I tell my divorce clients that I cannot make them happy; I can only get them to a place in which they can pursue happiness. I actually feel somewhat proud to be an American every time I take someone who’s been unhappy in his or her marriage and free them from that burden. After all, what other country’s foundational document notes the unalienable right of “the pursuit of Happiness”?
Sometimes separating spouses–in my experience typically wives–prefer not to pursue happiness but to stew in anger, often self-righteous anger, when their marriage is ending. It is harder to resolve such cases as, sometimes, one literally needs to bribe the “aggrieved” party to stop fighting. I would note that stewing husbands, while rarer, tend to become stalkers or instigators of domestic violence when their rage turns outward and simply fall into depression or substance abuse when their rage turns inward.
I had such a situation recently. My client had left his wife of five years. He explained that he felt that they had fundamental differences too great to overcome, and that his wife judged these differences as terminal flaws in his character. The final impetus for ending his marriage was the resumption of a friendship with an old girlfriend. This friendship reminded him that his romantic companions should make him feel better about himself, rather than worse. His wife chose to view this relationship with another woman as “emotional adultery,” and she seethed with anger over his abandonment.
The parties had only been married five years. They had no children and each has the same professional degree and certification. While wife was probably entitled to some short-term alimony, resolving the case would either require a trial or appeasing the angry wife. Between the time the separate maintenance complaint was served on wife and the time we mediated the case, the wife sent my client numerous emails. While I would expect a wife in such a situation to express anger, hurt, bitterness and sorrow, these emails expressed unrepressed rage and vitriol. Any judge reading those emails could have immediately understood why my client wanted out of this relationship.
When we began mediation, I informed the mediator that this was a case of “Hell hath no fury” and that resolving it would simply be a matter of finding out how much money it would take to get the wife to stop fighting. Prior to mediation, my client and I had decided what a reasonable alimony amount would be. My client, independently, determined how much additional money he might be willing to pay to be freed of further entanglements immediately. We ended up resolving the case within my client’s budget.
I admired this client’s equipoise and his understanding of each party’s emotional needs. As even the mediator noted, it would be doubtful that his wife would do as well in court as she did in mediation. However, in settling the case for additional funds my client is freed of paying attorneys, freed of the mental and emotional drain of going through contested litigation for the next year or two, and freed of further entanglements with a furious wife. As soon as the judge signed-off on the agreement, I delivered wife a check and my client is now completely free to pursue his happiness. The additional sums he provided to gain this freedom (above what we perceived a reasonable alimony demand to be) was within his ability to pay without hardship. He considered it a bargain and he’s right.
As wife left the court, check from my client in hand, she continued to stew in her self-righteous fury. She too is now free to pursue happiness but I don’t believe she will. She’s so caught up in her anger she cannot enjoy her windfall. Were my client as reprehensible as she believed, she should be thrilled to be free of him and further thrilled that she gained extra money from him simply to reach a peaceful resolution. Nothing in her demeanor left me to believe she felt this way.
My client purchased his right to purse happiness at a cost he considers reasonable. In contrast, I suspect wife will be indulging her fury rather than pursuing her happiness long after the funds she received have been spent. While Hell may hath no fury like a woman scorned, folks forget that this fury is often counterproductive.