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Why we failed mediation

A house divided?

It’s fairly upsetting to be told you’re not quite ready for civilized divorce.  All tension aside, I really had thought that my husband and I would be just fine, provided a nice neutral professional nudged us in the general direction of a fair settlement.  We agreed on everything that was important.  We didn’t hate one another.  We loved the children.  Neither of us was out to screw the other over financially.  We were resigned to our eventual divorce.  Whatever blame and ugliness we harbored was strictly our own personal business–neither of us had any intention of poisoning our settlement with emotion.  Money could not compensate for what we had done to each other, and there was simply no question of using the children to make the other person suffer.  So what, exactly, was the problem?  Why did our mediation go down in flames the minute it launched?

Well, for one thing, the very model (two spouses, one room) of mediation made me miserable, as I said, right off the bat.  The moment we sat down I knew I couldn’t manage unless I somehow got a chance to talk to the mediator alone.  Some mediators will do this; ours probably would have met with each of us individually, provided we both approved.  But I didn’t want to talk to someone who was honor-bound to walk the line between us.  I wanted an ally, someone I could confide in, someone to give me advice.  I wanted to explain why my husband was so angry, why I was so uneasy, what I wanted more than anything, what I was terrified might happen.  And I didn’t want him sitting there, listening, while I laid out my secret hopes and even more secret fears for the divorce.

Months later, the mediator met me for coffee.  I was writing an article about divorce; she kindly agreed to an interview.  I asked her whether she remembered telling us, at the end of our session, that we weren’t right for mediation; why had she thought that?  She smiled.  “There were several red flags,” she said.  (This, by the way, is one hallmark of a good mediator:  if she does not think she can work with you, she will tell you.  Mediation is not for everyone.)  “You both used words like ‘angry’ to describe how you felt about your divorce.  You were unused to–and clearly uncomfortable with–talking about money.  The tension between the two of you was palpable.”

She stirred her coffee, took a sip.  “Or maybe it was just too soon,” she said softly.  “You had not been separated for very long.”

Problem was, it didn’t feel too soon.  It felt urgent–we were hemorrhaging money, we were divvying up our possessions in half-assed, resentment-making ways. (“How about I take this picture, eh?  I’ve always liked it.  Okay?  And I’m going to take that black table over there, while I’m at it. I need a bookcase, too.  And the bureau.  All right?”)  Our bills, which my husband had always coped with, were being paid late, or not at all.  My husband simply stopped paying more than the minimum balance on my credit card bill–we had always paid our credit cards off every month, something I am still rather obsessive about–though I didn’t discover this for months.

A commenter on my last post expressed shock that any enlightened female in this day and age would be as ignorant of her finances as I admitted I was.  Readers, what can I say?  First of all, let me avow that I am not exaggerating my idiocy for narrative purposes.  I was willfully, completely oblivious. I did indeed have no fucking clue.  Neither do I have any excuse.  I have a doctorate from a prestigious university.  I have a mother who went to law school with three kids (when she started, we were twelve, six, and two.) She worked full time and managed the family finances (even when she and my stepfather were together) and did not only her taxes, but the taxes of just about anyone who came within a thirty foot radius.  In other words, I should have (by all standards) been capable of opening a fucking bill once in a while.

As we were starting to figure out our divorce, it occurred to me with a horrible shock that I was more independent at fourteen, when I went off to boarding school and managed my own checking account, than I was at forty.  How does this sort of thing happen?  Well, gradually, and then suddenly, just like going broke.  This is not an excuse, but rather a description:  we met in college, moved in together right after graduation.  We spent two years in Europe without working papers, pooling our ill-gotten gains.  Then we went to graduate school, and shared a bank account.  Everything was shared, which (as it happens) was a better deal for me.  A grad student in the sciences pulls down a bigger fellowship than one in the humanities.  We got married.  We bought a house, with my mother-in-law as co-signer on the lease.  The whole thing was like voodoo to me, but a happy kind of voodoo–I nodded and signed and smiled and felt grateful as hell.

My husband likes going to the bank.  I hate it.  He set up a Quicken account and began to manage our banking on line.  This suited me just fine.  We never had any disagreement about how our money–our joint money–should be budgeted or spent.

And this is how, over the course of our marriage, I happily let my husband take over all the paperwork associated with the money and property we shared.  Why not?  I thought we’d be together forever.  I thought it was silly to stand on feminist principle.  If he didn’t mind dealing with the finances, and I actively hated dealing with them, why not give him the job?

In retrospect I am not sure what to make of this attitude.  On the one hand, insisting on separate finances (or even insisting on a more active role in our mutual finances–which I would have dreaded, and which would have been pure principle) seemed as absurd to me as those couples who insisted that the father wake up in the middle of the night while the mother nursed the baby.  Why have both parents suffer from lack of sleep?  Why have both people suffer from Doing The Taxes?

I knew couples who had separate checking accounts.  I felt that they insisted a bit too much.  I also knew couples who subscribed to the “I put him in the carseat; it’s your turn to get him out” school of tit-for-tat parenting.  It seemed so pointless to me.  I did not feel I was losing power or independence, though of course I was.  But if we had stayed together, as I assumed we would?  It would have been fine, just fine.  Or, you know, fine until he died or left me for another woman or something, at which point I would have done exactly what I did when we got divorced.  I would have rolled up my sleeves, called my brilliant mother, made an appointment with a financial planner, sat down with someone at the bank, and taken charge of my money and property.

A couple of weeks after I’d called the mediator to tell her we wouldn’t be coming back, my husband came home with a book on do-it-yourself divorce.  “I think we can figure this out on our own,” he said.  Dutifully, he started filling in the practice sheets that came with the book–a process that reminded me vividly of studying for the GRE, all those years ago.  I called my mother, a former Legal Aid lawyer who spent most of her career doing family law.  “Forget it,” she told me.  “With all due respect, you guys have no idea what you’re doing.  You need a lawyer.”  No, no, I told her, that would be bad for the children, we don’t want to go to court, we don’t want to fight.  She sighed. “Divorce doesn’t have to be adversarial,” she said.  “What you need is to find someone who practices collaborative law.”

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