Divorce Is Not Death


I saw one of my brink-of-divorce patients yesterday.  I have plenty of them. They tell me how horrible their men are but they seem mysteriously held to this person who is generally, by their descriptions, a devil on the way to hell so he can commiserate with his demonic colleagues. He devalues her in front of the children or cheats on her of has more drugs in the medicine cabinet than your average pharmacy except they are not the kind where insurance pays for the prescription. And they tell me for all the world about what sounds like an incurable lout who has declined, avoided, or failed every available treatment for a condition she is convinced he is somehow enjoying or profiting from.

I had a colleague, allegedly my preceptor, who would treat woman patients by writing on a small piece of paper the words “Divorce the bastard,” and simply, but ceremoniously, handing it to her. Me, that’s not my style.  I would tell her, “You need to know where you came from, who you are, and what you believe.  You need to know the situation you are in.  And you need to know what you want for the future.” My current patient’s  marriage counselor (she still showed up for sessions.  Her husband had stopped) told her to weigh the “pros and cons.”  Rational.  Great.

They call it cognitive behavioral therapy.  Look at reasons for feelings, the facts that are causes and the facts that are consequences, and decide rationally. The only problem is that most folks aren’t rational.  Most people make the great decisions of their life with visceral, gut feelings — emotional feelings — and figure out the reasons afterward. Using logical thoughts to make decisions is not exactly a new idea. I have always had a great affection for the “Benjamin Franklin Method,” which is about as old as our country itself. Old Ben recommended folding a piece of paper in half vertically, and then listing reasons in favor on one side and reasons against on the other and seeing which list is longer. The therapist got the patient thinking about how much time she would spend with her children if she remained married to the “demon” and how much time she could spend with them if she divorced them,  and told her she could spend more time if she remained married. My woman thought she did not want her children to spend any time with “Demon”  because she thought he was certifiably insane and would screw up her children completely. Me, I told her most folks make emotional decisions and then look for facts to support them. This is the reality of the human animal —  whether or not we like to believe it about ourselves.

I remember from my course in marital therapy, I told my conservative midwestern preceptor that I thought it seemed to be “kamikaze work” because most people seemed to know exactly what they wanted before they walked into the therapist’s office. She wanted out.  She wanted exclusive custody. She asked me if I thought her husband was insane.  Since he was not my patient, and for many serious ethical reasons, I told her (as I have told countless wives of allegedly insane husbands,  “I ain’t got a clue Honey.” Socrates was right.  The true essence of wisdom is knowing what you don’t know. It was clear that what she wanted was sole custody of her children.  I had not a clue if this were possible, but she should call the State Bar Association and get this piece of knowledge. She had to know where she came from and who she was.  She did not seem to have any ethical or religious or moral blocks to divorce.  If so my answer might have been different. She seemed to know what she wanted.  She had decided with her guts.  Now she needed some information.

It is hard enough to be a decent psychiatrist.  I have little or no knowledge — all second hand — about divorce law. I worked hard for that little scrap, learning all about how couples work before I married.  It wasn’t simple, but my current 26 successful years of wedded bliss made it worthwhile. People who don’t do advance research and study before tying the knot can and do make errors.  I’ve looked at the literature more than a few times.  A healthy divorce may breed better children than a really sick marriage.  Obviously there is no way I can affirm that is always true. Know where you have come from, where and who you are, and what you want. There ought to be no shame, no judgement, in fixing errors so that you can proceed with an improved life.

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