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If Divorce is No Fault, Why do they Fight?

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It takes two to tango, and it surely takes two to marry. But it takes only one to divorce. Few people know that it is rare for both parents to agree on whether to divorce. Only two couples of the hundreds that I have known over 25 years sat at the kitchen table and calmly admitted that the marriage was a mistake. "Thanks for the memory" is not in most scripts. Typically, in a marriage with children, one person wants out, and the other, realizing that there is no choice, goes along, often far more reluctantly than people know.

It's not surprising that the reluctant party to the divorce often feels very hurt. It can surely be among the most painful blows of life to be confronted with "I want a divorce" which you did not expect. People like to believe that both partners know when the marriage is in trouble. Not so. Time after time, one partner is content or still in love with the partner who wants out. The human heart plays many tricks. Even infidelity does not always mean that the marriage is unhappy, in a culture of business travel and lonely nights in strange hotels.

Beyond the hurt of the rejection and the humiliation, many people dread the loneliness, the reduced income, and the diminished opportunities for the children which they foresee, and the change. Any big change. I recall a long married husband who told me when his wife was planning a divorce: "If I lose her I would live in a world of silence." It is easy to underestimate the many emotional meanings of marriage and the far reaching impact of its loss.

The pain and sorrow of the unwanted divorce soon translates all too easily into battles over money, property, and custody. Hurt feelings and humiliation are often at the root of the angers that haunt the divorcing couple. Not always. Of course there can be many legitimate reasons. But the pain of the rejection often provides the fuel for court battles that judges dread, and for the custody battles that last seemingly forever and wipe out lifelong savings for both parents. But be advised the anger that judges deplore and so many disapprove, is emphatically not an aberration, but an expectable human response. Many of the most bitter litigations over children occur following divorce when one spouse did not really want custody of the children as much as he, or she, wanted the marriage to continue. And strange as it may seem, continuing to fight also continues the marriage. You can no longer fight about keeping the marriage. But you can fight forever, or as long as your money holds out, for custody of children.

But what makes anger last over years? Well, there is no more effective way for keeping away sadness and depression. " He was a selfish scoundrel," "she was a "controlling witch" work splendidly. The mantra is that he or she was not worth crying over or that, however unexpected, it was a blessing that he or she left. These may sometimes be true, in which case anger serves a double purpose. Anger may also be reinforced regularly by comparing the richer lifestyle, the greater luck, the happier marriage or whatever of the former partner. Or by any of the events of the post divorce years. Sometimes anger fades along with a new love or a welcome advance in career, or a serendipitous life change for the better. But you can't count on the years or happy new events to bring a different view. All of our experience says that won't happen. No fault divorce is a legal concept. But the human heart follows different laws. But you knew that.

For more guidance for divorced parents see:
Wallerstein, Judith and Blakeslee, Sandra. What About the Kids? Raising Your Children Before, During and After Divorce. 2003. Hyperion.

Wallerstein, Judith, Lewis, Julia, Blakeslee, Sandra . The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce. 2000. Hyperion.