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Terri Weiss Headshot

When It's War

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Punishing court orders pelt you until you can hardly see straight. The motions keep coming; you're in court all the time. Child Protective Services is pounding down your door and your in-laws are pressing charges. You're broke; you're incarcerated; you're terrified.

Sound like a nightmare? For many, it's reality.

It isn't limited to gender, race, age, or economic status. And when it hits your home, and your family, you must have inner fortitude, and external resources, to stay on your feet. Without both, chances are you'll be putty, or worse, by the time it's over.

I'm addressing you. Yes, you. The one who hasn't stolen or concealed any assets. The one who's never threatened or abused anyone. (Cases of violence and abuse fall outside the scope of this post.) You might have had an affair or two -- no, not in front of your kids, not like that excuses infidelity. You might not make as much money as you should, but you haven't deliberately suppressed your income or tried to fail at life. You've bellyached about the bills, but you've paid them, although they may have been a day or two late while your paycheck cleared. You always made the kids available to the other parent who never made any time for them, until it became pointless to try anymore. In short, you're not entirely blameless for the relationship's demise. No one ever is.

Even so, although you might not love your spouse or partner anymore, you don't hate his/her guts. If you had your way, the old Soviet concept of peaceful coexistence might be your creed.

But you don't have that option.

Because your husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend or ex hates your guts, down to the very fiber of his/her being.

There's a remote chance of disarmament that could avoid mutual assured destruction. (Interesting how old-school international relations jargon is so applicable here.) Make the effort at rapprochement, even if s/he appears unwilling. Try to recognize what pushes buttons, including yours, and avert avoidable problems. If relatively civil discourse is still possible, talk to him/her -- without lots of extra bodies around to muck it up, because that's exactly what will happen if you don't grab the opportunity. In fact, don't ever shut down the communications pipeline, or at least the possibility of it, no matter how implausible it may seem at any given moment.

Okay, fast forward to tomorrow. You tried your best to keep the peace, and it didn't work. Marriage counseling proved hopeless or counter-productive. Home has become a combat zone, where you're ducking grenades lobbed at you from every corner. Then it gets worse. Your spouse/partner/ex calls in heavy artillery: The cops, CPS, in-laws...

Trust your eyes and ears; trust your gut. Recognize what's happening. And then brace yourself, for heaven's sake. Prepare before the proverbial fan spatters your space with unspeakable slime from the court system. Remember what I said at the outset: Inner fortitude, external resources?

Let's start with external resources. This isn't the time to be a martyr or pretend you're self-sufficient. Delusions are a luxury you can't afford -- you need all the help you can get. You've got to locate and accept that help, in the face of the impending onslaught. And no, no, of course drugs and alcohol don't count.

There have been plenty of discussions about therapists. I've seen rotten ones who stir the pot, and decent ones who really do help people cope. Either way, mental health professionals aren't the only resource. Many in crisis search for guidance from clergy, too -- even non-believers. And sometimes the best, or only, available shoulders are those of friends and family (but those communications aren't privileged, so your well-intentioned BFF or your favorite cousin could tell your ex everything without legal repercussions). In any event, a solid emotional support system is imperative.

Along with legal support. With your personal DEFCON level moving from yellow to red, i.e., increasing in intensity, you have no choice but to consult a matrimonial lawyer. What is said during the consult will be a privileged communication (even if you don't hire that particular lawyer). You must tell the lawyer all the facts. Leave nothing out; assume nothing.

Sure, matrimonial lawyers have seen it all, but that doesn't mean we can sense what's going on in your case. The Think Method in The Music Man was a total scam. Experienced practitioners may suspect how nasty your case could get, based on the identity and reputation of opposing counsel. But if there's no lawyer on the other side yet, or opposing counsel is either unknown or schizoid (I'm not being overly facetious here), there's no way for your lawyer to predict very much -- especially when you don't disclose everything you know.

What if you don't tell the truth about the facts in your case, like what caused your spouse's/partner's/ex's anger to fester and boil, because you're afraid the lawyer won't take your case? And what if you don't disclose the name of the other lawyer, for the same reason?

Not a smart move.

When your lawyer finds out afterward that you've been concealing vital underlying facts, chances are that s/he will dump out of the representation. You'll be lawyerless again. Try finding a new lawyer, when the old one explains to potential counsel that you, the client, were "fired" for lying. Or when potential counsel reviews the court order that granted leave for your old lawyer to withdraw from the case due to the "irretrievable breakdown of the attorney-client relationship." Any fool can figure out what that really means.

Assuming your lawyer has stayed on the case despite your non-disclosures, you'll face this equally nightmarish scenario: Mounting, astronomical bills that you can't afford and could never pay, unless you win the lottery. Wars are expensive -- just look at our national debt after near-simultaneous triple engagements in the Middle East. So you'll add suffocating debt to your personal misery, and your lawyer will not want another uncollectable receivable. Then, as the barrage nears thermonuclear proportions and you can't pay your legal fees, guess who's looking at a motion to withdraw? That's right. You again.

Honesty will dramatically improve the odds of hiring a lawyer you can afford, and who will stick by you as your case spirals.

What if you didn't expect a war? Look into your heart. Look at the relationship between you and your spouse/partner/ex. Really, was war so unexpected? If you'd confided in your therapist, priest, rabbi, sibling -- or lawyer -- sooner, you might have gotten a reality check and a head's up. And you might not have gotten in over your head.

But that was then and this is now. You sincerely believe you gave your lawyer all the information, and that you provided ample warning that yours was the case from hell. Alternatively, you never thought your spouse/partner/ex would take the dispute so far. Regardless, you're in a hot zone, right here, right now. And you're screwed, because you are where this post put you in its opening paragraph: broke, in jail, and scared witless.

Which means you need money. (Yes, I'm still talking about external resources.) Money solves all three problems: It pays the bills, it bails you out, and it buys some peace of mind.

I can't speak to the other professionals, but regarding your lawyer, you need to find some source of funding. Depending on your case, the money might come from court-ordered funds of your spouse/partner/ex; it might come from a financial institution in the form of a loan; it might come in the form of periodic payments from a third party or from you. You might qualify for legal assistance or even pro bono representation in your jurisdiction. Note, however, that the law flatly prohibits contingency fee-based divorces.

If no money is forthcoming for legal fees, a court may direct your lawyer to stay on your case anyway. Or you may be forced to hire a cheaper one, or proceed without counsel altogether (pro se is the legal term for going it alone). Divorce insurance, union-covered divorce lawyers -- those might be options for some people. But for you, the unlucky soul who doesn't qualify for any financial assistance, because you make too much and too little? All I know is, there's no escaping the reality that lawyers need to be paid, like roofers and plumbers and vets. Although we didn't hook you up with your spouse or partner in the first place, you can call us a necessary evil. Or unnecessary, if you prefer.

With or without counsel, you still need another person in your corner. That emotional support system I referred to earlier is vital when your case is banging a stake through your heart. Without friends, family, a therapist, clergyperson, and/or a lawyer, you will have a near-impossible cliff to scale.

You absolutely, positively cannot be alone.

This brings me to the heart of this post: Most of all, you need you. Without the will to survive, you'll fall off the precipice. Tighten your resolve because the time has come -- the time is now -- to call on every internal resource you have. The war won't have any winners, but it will have survivors. You must be among them.

Many believe that inner fortitude comes from religious faith. Others believe it comes from personal qualities, either innate or developed over time. Some say it derives from love of family, of self, of life... Perhaps it's simply a combination of obstinacy, anger, and instinct, after you've been repeatedly mauled.

I don't care where it comes from; I only care that it exists. And that you have it. So that you can truly tell yourself, No, I won't give up; I will get through this. No matter how terrible things get, you must have complete conviction that the war will end someday -- hopefully sooner rather than later, and that your life will be happy again.

It will, too.

I'm not a motivational speaker; I'm no coach. I'm just a lawyer and a writer. Nonetheless, I firmly believe in the power of self, and the drive to endure in the face of almost insurmountable odds. 'No' is not a viable option, not for any human being who is facing one of the worst crises in his/her life.

Maybe you didn't need a matrimonial lawyer to tell you all this. On the other hand, maybe you didn't realize that we get it. Sometimes, you find compassion in unexpected places. And if you don't, well, take a deep breath, hold your head higher, and wait for morning.