Susan had a career as owner of a retail store. She didn’t have to work and started this out of her passion, but still she made money. She was a smart girl. John had a successful career as an executive in a large locally-based company.
They had two sons, in the third and fifth grades. John was on the private school board. Susan was as involved as any mother could be in school and sporting activities.
John decided he wasn’t happy. He came to see me to get out of the marriage. He didn’t blame Susan. He said, in fact, that she was a great person, a great mother, and did her best at all. He just wanted out. He confessed that the fault was his. He had been through an affair and, while that woman was not someone he would leave his wife for, the single, swinging life was. He simply did not want to be married. Where was the fun in that?
Money wasn’t an issue on either side. There were no disputes over custody (Susan was the clear choice here). They were going to be very “civil” about the whole thing, he said. They just needed guidance from their respective lawyers. Financial entanglements were complicated. They needed help in deciding those kind of issues.
Susan, of course, had her own attorney. He and I crafted a temporary agreement for visitation and child support, no problems. We set about the task of due diligence in determining the property matters.
Nearly eight months passed before we were ready to finalize things. During that time Susan had sent word twice that she would welcome marital counseling and any attempt to piece her family back together. My client declined. I was aware that visitation was going well, with him picking the children up from and returning them to school. He and Susan had little contact, seeing each other only in the midst of others, such as at school and sporting functions.
Actually, John was living it up. He quit his job—why work when you don’t have to? Besides, it interfered with taking the woman-of-the-moment out of town.
The day came when these two civilized folks needed to sit down with us lawyers to parcel up the pie. We had decided on some of the issues, such as the fact that the house needed to be sold. There were details to iron out. It was expedient to do it together.
John and I traveled in his plush Mercedes to her lawyer's office. Niiiice! During the ride we went over some of the issues we wanted, for example, the realtor John earnestly hoped would handle the sale of the house, we’ll call him “Jack Smith.” John was afraid Susan would want someone else, but John felt that Jack was particularly suited to this property. Client’s wishes were duly noted by me.
We were ushered into the conference room where the others awaited. It was the first time I had met her, and she greeted John and me politely, conservatively dressed for an important meeting. Her lawyer began:
“Susan and I have been talking about the house. We thought that the house might move quickly for a good price if we let someone like Jack Smith handle the listing.”
“That’s right, Susan!” He said, half rising from his chair, “Go ahead. Just try to control this show like you have tried to control every aspect of my life. You coming in here with all your preconceived ideas as to how this is going to go!! Well, you’ve got another thing coming—I’ve been controlled by you for the last time. If you think I’m going to agree to someone YOU pick for this job so that you can get something over on me, you’ve got another thing coming.”
You could have heard a pin drop. Really, I was almost speechless. I turned to him and said, “John, do you have a suggestion?”
“Mary Jones,” he said archly. “She handles high-end property all the time. I want her.” Whoever she was…first I knew anything about it.
Susan said that Ms. Jones would be just fine as a realtor.
And so it went. As we tackled each issue, my client was hateful and rude. He would spew venom each time he opened his mouth. Really, he was a handful, arguing over the lawn furniture and piddling items that I knew did not matter to him. He sprinkled the conversation with accusations: “Your cold selfishness ruined our marriage!”
At each misbehavior I would chide him, instructing him to watch his tone and at times even grabbing his arm for emphasis. He had moments of rage, with red face and half-rising from his chair. It was so very odd. From the beginning he had acknowledged that she was blameless; he was the one who had transgressed. What was happening?
She responded either with quiet civility or not at all. When he called her a b****h at one point he and I went to the room next door. I told him I could no longer conduct the meeting with him acting like that. He was to stay in this room, alone, with me moving back and forth between rooms, carrying suggestions.
And so it went for another hour or so. We did, finally, hammer out a settlement.
John and I rode silently down in the elevator. When we were finally in the total privacy of his car, I turned to him and said, “What in the H was that about?”
He turned to me, his eyes glistening on the verge of tears. “It’s the first time I’ve been that near to Susan since we split. I cannot stand the reminder she is of what I have done to my family.”
“Do you want me to offer counseling,” I offered. “You’re not divorced yet. There’s no hurry. It’s not too late.”
He sat up straighter, rejecting the suggestion out of hand, pulled himself up emotionally, and said with a much-changed tone: “You know, I’m sorry—I have tried to rise above all this, but you have no idea what life with Susan was like. I’m sorry that I could not get through this without letting my hurt over her selfishness come through. It’ll be fine; we’re almost there…”
He had gone back into the lie he had created for himself. Clearly he was living the playboy life he wanted to live, and he was going to pursue that, never mind the cost to his family, never mind the guilt. As we talked, it became clear to me that all he really required in this matter was to avoid Susan. If he could just avoid her, he could avoid really seeing things clearly. He intended to do just that.
John is an extreme example of something I see all the time. His example is so clear because all the other issues—the kids, the money—were not really issues. Because there was no muddle from those subjects, the subject of guilt was particularly vivid, but I see it all the time.
The guilt and need for justification causes untrue accusation and irrational anger.
So, your human relations tip for the day: Don’t ever believe a cheater’s story about his/her spouse. Guilt and need for justification will color everything they say. They will come up with the most outlandish accusations and reasons to blame the other person. The anger will look real because it is real.
But the trick is this: It is really anger at one’s own self, and inability to look into one’s own eyes in the mirror. The fabrications and unmerited anger are so that when one looks in the mirror one sees who one wants to see…not what is.
All of us do this to some degree. It just becomes magnified (as do a lot of things) when marriages break up.
I saw my client some years later. He was genial, as always, and still single. appeared to be happy as a lark. The boys were growing up, he said, doing well. He still saw them “often.” He was living the life he wanted on all counts. I didn’t ask about Susan, but he brought her up. She was doing well, too, he had heard…he didn’t see her much at all.