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'How Can I Get Even With This Man (or Woman) Who Has Just Ruined My Life?'

A Letter to:

Those Who Want to Know What to Expect When They are Expecting a Divorce…

I do not oppose marriage; I believe that most people prosper as part of a couple. But neither do I oppose divorce; there is no reason to put up with a dangerously abusive, or even a “dead,” marriage.

However, while “love and marriage (may) go together like a horse and carriage,” marriage also seems to breed bitterness, even hatred, and finally divorce. For the last decade in America, marriages have ended in divorce approximately 50% of the time.

Some women cheat on their spouses with their tennis instructor, next door neighbor, or with their husband’s best friend; others fall in love with wealthier men (or women). Even if such women have stood by their men in lean times, given them children, and reared them lovingly, think how a husband must feel when the very woman who abandoned and shamed him now demands generous spousal and child support — or refuses to share their joint assets with him.

A lawyer I recently interviewed told me about a case wherein her male client gave up tenure in order to take care of the children and handle the family’s real estate. His wife’s earning potential was much more than his and as she climbed the corporate ladder she became involved with another man. She wanted out of the marriage. The lawyer continued:

My client wants to continue as the primary custodial parent, and he wants his share of the marital assets. He wants both child and spousal support. Even though this mother was the one who left the marriage and was not the primary caretaker, she is now fighting hard to obtain sole custody so that she will not have to pay spousal or child support.

But think how Maria Shriver must feel about her divorce from actor-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who publicly humiliated her by having a “love child” with their housekeeper of many years, a son whom he is now trying to get to know. Think how Ginny Cha, Tiki Barber’s wife, must feel. After she bore the New York Giants super hero four children, he very publicly left her when she was eight months pregnant with their twin girls and in the hospital. Tiki left Ginny for Traci Lynn Johnson, his very young, very blonde, intern, which led to NBC firing him (he was a sports correspondent and he had a “morals” clause). In turn, this has now led to a “bitter divorce” which Tiki says he can no longer afford. Although he is living with his mistress, their elaborate marriage plans are now on hold.

Tiki and Ginny are warring over money in Manhattan Supreme Court and until they settle the matter he can neither get divorced nor remarry.

As the author of several books and many articles on divorce and custody, including the updated and revised 25th anniversary edition of Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody, I’m often asked: “What can I do to win my divorce? How can I get even with this man (or woman) who has just ruined my life?”

Too late, I want to say. The only sure-fire way of “winning” your divorce is to 0) avoid getting married in the first place. In other words, there is no way of doing so.

First: Do you need a prenup?

But,if you’ve decided that this is your one-and-only-till-death-do-you part, then for God’s sake, first 1) draw up a prenuptial agreement. Wealthy men who have been previously married usually insist that their third wives-to-be sign a prenup so that their assets are protected; they may have adult children from previous marriages. Often, these second or third wives are marrying for the first time and want to prove that they love this man, not his money, and that they “trust” that their love and marriage will last.

One experienced matrimonial lawyer recently observed that, in his experience, wealthy women are more generous in their prenups than their male counterparts are.

He also said that while he’d met many a female gold digger (and married one or two himself), most “women can’t be saved from themselves. They naively accept prenups that limit them, and soon find themselves divorced and out on the streets ten stories below their former lifestyles.”

If you have decided to get a divorce — or if your spouse has said they intend to do so — stop. Before you do anything else, 2) identify all your family finances, all the assets from your life insurance to your homeowners policy. Look at the riders. Make sure you know what is in every checking and saving account, your investment portfolio, safe deposit box, and pension investments. Your kitchen piggy bank. The jewelry. Art work. Real estate. Study your tax returns. Usually, men are on top of this. Women, even those with advanced degrees, or careers in finance, sign what their husband/protector tells them to sign. Make sure you know what credit cards you have, what’s owed, what your credit line is, and whether payments are up to date. Understand what your health insurance coverage is.

Another lawyer told me this story:

I have a woman right now who is a Wharton MBA graduate. She trusted her husband to manage the family expenses. She never looked at a credit card statement, a bank statement, or their joint tax returns. She was shocked to learn that her husband was a gambler and the family was living on credit cards. When she hired me, their co-op apartment was in foreclosure and the IRS had liens on their accounts. She is going to pay a heavy price for being so naïve.

Finally: How do I get the right lawyer?

Most important, 3) you have to hire the right lawyer. There is no justice, and certainly no “win” possible in a divorce (or in any other matter) if you cannot afford the best gladiator. Avoid friends or especially relatives who do not specialize in divorce. They may mean well but they may also ruin your case. Interview at least five of the best lawyers — even if you do not intend to hire any of them. Once they have seen you, they are prohibited from taking your spouse’s case. But you must really interview the lawyer you choose. He or she is your employee. Remember: Your lawyer is not your therapist. Don’t waste time telling them your problems. They bill for their time. Focus only on your case. Your lawyer’s office is not a confessional booth. The more work you can do on your own, as guided by your lawyer, the less it will cost you.

But you must understand: You have to pay to play. While getting a divorce is not exactly like trying to win the lottery, there is still no guarantee that you will get what you deserve or even what the law will allow. But there is one more thing you must do in order to “win.”

4) You must understand the law and the legal process before you even walk into a lawyer’s office. You want to know the laws of your state. Become familiar with what’s routinely done so that you do not request the impossible. Do not waste your lawyer’s time with trying to get what you may deserve but which the law does not provide. Understand that there is nothing instant about the legal system. Resolutions take many years. And, while the justice will be imperfect, this does not necessarily mean that the judges or lawyers are incompetent or corrupt. It means that the system is understaffed, overworked, and underfunded. Of course, judges, lawyers, and court mental health professionals all have biases. A lawyer who knows what they are will know how to present your case in a way that “plays” to their biases and does not set off any alarm bells.

Finally, 5) pray you get the right judge.

Sometimes, staying married is easier than getting a divorce. Some people draw that conclusion and remain together, not necessarily for the sake of the children, or for religious reasons, but in order to avoid the enormous pain, cost, and disruption that a divorce causes.

But, when divorce is necessary, consider these five essential steps.

Good Luck,

Mama Hawk


Check out some of Phyllis Chesler’s previous PJ Mama Hawk articles:

A True World War II Spy Adventure on this Veterans Day

My Meeting with The Girl With Three Legs