Typically, a client will react with some amazement. “Wow! You got it exactly right. That is exactly what has been happening.”

And then, because I want to be sure that my client completely understands his divorce story and because I know how important it will be for him to be able to tell this new, focused version to other people, I will ask him to repeat it to me. “Please repeat your story to me, in your own words,” I will say.

“Oh, I think I forgot to mention that last year at Thanksgiving my ex-wife dropped off our children several hours late and the kids missed out on dinner with the rest of my family…”

The most critical component of a successful divorce is also the one thing many men struggle with the most. Focus. Focus. Focus.