September 2nd, 2010

law geek

Fighting for marriage

I read an interesting article today that I totally disagree with, but I find to be an interesting perspective. It's in the The Daily Beast, and it's about the no-fault divorce law in New York. Until very recently, the law did not exist. I have a lot of friends that had to jump through a lot of hoops to get out of their marriages in New York, often using the courts of other states or countries to get divorces, because New York's law was such a pain in the ass. Friends had to lie in divorce papers in order to establish "fault" or they had to wait years and years before a separation agreement to kick in. Children were adversely affected, as were blossoming relationships. When the law changed earlier this year, I felt good for the people in New York that their archane law was finally changed. The author of this article, though, took comfort in it.

For years, I fought in court to stop him from ending our marriage. Now that NY has become the 50th state to enact no-fault divorce, women no longer have that option.

My husband and I came from humble beginnings. We met in Manhattan in 1981 in the legal department of the company where we both worked. Having made it to New York from Southern Maryland, the last thing on my mind was marriage. But lo and behold, nine months later, we tied the knot. “Rest the security of your wedded life upon the great principle of self-sacrifice,” my grandfather, the minister who married us, said–words I would never forget.

Not even twenty years later when my husband wrongfully sued me for divorce.

Over the years, our marriage saw more than its fair share of troubles. But we weathered the storms, and experienced miracles, too. In 1990, I gave birth to our first daughter. Five years later, healthy baby number two came along. My husband and I fell head-over-heels in love–with them. As his career began to blossom, I became a stay-at-home mom.

What my husband didn't realize was, we weren't getting a divorce. Not if I could help it.

Then one day, my husband began having an affair with a twice-divorced lawyer at his new job. A few months later, he left home for good, vowing to get remarried as soon as he got divorced from me. What he didn't realize was, we weren't getting a divorce. Not if I could help it.
. . .

One night when I was up reluctantly working on the divorce papers, my eldest daughter appeared by my side. “I don’t want you to get a divorce,” she said. I didn’t either. Yet until this moment, it hadn't occurred to me that I had the power to stop this from happening. I realized perhaps the break-up of my marriage wasn't inevitable and that by standing up, maybe I could also help others.

While the law gave me the right to try to save my marriage, however, the deck was stacked against me. If parties didn’t agree on a divorce in New York, the only way to exit a marriage was to prove the other spouse committed an actionable wrong like cruelty, sexual abandonment, or adultery. But spouses wrongfully accused rarely exercised their right to fight. “Divorce is about money,” Saul said. No one cared about right and wrong.
. . .

On my first day in divorce court the judge peered at me over her spectacles and strongly recommended I stop being so stubborn. She gave me her “Exercise Your Rights, But It’ll Cost You” speech, and made it clear that she'd prefer the case vanish from her docket. "Doesn’t your husband have the right to move on with his life?" another judge wanted to know. My husband had broken his vows; the system simply assumed I wanted off the hook, too.

After a lengthy trial, the judge dismissed all of my husband’s charges. But he was still determined. He moved across the Hudson River to New Jersey to establish residency. Within a year’s time of living there, he would be allowed to sue me again under that state’s no-fault law. Without the funds to keep fighting what was now the inevitable, I gave in. A year later, we had a second trial on financials, and our property was divided. When our divorce became final, my husband and I had been married for over a quarter of a century.
. . .

Some say no-fault divorce would have been to my benefit. My legal bills might be less. But no-fault divorce takes away a woman's bargaining chips when her husband decides he wants to ditch her. No-fault assumes that removing choice from the equation will lead to less acrimony, but that’s too simplistic. It assumes the only reason parties would ever hold up a divorce is to angle for money. It tosses aside the notion that one might want to stay married because of one’s pledge, or for the sake of the children.
I can't really imagine holding on to a marriage that the other party doesn't want to be part of. I suppose I've lived in a world where choices about marriage are left to the partners in the marriage, at the beginning and at the end. The "forever" aspect, I suppose, is optional.

I'm not married, but I probably will become so sooner rather than later. And while I'm hopelessly in love with Graham, I want the choice, the decision to be married to be a continual one, not simply an obligation to a vow made in the past. I'm pretty sure that we'll both choose to be together for the long haul, but if we don't, the state shouldn't stand in the way of our decision. Even if one of us isn't happy with the other's decision.

No-fault divorce is, I think, beneficial to both parties. Women don't have to go through the agony of reliving or proving abuse. Cuckolded men do not have to prove their spouse's infedility in court. Both parties can go on with their lives realatively painlessly without having to hurt each other more than absolutely necessary in the process.

Perhaps this is the "destruction of traditional marriage" that the religious right so ominously warns about when they doom and gloom about gay marriage, but that horse is off in secular pasturesw and the barn door is pretty much off the hinges now.

Lifelong vows, rest-of-eternity, perhaps those notions too, should be relegated to the religious side of the marriage dichotomy that we find in this country.

Does the author's clinging on to a dead marriage so tightly for five years make sense to anyone else?