When I was a little girl, I stayed most days with my beloved grandparents while my parents worked.
My memories with them include their prompting me to sing “I’m a Little Teapot” and twirl around dancing in their kitchen. They called me their “Pride and Joy.” So, the day I walked in on their discussion where one of them said, “I think we need to get a divorce,” is one of the strongest memories of my childhood. It was not a perfect divorce–none is. But because they were so concerned about how it would affect me, they were both mindful of how they did their divorce–how they were writing their story. My grandparents were two East Texas, uneducated, blue-collar factory workers, but they had the wisdom of the ages, and I am the beneficiary of that wisdom. That experience has instructed and informed how I have practiced family law for over 35 years.
When I went to law school, we didn’t even have mediation, let alone Collaborative Divorce.
We were trained to be warriors, and we were trained at the University of Texas Law School to be good and successful warriors. So, for lawyers who are trained to be warriors, a win is a win–it’s downright Pavlovian to have the adrenaline rush that comes with winning in Court. The way to win in Court is to show why your client’s position is the RIGHT one and why the other client’s position is the WRONG one. But just as many of my colleagues, I found that winning a divorce in Court usually meant destroying a relationship or many relationships. How can that ever really feel like a win?
When my grandparents divorced, they decided, even nearly 60 years ago, that that was not the story they wanted to write.
One is almost always the “leaver,” the one who either decides to get the divorce or just the one who says it’s time, and there’s the “leavee,” who, even in the most amicable divorce, has a sense of loss that they were rejected. In my grandparents’ case, I know who held each of those roles, but in the end it didn’t matter. Did their peaceful co-existence happen overnight? No. Was it hard? Yes. Were there tears? Yes.
They came to a peaceful resolution, although they both were bitter at each other, on some subjects for the rest of their lives, but despite that, they were able see the bigger picture and find a way forward–to peaceful co-existence, almost like distant relatives–they didn’t always like each other, but they shared a history and blood between them with their children and grandchildren and they saw the value in preserving those relationships. So, even when I was in Court in litigated family law cases, I knew in my heart that there was a better way because my grandparents had modeled that for me.
The story my grandparents chose to write included that they wanted to attend each other’s family’s reunions because they had grown up together in the same small community, and in fact, my grandfathers’ sister had married my grandmother’s brother so both sides of their family were connected.
They wanted to attend my and my brother’s life events, including our graduations, weddings and our children’s baptisms, without the tension that some divorced couples have. When my grandfather’s second marriage failed and he basically had a nervous breakdown, it was my grandmother (his ex-wife) and me whom he called to come see him in the hospital and he regularly relied on my grandmother’s mother (his ex-mother-in-law) to be his counselor and confidant in the kitchen at her house which had seen so many earlier family gatherings. My grandparents ended up talking regularly by phone until near the time of his death.
Maybe their new spouses weren’t thrilled by that, but they had to accept it because my grandparents were determined to stay caught up on the events of each others’ and their families’ lives. One of the sweetest chapters in my grandparents’ story is that, just before he died, my grandmother asked me to take her to see him at the nursing home so that she could say goodbye. We did that late at night because, despite their continued friendly relationship, neither my parents or either of my grandparents’ spouses, would have found that appropriate. After all, if they got along that well they all wondered, “Why did they get a divorce in the first place?” (and embarrass the family is what some members of the family thought)
I had a professor at the Harvard Project on Negotiation who said, “You don’t want to end up on the wrong side of history.”
He was talking about national and world historic events when he said that to us. But I would say that everyone who goes through a divorce should also consider that question in a little different light: “How do you want YOUR Divorce Story to read?” to your children, your grandchildren, your great-grandchildren and your friends. In the end, the choice is yours.