To SPLIT OR NOT to split? There comes a lurching moment in all but fairy-tale marriages when divorce suddenly looms as a serious possibility. Somebody finally utters the unforgivable, a door slams once too often, a bed goes unslept in too long. Alone in a bar or locked in a bathroom, you bleakly contemplate the cosy domestic basket in which you've placed all your emotional eggs. Is the bottom falling out before your eyes? Maybe it would be best to separate, now, before both your futures are ruined. It’s a temptation prickly with guilt and anguish, yet promising absolution.
Until recently the temptation was nearly always resisted. Divorce carried a social stigma. It still implies failure. Our traditions hold that the domestic crises pass, that the basket can be patched up, ihat you’ll be happier if you soldier on. Often this is true. But traditions are as brittle as breadsticks these days and marriages crumble all around us. The words “till death us do part" are now understood to mean “till incompatibility us do part." Couples seem to be uncoupling as casually as boxcars.
Since Canada’s new “easy" divorce legislation came into effect just a year ago, applications for divorce have more than doubled. At a conservative estimate some 25,000 petitions will be filed this year—and all but 50 or so eventually will go through—compared with 11,156 divorces granted in 1967. In Toronto, divorce applications (about 500 in February) are running at 50 percent of the marriage rate.
Clearly, part of this increase represents a backlog of bad marriages that couldn’t be dissolved under the
The marriage has broken and they imagine they’ve put unhappiness behind them. But ahead lies a demeaning ordeal for which they’re unprepared. They’ll learn there is no such thing as
old laws. But it’s equally obvious that many more couples, when faced with a marital crisis, are choosing to separate rather than gamble that their marriage will work out. What few people who opt for divorce realize is that, despite the new laws, they are in for one of the roughest emotional journeys of their lives.
This article is based on interviews with lawyers, marriage counselors and battered veterans of the divorce process. None of them recommends divorce as the automatic solution to your unhappy marriage. But if you are determined to separate, you should be aware of what is involved. Your situation probably fits the general pattern more than you’re prepared to admit. And the lessons learned by others may help you make it through from separation to decree absolute without coming perilously close to a nervous breakdown.
First, some general warnings. Don’t expect that “easy” divorce will make the actual proceedings any easier on you. The new law has merely provided more avenues out of a marriage besides the old thoroughfare of adultery. Grounds for divorce have been widened to include sodomy, bestiality, rape, homosexuality, cruelty and the concept of “marriage breakdown.” Recognition of the marriage-breakdown principle is indeed a major advance. But the conditions under which courts are prepared to grant divorces on this ground are complex and the hearing is likely to be time-consuming. An expert in the Justice Department concedes that adultery, the ground still cited in about 70 percent of cases, remains the fastest and simplest way to win a divorce. All of which means the hypocritical doctrine
that there must be a guilty and an innocent party in a divorce action still largely prevails.
Even with adultery as the ground, the average uncontested divorce today takes longer (a year instead of six months) than it did two years ago. One reason is the rapid buildup of cases; our present court machinery is bogged down. Another reason is that petitioners are now required to satisfy the court that reconciliation has been explored and rejected. A judge who isn’t satisfied may adjourn the case. The result is that your own private agony is prolonged.
The pain and strain that a normal person suffers during the divorce period must be experienced to be believed. Divorced friends will seldom be willing to tell you how traumatic it can be. It’s a nightmare they are struggling to forget. The truth is that no matter how amicably a couple agree to separate, they usually wind up bitter enemies. “Once the legal paper work starts,” says Elliott Pepper, a Toronto attorney who has surveyed many a matrimonial battleground, “you have an irrevocable declaration of war.”
Morton M. Hunt, an American divorce expert and author of The World Of The Formerly Married, says husband and wife are often quite civilized about making temporary separation arrangements. “But as soon as they begin trying to reach an agreement on final, legally enforceable terms they find themselves engaged in a series of nasty and frequently vicious fights.” Hunt argues that this bitter infighting could have therapeutic value. It’s a ritual that achieves the emotional dismantling of the marriage.
This may be true but it doesn’t alter the fact that the divorce process, like all warfare, is hell while it lasts. Moreover, it’s a lonely hell, probably the loneliest period you’ll ever endure (unless, of course, you are running off with someone else). Survivors of divorce actions concur absolutely on this point. No matter how hollow and meaningless your marriage was, the fact that you were still living together provided you with certain comforting securities and a frame of reference in society. Once you’ve separated you’re adrift in a social limbo, your values are turning somersaults, and you can’t even enjoy the companionship of mutual misery any more. Here are some specific ways to cope with that chilling situation._
AFTER THE BREAKUP
Some marriages end on a protracted whimper, others with a pent-up bang) Either way, it helps to be realistic about what’s happened. Marriage is
like a living organism and once it’s dead, it’s dead. Trial separations seldom work. “Start your divorce action the day you move out,” advises a 30year-old man whose marriage lasted four years. “If you think you’re going to save yourself a lot of trauma by waiting, forget it. It’s going to be unpleasant anyway; there’s no such thing as a pleasant divorce.”
It also pays to be practical about money. “My first instinct after the breakup was the survival of me," says a 32-year-old divorcee. “I was so preoccupied that other important things tended to be forgotten. It took me some time to realize that this was war on several fronts — not the least of them being financial.” Before the separation agreement is signed, a woman should discover exactly how much money her husband is making (it’s amazing how many wives don’t know), what his other assets are and what his future income is likely to be. Many lawyers advocate doing this even if it means hiring detectives.
By the same token, a man should find out about any extra income his wife may receive. She could be renting out your old room to a lodger, for instance, or working at a part-time job. Once the facts are clear, the man should ensure that the separation agreement is signed as soon as possible. The money he pays in support then becomes tax-deductible and he is no longer responsible for any debts his wife runs up.
SIGNING THE AGREEMENT
This is where the crunch comes. After a separation agreement is signed, it’s usually a nasty and expensive business changing it. So make sure it’s done properly the first time. The four main areas for argument are support money, division of property, custody of the children and visiting privileges.
On the question of support, the only advice is to fight for every cent. Frequently, the man starts out thinking he'll be noble and the woman that she will be gracious. But when the man realizes he is expected to live on less than his office boy earns and the woman discovers how carefully she'll have to budget, grace and gallantry vanish.
Division of property can be equally painful. Hostility flares up over ridiculously small things. “We didn’t have much trouble with property,” recalls one man, himself a lawyer. “She took everything. I wasn’t going to start with ‘this vase is mine, that brassiere is yours.’ I just wanted it over with. My parents kept saying that everything she had touched was ‘tainted.’ That word ‘tainted’ is what pulled me through.”
Custody is reasonably simple. The
only time a mother is likely to lose custody is when it can be shown that her children’s welfare would be at stake. Many husbands don’t accept this right away. “I thought I was going to snag custody and hurt my wife that way,” says the lawyer. “But after I’d purged my soul and come to my senses, I realized that a mother is a mother. Unless I married again immediately, I couldn’t take care of the children the way she could.”
The question of the husband’s visiting privileges with the children also looks simple but it’s potentially explosive. Try to hammer out a regimented schedule and then, for the sake of the children, stick to it. The woman should stay out of the way when the father visits; the man should make it clear he is visiting his kids and not his wife. Otherwise, the visits can be used as emotional blackmail, albeit unconsciously.
TELLING THE CHILDREN
Kids are part of the pay-off in a good marriage and the chief reason so-so unions survive. Telling a child his world is falling apart can never be less than heartrending. “I just felt like throwing up,” says one mother. “And when I saw my six-year-old’s face, I knew he felt that way, too. It was the hardest thing not to cry.”
Children naturally assume they are the reason for the divorce. It’s important for the parents to explain that they both still love the children, that this has been an adult failure. Tell the children in the afternoon rather than, as many parents choose, just before bedtime. It gives them more opportunity to ask questions and adjust to the situation. Finally, mothers should resist the desire to move house after the breakup. The familiar surroundings provide the children with essential security when everything else is reeling.
CUTTING LEGAL COSTS
Under the new legislation, you can save a lot of money by petitioning for a divorce on your own. A Toronto mother of four did so last January and won her decree nisi. The whole thing cost her just $71.60 in court fees. The catch here is that she had already obtained a legal separation back in 1960. When there’s a complicated separation agreement to be thrashed out,‘a divorce can and has cost as much as $5,000 in'-legal expenses.
The whole secret of cutting costs is to make sure the legal work is as efficient as possible. In most Canadian cities an average straightforward divorce costs about $750. If you are a new client, the lawyer may ask for $300 or so in advance. What governs the lawyer’s fee is the amount of
preparation needed. Do as much of your own dirty work as possible. Haggling over a separation agreement in the lawyer’s office or consulting him needlessly during the long waiting period will send the costs soaring. It’s also better to go to a lawyer who specializes in divorce law.
“Above all,” says one divorcee, “don’t use your lawyer as a headshrinker.” If you feel you need help, you save money and increase your chances of survival by going to a qualified psychiatrist.
BEFORE THE COURT HEARING
This is a period of intense alienation, of moody introspection, of loneliness that approaches the castaway’s despair. The husband is usually booked into a cheap hotel room, living out of a suitcase, grabbing greasy-spoon meals, pretending he likes seeing movies by himself; a few blocks away the wife is going through the motions of running a household, cooking for the children, dreading the empty evenings. “You’re neither married nor unmarried,” remembers one divorcee with a shudder. “You have no status. You are cut off from people.”
The most depressing factor of all is that you can’t count on your friends. They inevitably choose sides. Some will rally to the other camp. You shouldn’t be hurt or dismayed by this or hold grudges later. They are embarrassed and simply don’t know what else to do. Even the friends who stay on your side are of small consolation. “They keep talking about the marriage and reminding you of things you’d prefer to forget,” says the lawyer. “They also think they are helping you by constantly putting your wife down. Now a funny thing happens at this point. You find yourself sticking up for the woman, even though she may be a murderess, because there remains an affinity between you and her.”
Socially, the separated wife tends to be more isolated than her husband. Other wives regard her as a threat because she is on her way to being free and single. Other husbands, sensitive to these vibrations, grow prudently distant.
The husband fares better because married friends take pity on his bumbling ineptitude as a sudden bachelor. They invite him round for a homecooked meal and the hostess makes halfhearted offers to do his shirts. But such sympathetic hospitality hardly compensates for the strain the man is under at work. He can’t afford to let his domestic crisis cost him the job he now needs more than ever. He shouldn’t discuss his divorce with either his fellow workers or his employer. If discussion becomes unavoidable.
he should be frank about the situation and then work his head off.
IN THE COURTROOM
Your divorce action could well be the first time you have been inside a court of law, let alone taken part in a hearing. Brace yourself. The atmosphere of the courtroom, cold, callous, impersonal, will come as a profound shock. Waiting your turn you may see the private tragedies of four or five other couples laid bare and realize you are not unique. The judge has sat through the tales of a thousand and one sordid nights and the accumulated dirt has formed a carapace over his feelings. When you hear him ask a woman whether she was wearing a nightgown or a loose dress, you’ll understand that nothing is going to alleviate your embarrassment.
Many petitioners, particularly women, imagine they will be able to take the stand and present an emotional justification of why they are there. But there is no therapy in a divorce hearing. If the ground is adultery, or anything else except marriage breakdown, what follows is a hideous little drama in black and white. Somebody is innocent and somebody is guilty and that’s the way it has to be played.
“The only way to get through it is to discipline yourself, turn off all your glands,” says a divorced woman who has appeared both as a plaintiff and a co-respondent. “Otherwise you’ll become extremely bitter about society. The minute the judge bangs down the gavel you'll want to run out of that place in horror. It’s a good idea to have arranged something to do immediately afterward — a dinner, a divorce party, anything to keep your mind off it.”
AFTER THE DIVORCE
Once you are legally single again, and recovered from the worst effects of that achievement, you'll want to rejoin society. A primary step is to let the rest of the world know where you are. Super-hip people mail out divorce cards: "This is to announce that
Georgina Hippleberger is now divorced but lives at the same address.” Men frequently make use of the change-of-address notices available from the post office. One simple way to convey the news is to wait until Christmas and scrawl a brief note on all the cards you send.
These announcements often reap a crop of invitations. You’ll have to face the big party where the hosts have bravely invited both you and your former spouse. They expect something to happen (and it usually does) but go through with it. Then there will be lots of little dinner par-
ties at which you find yourself sitting beside an unattached member of the opposite sex. Divorcees soon learn they have to contend with a great deal of advice about remarriage from close female friends. The friends are acting out of self-interest. They want to get this eligible woman out of the way as fast as possible; they have enough problems with their husbands’ secretaries.
The recently divorced man finds it easier to avoid such entanglements. He can always plead, with some truth, that “I’m still hung-up on my first marriage.” His first reaction on gaining freedom is to go out on the town, play the field and project his newfound image as a Trudeau-style swinger. But it doesn’t last. For one thing, he may find that he has less loose change in his pocket on a Saturday night than his teenage son. For another, his values have turned sour. “I went wild,” admits one man. “I started hanging around with losers, a really depraved bunch. I drank heavily, smoked pot and found a nympho in every closet. It took me a year before I was able to get back to normal relations with a woman again.”
But it’s the divorced mother who emerges as the real loser in our society. You don't have to consult the Dominion Bureau of Statistics to learn that there are far more eligible females around than there are males; you can see this fact on the downtown streets any lunch hour. In her search for a new husband, the divorced mother is judging men as potential fathers for her children. It's a tough criterion to measure up to. At the same time the divorcee discovers that although she has the legal status of a widow, her prospects of remarriage are much poorer. Men tend to consider her an easy object of sexual exploitation. “I’m not sure I’m able to handle this situation even yet,” says a mother of three daughters who has been divorced for six years. “But I have learned that most men think they are God's own gift to the divorcee.” The result is that in our large cities there is a growing group of divorced mothers who have come to terms with the probability that they will stay manless for the rest of their lives.
There remains one bright spot about divorce. If you are lucky enough to find another spouse, statistics show that your second marriage will be far less risky. Presumably, this is because people make more intelligent choices the second time around. Only a cynic would suggest it’s because anybody who has been through the inferno of divorce once would rather suffer marital torture than volunteer to take the trip again. □