An Amicable Divorce?

[Note: I realize it has been more than two months since my last post, but the lack of posting was due more to time constraints than anything else.  For the past number of weeks, I have been studying for the bar exam and now that I finished it last week, I can move on to more appealing (and less stressful) ventures – this blog included.]

While reading the Arizona Republic last week, I came across an article by Karina Bland that certainly piqued my interest: “friendly” divorces.  If it sounds suspect, you’re probably right. Divorce has entered the mainstream; arguably it has been here for quite some time but the various permutations of divorce are now becoming in vogue.  Now, those couples deciding to ditch those marital vows have at least two flavors from which to choose.

The “traditional” divorce – per the article – is a drawn out and bitter process with a unhealthy power grab for assets and control; children are used as pawns or as sacrificial negotiating chips.  Couples with children may go to enormous lengths to “stick it” to the other spouse – custody battles, visitation rights, etc.  The battles are sometimes fought even before entering into a marriage.  Sadly, this is often a protracted manner of dividing the marital estate.  What was once confidential is now disclosed – the dirty laundry, skeletons, and family secrets.  Even after the decree is finalized, the next battleground sometimes becomes indoctrinating the children with one viewpoint or another toward the other spouse all while attempting to inoculate the same children from anything else to the contrary.  Even without children or money, couples still manage to hire attorneys to wage war: car payments, retirement accounts, spousal support, etc.

Nonetheless, there is good news: there is an alternative to a nasty divorce.  The bad news: the solution is not not-getting-divorced.

The new trend for divorce is: friendly divorces.  Theoretically, it purports to to away with animosity, protect the children, and allow the ex-spouses to once again live fulfilling, healthy lives.  In these cases, couples decide to split yet attempt to do it cordially.

As Karina Bland summarizes:

This new kind of divorced mom and dad might attend parent-teacher conferences together, work jointly to get one kid to Little League and the other to piano lessons – even if it’s not technically their visitation day – and share calendars electronically so Dad can arrange to take the kids when mom’s out of town on business.

In other words, even though the parents have split they can still “play nice” and accommodate one another for the sake of the children.  How altruistic.

What Karina Bland omits is the darker side of the matter: divorce is still divorce no matter how friendly it purports to be.  As such, its consequences are felt immediately and it continues to reverberate in the children.  Choosing between the “traditional” and “amicable” separation is a false dichotomy.  In fact, those options are a bit like asking whether it is better to fail a test miserably or to barely fail a test.  Sure, it is probably better to barely fail a test just as it is probably better to have an amicable divorce.  But choosing between these two options is absurd – especially when there is a third alternative – not getting divorced.

Subject to certain and very limited exceptions, choosing divorce is choosing to fail.  And when tests of life arrive as they inevitably do, spouses always have the option to pass.  A barely passing grade is always better than a barely failing grade – especially since, in life, there are no retakes.

To be clear, there is a large gulf between a barely failing and barely passing.  A marriage that stays intact may exhibit characteristics found with those deciding to get divorced (e.g. bickering, martial discord, etc).  To a certain extent, more than a few marriages  may be dysfunctional.  At the same time, the salient characteristics of spousal unity is obvious: the the married couple is at least committed enough to not take that next step to sever the wedding promises.  Although not ideal by any means, children of “barely passing” spouses at least witness that some vows are forever, even in the absence of love; thus choosing a partner carefully is important.  Such children also need not balance two different families – two different mothers and two different fathers; the family unit is structurally sound.

On the other hand, a “barely failing” couple attempts to emulate those couples that do not get divorced.  In this case, the couple purports to split on friendly terms and look out for the best interests of the children.  To that end they negotiate elaborate custody arrangements and maintain civility.  Try as they may, they cannot esteem the marital institution or imbue the importance of commitment to their children – at least not in action.  The goal of stability is thwarted as well.  Children of these broken marriages do not have fathers one hundred percent of the time; nor do they have mothers one hundred percent of the time.  Instead, they live in the twilight between mom five days a week and dad two days a week – or some permutation thereof.  The situation becomes even more complicated when one spouse remarries.  There is no true stability; there is shuffling from one place to another and sometimes the introduction of new “family” members.

Certainly if a couple decides to divorce, legally they may.  The law may provide certain safeguards to stave off that result (a ninety day mandatory cooling off period, court ordered marital counseling).  But the law also, quite detrimentally, permits dissolution quite easily as well (through no-fault divorce).  Obviously a couple embarking on the path should at least marginally consider the interests of the children. (Hint: children do better when parents are together).

The mere decision to divorce is lamentable, be it traditional or “friendly.”  One option is not better than the other when the end result is a marital failure.