Life’s not fair.
You probably first heard those words back in elementary school when a classmate’s misdeeds resulted in mass discipline or some slight against you went unpunished. If you’re anything like me, those words only served to salt the wound, as the brain kicked up reasons that this was different. That this time, the scales of justice must find balance.
As we grow, we read and watch stories that have an inherent fairness to them, the good guy usually gets the girl and the bad guy has to face the consequences of his actions. There is certainly suffering, but agony is tempered with some sort of retribution. We find comfort in that cause and effect. It seems right, somehow, that if you do good, you get good and if you propagate bad, it boomerangs as well.
As we grow, we also get better at weaving stories, tales told with ourselves as the good guy at the center. We use our inherent sense of fairness and the stories we learn from books and movies to craft these narratives. We strive to find greater purpose and balance, even if we have to build it from scratch. We have learned that the bad guy will be punished before the end. And so we seek that justice for the wrongs in our own lives before we are ready to turn the page on that chapter.
But those are just stories, narratives with black and white, good and bad. We’re not that simple and life is not that fair.
And sometimes fair doesn’t exist at all.
I think one of the reasons that divorce is so devastating is that it destroys our narrative of ourselves. We, the good guy in the story of course, get the girl. But then at some point, the girl wasn’t as expected and, in some cases, turns out to be the bad guy, pulling off the mask like a character in Scooby Doo. Our brains stutter to correct this wrong; they want justice for the perceived misdeeds, both to reestablish fair and the secure one’s own position in the good guy role.
So, we turn to the divorce courts with much the same intent as a child tattling on a classmate that threw a surreptitious blow.
But the divorce courts aren’t set up to punish individual misdeeds. They punish the entire class.
I, like many others, approached court looking for justice. I carefully spelled out his wrongdoings. I gathered evidence that secured my role as the good guy and painted him as the bad. I was hurt and anger and confused by his choices. They were painful. And I wanted him punished.
And the system was only too happy to play along.
Requests for information traveled back and forth through emails. Thick stacks of legal papers filled my mailbox, seemingly alternating with thinner, but more pointed envelopes containing bills for legal fees. Every step of the process felt like wading through chest-deep mud. The only lifeline keeping me from sinking was the vision of the court ordered consequences.
The system also used fear as a trap. In my case, it was fear for my financial future. I had understood that I needed this process and documentation to try to avoid some of his financial infidelities. In many other cases, the fear is tied to the children, the preferred pawn of the courts. The system uses children like dog racing uses a fake rabbit lure to entice the dogs to run. When you’re chasing something, you’re too focused to see the bigger picture.
We come to family court with our emotions raw, sick and sad with the loss of the marriage and the future we evisioned.
We come to family court angry that we have been wronged and wanting to lash out.
We come to family court confused at where we are, convinced that our life story has been misread.
We come to family court scared, clinging on to anything after experiencing the pain of losing everything.
We come to family court desperate, looking for something, anything, to make it okay.
We want it to be fair.
But that’s not what the courts are about.
My new husband asked me if I wish I had done my divorce differently. I thought back to the months filled with unanswered depositions, false and outlandish claims and sick days taken to talk to lawyers. I thought back to the three foot stack of files that had been paid for with over half my annual salary. I thought back to the day in court where, instead of taking the stand and being able to tell my side of the story, I sat alone in a hallway awaiting the decisions of the attorneys and the judge. I thought back to the decree, my relief when I saw justice in black and white and my despair when soon after, I learned that it wasn’t really enforceable.
My eventual response was that I didn’t know if I could have done it any differently. At least not at the time.
The thing about divorce court is that you only know how the game is played after the cards have been put away.
My now-husband probed further, asking what I got out of the divorce. That answer was easier. I got a divorce. The rest – the hours on the phone, the piles of paper, the carefully worded questions and allegations – were just noise.
I went into the divorce process looking for the system to establish fairness. I had convinced myself that I needed that judgement in order to heal and move on. I gave the courts the power to determine if I was going to be okay.
But the courts punish everybody involved.
My $30,000 divorce decree was ultimately only good for changing my name.
It was up to me to change my life.
I found a way to turn the pain and anger into something positive, using my story and my writing to help others through the desolate wastelands of the end of a marriage. I found justice, not by punishing his misdeeds, but by taking ownership of my own life and striving to do better. I worked to find acceptance and peace despite the perceived lack of consequences.
So I learned to reframe fair.
Divorce is not fair.
Looking for fairness within the system is a snipe hunt, with frustration and disappointment the only outcomes.
But justice can come from within.
You can balance the scales in your own life so that you can find peace.
You can choose to let go of what is causing you suffering.
You can find acceptance rather than struggle.
And no lawyers are needed.
Divorce Corp, a movie about the $50 billion a year divorce industry, is opening in select cities this weekend. The goal of the filmmakers is to expose and then reform the divorce process so that individuals and families can make the best decisions possible through a difficult time. Check here to see when it will be showing near you.
And then let your voice be heard.