I have an image in my mind of the presiding judge’s expression during my divorce trial that I cannot shake. A mix of disdain and impatience that, to this day, is disturbing to the point of shock. You are a professional; you are paid to do this; this is your job, I wanted to remind him loudly and often as my divorce dragged on through delays and setbacks and hours of testimony. Mostly, though, I was afraid: This judge is disdainful and impatient AND he is going to make decisions about our children, our home, and our money that will matter for the rest of our lives. How can this possibly be a good thing?
It isn’t a good thing. And you do not find that out until you are in the teeth of the process. If I could change one thing about the experience of divorce, it would be the court system. The very place where individuals have every right (our taxes pay for this system, after all) to expect civility, wisdom, and justice is, from my perspective, the last place it is found. This is not the way divorce should be adjudicated in the 21st century. How it came to be that way is beyond my interest. The important question is, What can be done about it?
My divorce took five years and cost the two of us $45,000. That is our problem, and the result of many contributing factors – fighting, dueling attorneys, an unwillingness to accept the impersonal equations used to determine the resolution. Not to mention simple, visceral fury. Every divorcing couple faces these factors to some degree. The costs are excessive when there are two attorneys involved. Stress mounts and subsides, mounts and subsides. Time needs a whole new definition, one closer to geologic periods than the years and months we reckon by. Call it a divorce Pleistocene. That is what it feels like. It takes forever, and by the end every living emotion has gone extinct.
Still, what boggles my mind most is the mess of the process. I still cannot believe this is how traditional divorce works.
There were delays over the slightest technicalities. There were frequent and arbitrary continuances. If either spouse wants to muck up the process just to be obnoxious, their motions are simply sucked up into the engine of the proceedings, and become yet another hearing or conference. Just seeing a court notice in the mail was enough to wreck my whole day. I opened all those envelopes with sweaty hands.
As for the hearings themselves, I was made to keep quiet when I wanted to speak in my own defense. I was made to take the stand when I wanted to sit in the corner and weep. The rules were never clear to me, and seemed to change by the minute. It was like going over the falls, blind. I missed days and days of work. I felt like a criminal simply entering the courthouse. Put your briefcase in this bin. Take off your earrings. Take off your belt. Empty your pockets. No food. No crying. And if your cell phone so much as vibrates in the courtroom, we will take it away from you.
Wait a minute, how old am I?
I wasted time in dismal waiting areas peopled with miserable spouses scowling at each other across dirty carpets. Sometimes there were open fights. Sometimes there were screaming matches. Sometimes there were bleary-eyed children sitting with their parents, their expressions quite clearly saying, I should be playing in a park instead of sitting on this sticky chair.
Then, in the courtroom waiting for my own hearing, I wasted more time watching couple after couple go before the judge with the same sordid arguments and the same painful details that none of us should know about strangers. When it was finally my turn, I just wanted to go home and hide in a closet.
And that was before I found out that my judge had not practiced family law – at all – before taking the bench. Meaning, he was a divorce law rookie. Worse than that, a divorce law rookie with seemingly unlimited power over my divorce.
It is said that arbitrariness and uncertainty are harder on the human psyche than actual suffering. They must have been talking about divorce. Nothing about the divorce process worked efficiently. Nothing. Not one thing.
Four years before my divorce ended, my attorney predicted how it would all fall out. Based on the formulas the court uses to determine this stuff, I was told I would get a certain percentage. I was told my spouse would get a certain percentage. I was told my children would probably be with me this amount of time, and probably with my ex that amount of time. When the decision finally came down several years and tens of thousands of dollars later, that is exactly how it fell out.
So. Why did I waste all of that time and money and emotional energy? I have no good answer. All I can say was that I, too, was sucked up by the process and spit out at the other end.
Words of advice to anyone else considering a traditional divorce? Don’t have a bad divorce. Save yourself. Find another way. The process will ruin you almost as much as the divorce. And it is no fun at all being extinct.