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How Many Ways Can You Untie the Knot?

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UNTYING THE KNOT
Bravo via Getty Images

There's a new show on the Bravo Network -- all about divorce -- and I can't wait for the premiere. It's time for Bravo to offer something new and different. The entertainment circuits in my brain have shorted with overexposure to the Housewives franchise, and with the notable exception of fresh-mouthed Jeff Lewis the net's prime-time schedule is simply dull and duller.

Untying the Knot purports to take you through the marital uncoupling process as overseen by divorce lawyer/mediator Vikki Ziegler who provides out-of-court guidance to angry spouses seeking to divide up the family jewels, so to speak, and with the overarching wisdom of a Patti Stanger she presumably brings it all to a somewhat happy resolution (I'm assuming that issues like child custody -- rarely funny or entertaining -- are out of bounds).

It seems that the sane and sensible way of uncoupling -- so-called collaborative divorce and divorce mediation -- is all the rage, but I'm wondering if breaking the bonds of holy matrimony in a kinder gentler manner can really rivet the attention of a voyeuristic public fed on a diet of high-profile celebrity break-ups with spouses acrimoniously using the bar of justice to hammer away at one another. There's nothing quite like a down and dirty courtroom battle with a public airing of the dirtiest of dirty laundry; the accusations, double-dealing, revenge-seeking that plays itself out in these gladiatorial venues with competing parties led into battle by a bevy of high-priced and high-sounding attorneys -- many celebrities themselves -- all full of piss and vinegar as they publicly defend the honor of their respective clients.

I don't know, maybe Vikki Ziegler can capture the drama in a venue outside the courtroom, but it does fly in the face of divorce-as-entertainment which has a long history stretching back to early black-and-white television and the uber-popular Divorce Court. Hollywood weighed in with star-studded hits like Kramer vs Kramer and War of the Roses and similar fare which raises the question: Can Untying the Knot capture what viewers really expect from divorce? I'm talking about the outright meanness, the slinging of vitriol and the wielding of vengeance studded cudgels all meant to reduce your other half to a blubbering, vulnerable and incoherent mess ready to give it all up: bank accounts, material goods, kids, even the household pet.

I watched a lot of this drama unfold during my own uncoupling in 2000. The venue was the seventh floor of State Supreme Court in White Plains which was innocuously referred to as the "matrimonial part." The small waiting room and long corridor provided the backdrop for some real soul-bearing with legions of nattily-dressed attorneys shouting advice into cell phones for all to hear, or providing solace and encouragement for those red-eyed, red-faced, wailing clients about to enter the gladiator's "pit" otherwise known as the courtroom. Then there's the dueling briefs: Lawyers for both spouses hurling the he-said, she-said, replies and counters full of invective and innuendo. It was truly amazing to watch the creation of these documents and recall my lawyer, hearing that the judge was a passionate Trekkie, asking me to dig up some appropriate Star Trek quotes she could use to pepper up a reply brief (yes, true story).

In the annals of matrimonial law it should be noted that New York State was the last to admit that the divorce process could be reasonable and simple. Every other state in the union had adopted some version of "irreconcilable differences" as the basis for untying the knot. However, New York State, prior 2010, required that couples seeking a split needed one of four reasons or "faults." A divorce lawyer back in those days would sit you down and like the youngest child at a Passover Seder recite four questions, and they'd run something like this: Has your other half been 1) imprisoned 2) adulterous 3) cruel and inhumane or, my personal favorite, 4) guilty of something called "constructive abandonment" which translated into English meant not having conjugal relations for a year or more. Why it was called "constructive" rather than the opposite still eludes me.

It was all ridiculous and needlessly invasive forcing clients to bend the truth, but it did have its lighter moments as many a divorce lawyer can recount: pregnant clients who claimed constructive abandonment, celebrity playboys who denied charges of adultery and spouses who claimed being called "fat" or "unstylish" were grounds for cruel and inhumane treatment.

In October of 2010 New York State repealed the fault-finding process. According to long-time matrimonial attorney, Barbara Handschu, New York divorce courts finally landed in the 21st century.

So will untying the knot outside the courtroom -- avoiding a bloody mash-up before a judge -- become the divorce wave of the future? "Not necessarily," according to lawyer Craig Penn, "for people who are ready to compromise and genuinely respect each other, divorce mediation is a wonderful alternative." However he points out that's often not the norm, "parties to a divorce are often angry, and the last thing they want is to negotiate in good faith with their spouse."

Sufficed to say there will always be a need for divorce court, but that's not to say that efforts like Vikki Ziegler's and all those other purveyors of gentle uncoupling are simply wasting their efforts practicing the divorce equivalent of pissing in the wind.

A friend of mine, a wonderful litigator and matrimonial attorney by the name of Ruben Stepanian, pointed out that the Great Emancipator himself -- old Honest Abe Lincoln -- lawyer and president, had these prescient tidbits of legal wisdom to offer:

Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. Point out to them how the nominal winner is often a real loser -- in fees, expenses and waste of time. As a peacemaker the lawyer has a superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.

I'm certain that quite a few matrimonial lawyers will find much to admire in this musing with the notable exception of the closing sentiment.

Joel Sucher is a writer/filmmaker with Pacific Street Films. He's been a contributing blogger and writer for a variety of publications including American Banker, The Huffington Post and In These Times.