This is a fictional account of two marriages that explores how the behavior of families can affect the experience of divorce. Sheila and Carrie have been friends since grade school. Many of the events in each of their lives were similar. Their families and those of their spouses responded in remarkably different ways when they separated.
Carrie married Rob the same year that she qualified as a nurse and he was interning, just 12 years ago. During their first happy years, they saw little of each other as both worked shifts, paid off student loans, and accumulated savings. Carrie stopped working when their first child, James, was born in 1999. They bought their starter home that year and then their dream home when their second child, Lila, arrived in 2000. Both Rob and Carrie felt that having a stay-at-home mother was how they wanted to raise their children. These days, Carrie feels like she is still working full-time: she runs the house, manages their savings, books their holidays, and drives the kids everywhere.
Out of the blue, three months ago, Rob told Carrie that he wanted a divorce. He moved out the following week but has continued to pay all of Carrie’s expenses.
Sheila had earned her Arts degree and then her Master’s of Business Administration when she met Tony, who was completing his Master’s in Electrical Engineering. It was love at first sight, and they married only four months after they met. Tony worked briefly for a firm after he graduated, and then he and Sheila started their own communications company. They incorporated, and each owns the same number of shares. The company is a huge success, and they could buy their dream home in 1999, a month before their first child, Luke, was born. Sheila returned to work after her maternity leave but was unhappy with their nanny. With the arrival of their second child, Nan, in 2001, Sheila and Tony decided that the best thing for their family would be for Tony to stay at home and for Sheila to run their company. They continue to split income from the company and Tony is on the Board of Directors. Sheila sees Carrie occasionally when she chauffeurs Nan and Luke to weekend soccer games.
Sheila decided that her marriage was over just days after Rob left Carrie. Sheila is still in the family home — in the guest room.
Carrie’s family has gathered around her. Her father got her the best family-law trial lawyer in town — he even paid the hefty retainer. Her mother declared that Rob is not welcome in her home — ever! Unfortunately, Lila overhead her Grandma telling Aunt Liz what a selfish creep Rob was. Lila cried. Carrie’s brothers offered to beat the p— out of Rob. Her sisters have found new family doctors; how can they possibly continue to expose their children to such a low life? Her sister Susie’s loyalty is unsurpassed. Last Friday, they polished off a couple bottles of wine while Susie let Carrie vent all her hurt and anger about Rob. The children were safely in their bedrooms down the hall, and Carrie hoped that they were asleep and not listening. During Tuesday’s meeting with her divorce lawyer, they discussed mediation. Carrie thought that it might be okay to work things out at mediation, especially a parenting plan, but her father forbids it. So Carrie is a little confused this week. Her shock and anger have subsided, and she would like to get on with her life. She’s concerned, though: will her family abandon her too if she reaches a consensual agreement with Rob? What will they do if she lets Lila and James spend as much time with Rob as they are asking to spend? Meanwhile, Rob’s parents think the world of Carrie and have refused to talk to him since he told them about his decision to divorce. Thank goodness for his sister, Sabrina. She asked him why and then simply listened. It turns out Rob is not exactly sure himself; he just knows that he and Carrie are no longer in love, nor do they share the same dreams.
Tony’s family has been really supportive. When they heard the news, they all came over for a family dinner. As Sheila was living in the house too, she was invited to eat with them. Then Tony’s mother, Grace, asked to go for a walk with Sheila. Grace told Sheila that she was sad. As Nan and Luke’s Grandma, her big concern was that they continue to be happy and secure. So, she and their Grandpa were going to do everything in their power to help their grandchildren continue to love both their parents. She explained to Sheila that she would be welcome in her home again — just not right away, as she was dealing with her own emotions and wanted to make sure that Tony was okay. Sheila was very moved and appreciated Grace’s frankness. Also, Sheila’s brother, Reese, has been great. Reese did some research and found information about the collaborative-law process that he e-mailed to both Sheila and Tony. When Sheila met with one of the collaborative lawyers, Reese came along. He took notes of all the answers. After the meeting, Sheila was very glad that Reese had been there; she felt so awful about seeing a divorce lawyer, she could barely remember what happened. Reese’s notes and his memory helped. Tony thinks that it would be okay to work things out consensually with Sheila — but not this week. He’s feeling pretty angry.
Carrie and Sheila met at the local coffee shop yesterday. Sheila explained that when she heard about Rob and Carrie splitting up, she took a close look at her own marriage and realized it wasn’t working out. Sheila thinks that she and Tony will probably use the collaborative-law process to make all the decisions that they will need to make. After listening to Sheila, Carrie decides that if Rob is willing to mediate, so is she. She believes that her father will get over his anger at Rob with time.
Every story has a moral. In this case, you get to decide what the lesson is. What did Carrie’s family do for her divorce? And Sheila’s? What about Rob and Tony’s families? Are you concerned for Lila and James or for Luke and Nan? As you can see, there are lots of ways for families to behave when a family member is divorcing. Some behaviors can be very helpful. Other behaviors tend to superimpose that person’s values and feelings onto the divorcing couple.
Deborah Lynn Zutter, B.A., LL.B., LL.M. is a certified comprehensive lawyer/mediator in Vancouver, BC with Family Mediation Canada. She brings over 25 years of experience to her mediation and collaborative-law clients. Deb is active in the conflict resolution community as a speaker, trainer, and author and has served community in various roles. She is the Past Chair of the National ADR Section of the Canadian Bar Association, the ADR Task Force of the Law Society of British Columbia, and the Mediation Development Association of British Columbia. Her book, Preparing for Mediation: A Dispute Resolution Guide, is in its 2nd edition