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Testimonies of Separation

David R. Wolf
On Separation (November 2019)
Healing the World

I have litigated divorce, paternity, custody, child support, and Order of Protection cases in Arizona for over three years. My work has largely been funded by a grant for crime victims’ rights. Almost all of the patterns described in this article appeared many times in many cases and do not refer to particular cases or individuals.  I have omitted all identifying information and, where necessary, have changed particularizing details to preserve confidentiality.

Most of my clients became my clients either because they had suffered intimate partner violence or because they were the best parent available for a child abused by someone else. For this reason, I did not observe too many good relationships. Most of the marriages and relationships I saw needed to end, and they needed to end immediately, and this fact was not really in dispute. Rather, I learned that domestic violence and drug abuse are to relationships what Roundup is to rosebushes.

(Dear potential clients: If you do not know that setting your partner’s car on fire, marrying your partner so you can sleep with their 12-year-old child instead, or using meth for ten years while telling disjointedly incredible lies about it might cause some difficulties in your personal relationships, then you need help more basic than I am able to give. In the meantime, if you want a family-law lawyer to accept your case, please do not show up high to our office. Also, we appreciate being paid in advance.)

Something else I learned through my family-law practice is that, in failing relationships, certain Quaker values tend to be conspicuous in their absence. These are honesty, equality, nonviolence, self-knowledge, responsibility, and a community’s support and discernment.

Honesty: Many relationships I have encountered dissolved simply because one partner had not told the truth about themselves to the other. The subject of these deceptions included violence against past partners or children, drug use, sexual orientation, financial shenanigans, and outside sexual relationships. The partner who finally learned the truth, whatever it may have been, frequently dissolved the relationship shortly thereafter, and the end was unnecessarily painful.

Just as often, a partner with flaws or destructive traits does tell the truth, but the partner receiving the information does not admit to themselves or their partner that they cannot accept this quality. In more than one of the cases I handled, one party had a habit of drug use, infidelity, or lavish spending before the relationship, during the relationship, and after the relationship. Their partner indeed knew about it, but married or moved in with them anyway. Many years later, the accommodating partner decided to divorce or leave based on the problems they had known about all along, and the supposedly problem partner was left surprised (and more than a little angry) as to why behavior that had previously been acceptable no longer was.

Conversely, radical honesty has sometimes made some very improbable relationships work. I recall a man whose history of violence against his first wife was so severe that no one in their right mind should have married him. However, he told his fiancée the truth about his past, without excuses, and without blaming his first wife for his actions. His second marriage stayed together.

Equality: Even though Arizona law grants spouses equal control over most assets and debts, I have noticed that one spouse almost always controls the finances for both. Sometimes the non-controlling spouse is properly informed. Sometimes they are not. Sometimes they have no information at all. Very few of the dispossessed spouses I have represented were aware that the income and property acquired during marriage in their spouse’s name was also theirs. Many of my clients also thought their lack of access to marital resources and financial information was normal.

Despite the fact that Arizona law provides for almost perfect equality when property and debt are divided in divorce, spouses in my practice have almost always settled their property and debts in unequal ways. One spouse almost always gives up some of their property rights or assumes more debt because they are sick of litigating their way towards trial.

Inequality usually, but not always, breaks along traditional lines of privilege. Husbands in heterosexual marriages controlled the finances without informing their wives, white or otherwise racially privileged spouses dominated spouses of color, and a citizen spouse would cheat an immigrant spouse out of their share of the value of the furniture.

The very few married couples I have seen who did appear to have some mutuality regarding finances stayed together.

Nonviolence: Obviously, intimate partner violence of the stereotypical kind – physical violence – is disastrous. Over a long period of time, it strips relationships of any meaningful worth, at least for the injured partner.

What has surprised me is the ubiquity of verbal abuse, and how damaging it always is. Almost all of my clients, including people who could not make legal domestic violence claims – because they had no broken windows or broken bones or stacks of 2,000 text messages to show a judge – described a relationship where their partner belittled them, criticized them, hid money or debt from them, insulted them, treated them with contempt, or tried to control their lives. Almost everyone who did this thought it was normal, and many of my clients who endured it did not question it. Some people who had obviously suffered verbal abuse did not even have a full understanding of why they were unhappy or why their relationship was failing.

I have come to believe that the “poor communication” frequently blamed for divorce is really a euphemism for verbal abuse, and that verbal abuse is one of the reasons why marital counseling frequently does not work. I also suspect that the majority of so-called “amicable divorces” are caused by verbal abuse of one partner.

I have read that the one quality most associated with long-lasting relationships is genuine respect of each partner for the other. Of the hundreds of disintegrating relationships that I have seen in my work, none of them have been like this.

Responsibility: All states in the U.S. have adopted “no-fault” divorce for all or the vast majority of marriages. A married person can divorce their spouse without having to prove anything other than “irreconcilable differences,” and the court ignores most types of fault.

I have discovered that “no fault” is a legal fiction. My clients themselves never saw the destruction of their relationships as no one’s fault, and the breakdowns were usually caused by one partner’s actions. Even when actions by both partners were to blame, one has usually committed graver errors than the other. However, the partners who made the worst errors took the least responsibility, and usually blamed my client when they were done.

I still believe that, had the partners who really caused the problems taken responsibility, made genuine apologies, gotten appropriate help where necessary, and amended their behavior over the long term, some of these relationships could have been saved. I never saw this happen. It would have been miraculous.

Self-Knowledge: I have seen many family-court judges assume that family-law litigants are making up or exaggerating allegations against their spouses or partners just to hurt them, gain custody of the children, or win additional money or property. I have almost never found that to be true. I have yet to find a spouse or partner who, when speaking in confidence, did not get the character of their ex almost exactly correct.

The person my clients almost invariably have no knowledge, integrity, or insight about is themselves. Most of my clients overestimated the strength of their custody cases by assuming that they were better than they actually were. They then combined this misjudgment with their accurate perception of their partner to create an overly optimistic view of what the custody order should be. I usually learned about my client’s flaws, with uncanny accuracy, from the opposing party’s filings, the children’s interviews, and the gaps in what my client had said. As the opposing party would also overvalue their own case, and for the same reasons, custody battles tended to drag out for a long time.

I have seen this lack of self-knowledge reach extremes. I have had to explain to several clients that their polysubstance failures of drug tests meant that their custody cases were not winnable in the short or medium term. After I started describing the multiyear, multistep process they needed to follow to reestablish proof of sobriety and regain significant time with their children, they concluded at high volume that I was a terrible lawyer. Other clients could not understand, no matter how much I explained, that – even if their partner had been drinking too much, using drugs, or hurting them – their own choice to hit their kids was going to hurt their case. I don’t know how to get rid of denial, but I wish somebody did.

On the rare occasions when either my client or the opposing party had some insight into why their parenting was imperfect, the custody case would settle quickly, correctly, and in the best interests of the children. Even though no one would admit having done anything wrong, their quiet settlement of the case evidenced that they indeed understood and had taken some responsibility for the consequences of their actions. While this was not generally enough to restore the relationship, it allowed both parents to stop fighting with each other and move forward in their lives.

Community: The best interest of the children whose parents’ relationships are dissolving is of course important to the family court. My office prioritized cases where there was considerable risk that the other parent would abuse or neglect the children if my client did not receive a favorable custody order. I have found that, when abuse or addiction has dissolved the parents’ relationship, children do the best when someone from the surrounding community steps in.

By “the surrounding community,” I do not mean the formal network of government agencies, child welfare authorities, judges, lawyers, and nonprofits that are supposed to help. Most of those are of secondary importance, and some proved worse than useless. I mean an invested adult with a head on their shoulders who is willing to step in and build a relationship with or take care of the children. Most often, this person has been a relative from the child’s extended family. Sometimes it has been a close family friend. Often it was someone from the “wrong” side of the family – a relative of the person who committed violence rather than a relative of the survivor. When a familiar adult acts out of genuine concern for the children’s welfare, the children almost always do better than when parents navigate separation on their own.

Many of my clients have told me that – before their marriage or before having children – their friends and family had told them they disapproved of or disliked their partner and explicitly warned them not to marry or have a child with that person. Their advice was ignored and was obviously right. Reliance on wise and observant family and friends at the beginning of the relationship would have prevented a poor outcome in many of these cases.

In many of my cases, couples had been hiding domestic violence, drug abuse, or both from their friends and family for years or decades. Violent people would isolate their partners; survivors would hide their suffering; addicts and codependent partners would conceal drug abuse. Absence of outside awareness allowed these problems to continue, and when friends and relatives finally learned what was happening, the relationships dissolved faster. I do not believe community support can improve or save these types of relationships. However, family and community members have helped my clients discern the truth of the matter, supported the children during the dissolution, and allowed non-abusive and non-addicted partners to move forward.

Irrelevance of Outward Forms: From what I have seen, societal attitudes regarding marriage, divorce, or family have very little impact on keeping relationships together. Individuals in good, healthy, long-term relationships held all kinds of ideologies regarding The Family. Individuals in terrible relationships held the same range of beliefs. It seemed to make little difference whether the individuals involved believed that divorce was acceptable or not. Married spouses who believed that divorce was immoral somehow got to my office on a regular basis, not infrequently as the party filing for divorce.

For heterosexual couples, marriage tended to be an imperfect sign that the parties were committed to their relationship and each other. However, when problematic qualities or inapposite traits were present, they destroyed legal marriages just as reliably as they destroyed unmarried relationships.

The qualities and values that I have seen keep a relationship together are simpler than abstract beliefs about marriage and family. They are: the absence of addiction and abuse, radical honesty, nonviolence in word and action, substantial equality, responsibility, self-knowledge, and community support and discernment. These values are very simple. I wish they weren’t so rare.  ~~~

David R. Wolf is a lawyer, immigration activist, and clarinetist in Tucson, Arizona. He has litigated Arizona family law cases for three and a half years, most of that time at Southern Arizona Legal Aid. Before that, he briefly practiced both immigration law and criminal defense. He serves as recording clerk for Pima Monthly Meeting (IMYM).

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