Is There a Smart Way to Divorce?

Dr. Elisheva Zohar Reich, a family and couples therapist, has a few tips for those considering to embark on the long and complicated process of breaking up a marriage.

Ayelett Shani
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Ayelett Shani

Can you give me a general picture of divorce in Israel in 2013?

Divorce has become a normative social phenomenon, and the main trend I see today is that the divorce rate among young people is skyrocketing.

Why is that, do you think?

It’s a restless generation. Surrounded by distractions and temptations. In Israel, with all the wars and instability and the high cost of living and the pursuit of material things − people don’t find peace of mind. Their relationships are characterized by tension and impatience.

From your experience, would you say that 20 years ago the problems in marriages were different?

Yes. The country adds a lot to the tension between couples − what’s happening in terms of security and the economy, the rifts in society. The divorce rate is rising in religious society too. It’s a generation of uncertainty, of stress and economic hardship. This has a huge effect on the peace of mind and feeling of security in a marriage.

How does the economic situation affect the divorce process specifically?

Things are out of whack. It’s hard to purchase an apartment today. People who were renting now have to rent another apartment. If they had an apartment and they had to sell it − the money goes to pay rent. All the family’s financial resources, if they’re not very wealthy, go to housing. It’s very clear nowadays that the struggle over the financial aspect is getting worse. There are battles going on in the courts that drag out for years, to the children’s detriment. The economic situation is also making people less easygoing. It causes deep anxiety, tremendous stress. It’s no wonder the divorce rate is rising.

Doesn’t it have the opposite effect, too? Couples who just can’t afford to get divorced?

Definitely. We’re seeing a lot of cases of domestic violence, where the woman stays in a relationship that’s very unhealthy simply because she has no alternative. She doesn’t know where she would live or how she would be able to support her children.

So what can be done?

Long before marriage, people should start to work on what it’s going to mean to be a couple. They need to talk about equality, about expectations, about goals. They need to understand that romantic love doesn’t always last. They need to know how to solve conflicts, how to deal with anger, how to handle parenthood. To understand what marriage really means in this day and age, and not to live in some sort of fantasy world. Not to come for therapy only when the crisis is at its worst, but the moment there is dissatisfaction or an inability to talk openly. I see couples that have been in a relationship for several years, then they have a big fancy wedding and six months later the whole thing blows up. There’s this myth about romantic love that people get caught up in, but there’s no education with respect to married life. When I ask couples, “Do you go out? Do you spend time together?” − they tell me that they don’t do these things. They don’t invest in the relationship itself.

Is parenthood usually the breaking point?

Looking at it from a multi-generational perspective, I’d say that childrearing actually has a unifying effect for the most part. When the kids are small and helpless, that brings a couple together. But when the kids grow up and become independent, that’s when the rift in the marriage becomes apparent.

Do you think that our tendency to make the child the center of the universe is undermining marriage?

I see that the young generation of parents has a very hard time setting boundaries for their children. They are at their kids’ beck and call, so they have no time for themselves and no time to nurture their relationship. It’s bad for them and it’s bad for the children whom they’re raising in such an overprotective manner.

What sorts of conflicts are impossible to mediate? When do you raise your hands in surrender?

When there are unbridgeable gaps in development. Or when the marriage is “brain dead”: when the husband or wife has been letting anger and dissatisfaction build up for years and years, and never brought up the issues that were bothering them in real time, never made an effort to address them, so that by now the marriage is dead. And there are also those people who’ve basically already left the marriage and are having affairs.

Have you ever sat there with a couple and told them: “Get divorced”?

There have been a few times. One time it was a religious couple. The husband was gay, he wouldn’t touch his wife and she didn’t understand why. He didn’t want to tell her. Another couple came in for therapy and when I met with the husband, alone, he told me right away that he had a child from another woman and that his wife didn’t know, and he insisted that I not tell her. I tried to get him to tell her, but he wouldn’t. She said to me: “I’m not sure, I’m thinking of hiring a private investigator.” And I told her, “Go ahead.”

People really use private investigators? That still happens?

If combative lawyers are involved, then there are private investigators. They do wiretapping and video recording, they try to uncover hidden affairs or concealed assets.

I look at the websites of some divorce lawyers and I was shocked by the advice I saw there, just as much as by the terminology: empty the bank account; catch him unprepared, etc. Lawyers are just fueling the fire.

That’s true, they do fuel the fire. That’s another reason we’d like to see collaborative divorce catch on in Israel, but this field is still in its infancy.

What is “collaborative divorce”?

Settling divorce conflicts peacefully and with cooperation, without going to the courts, but using a professional team of lawyers, family consultants who are certified family therapists, and mediators. Each member of the couple has his own lawyer and his own therapist.

And if this isn’t possible?

Then I suggest that divorcing couples settle their conflicts with the aid of a mediator and a single lawyer. If they don’t succeed, they should each take their own lawyer, and ask the lawyers to work together. As soon as you start with lawsuits and false accusations and involving the police, it becomes a real war.
What’s the biggest mistake that a couple that decides to get divorced can make?
If they don’t have children, the biggest mistake is to start fighting over the finances and not give a get ‏(Jewish bill of divorce‏). Elsewhere in the world, you separate for 18 months and then obtain the divorce. There’s a certain criterion. Here, with the way religion is involved, it’s impossible − the granting of the get becomes an opportunity for blackmail and threats. Another terrible thing is the use of the Internet, when the husband or wife tries to get revenge on the partner by writing about them online and saying all kinds of awful things about them.

There’s no human kindness, no compassion, no mutual respect. When I got divorced, I did it with dignity. With a single lawyer. I gave up a lot, financially, so my children would be okay. People said, “It’s like the shoemaker’s kid going barefoot. Why don’t you sue?” And I said that I wanted my kids to have peace.

How should a couple with children handle things?

They mustn’t use the children. That’s just awful. I see cases where a couple purposely involves the children in the details of the divorce. A mother threatens the father, “I’ll go to court and then you’ll see,” or a father leaves the record of the proceedings open on the computer, and the child reads it and decides that his mother is stealing from his father, because some judge said so. People need to remember that children know and hear everything. Even when they wait until after the kids go to bed to have their fights. I see some children who’ve been profoundly hurt by their parents’ divorce.

Would you say there’s been a cheapening of relationships? Of marriage?

Sometimes, one member of a couple will say to me, “I wanted to go to therapy but he ‏(or she‏) wouldn’t agree.” But did you seek therapy on your own? No. Did you make the continuation of the marriage conditional upon going to therapy? No again. I don’t understand this. People are ready to fight the cellular company over their phone bill, but when it comes to the most essential thing of all, they don’t put up a fight. They say − oh well, it came apart, there’ll be something else. They don’t understand what a family is. What a “Chapter 2” really is. What it does to the children. I got divorced after 20 years. I’m in my second marriage, and I’m genuinely happy, but I did whatever I could to make my previous marriage succeed. Ultimately, I saw that it just wasn’t possible. That I was really a dead woman.

How do you explain the recent case in which a father murdered his children?

It’s hard to understand. The natural instinct is to take care of children, to put them before yourself in a time of turmoil and crisis. This was an act of revenge against a wife, at the children’s expense. A blurring of boundaries, blind hatred and the use of terror and intimidation. These conflicts thrust a person into a dynamic in which he’s so caught up in wanting to be the strongest one that he doesn’t see straight. The basic need is to protect the children, and if you, as a parent, feel like you’re losing it, you need to get help.

Is it also because the system is failing?

Hard to say. In legal reports or when a complaint is filed with the police and a restraining order is requested, a threat assessment is needed. I’ve always been opposed to this thing of the threat assessment. This man who murdered his children was sent to a psychiatrist and was given a positive assessment. I think that these cases need to be backed up by psycho-diagnostic tests that examine the personality structure. A clinical interview is not sufficient. There needs to be more testing and an appropriate therapeutic solution for the man. But the system is overwhelmed; there is a long wait for seeing the welfare authorities. I also have criticism of the therapy and enforcement system, which isn’t prepared to deal with serious cases while things are actually happening.

The welfare services are shrinking, the population is growing, and there are no proper standards in place. Currently there is no public government authority that can meet people’s needs. You wait eight months to get a review − and that’s when all the terrible things happen. The state has to provide this service; it’s part of its job. The judges are also working under impossible pressure. The system isn’t able to cope with what’s happening in these non-normative divorces, which are steadily increasing.

The question is whether this situation doesn’t in fact reflect a fundamental failure in terms of the support a man is offered by society and by the system. In the aftermath of a divorce, he is in a very vulnerable state. Women have more circles of support, the children usually stay with them, they don’t have to pay alimony.

True, it is very hard for the men. Financially, emotionally, and because of the isolation from the children. Especially if the mother adheres very strictly to the visitation arrangement and uses the children as a bargaining chip. If the father misses the kids and it’s hard for him − give him another day [to visit], and then he won’t be so desperate and bent on revenge, and feel that he’s being prevented from seeing the children. I also see this in what I call “reactive situational violence,” as opposed to ongoing violence. If there is ongoing violence, the woman should go to a shelter for battered women to protect herself and her children. But when there’s reactive situational violence, and the woman rushes to go to the police, it just pushes the man further down. People have outbursts, especially in times of crisis − so should you run to the police over a single incident? I think that if a woman uses false claims to obtain a restraining order, as a ploy to gain a better position in the divorce process, she should be subject to economic sanctions, and charged with contempt of court.

The system has no way to really examine and corroborate these claims. The answer it provides is either issuing a restraining order or mandating visits that are supervised by social workers at a “contact center.”

Yes. I had one case where the mother falsely accused the father, a disabled army vet, of sexual harassment, and the man truly loved his daughter. The whole thing was made up. He was only permitted to see his daughter at a contact center ‏(i.e., a controlled environment for meetings between parents and children, under the supervision of social workers‏) once a week. He told the judge that he was willing to pay for a chaperone, so the daughter could come to his house.

The judge appointed me and I played a part in the visitation arrangements. I drove with the father to pick up the daughter once a week, we all spent three hours together and then we returned her to her mother. I never missed an appointment. Even on holidays I chaperoned them.

I saw how caring he was when he came to get her, with all her things, and her pets, and if he was ever late by 15 minutes, the mother would right away call the police. He was always under tremendous stress because of the traffic. Visitation agreements are usually set up a certain way and last many years. So, okay, the agreement says 7:30. You shouldn’t show up an hour late, but 15 minutes? People don’t understand that the visitation arrangement can be a very difficult thing for the man. He has to get all organized, sometimes with babies and small children, and take care of the feeding and cleaning up.

Why does divorce sometimes bring out the very worst in people?

Breaking up the family is a form of failure. It’s the realization that this family will never be whole again. And there are people who just can’t cope with this failure. They can’t accept it. They view themselves as the victim and they look for someone to blame, and want to punish that person too. This kind of behavior is a form of punishment. Making the other person’s life miserable. Many couples aren’t through with their destructive dynamic once the marriage is over and they keep it going during the divorce too, at their children’s expense.

How, for example? You say in your book that many fathers return the children with old clothes or clothes that are too small for them.

Yes, there’s the clothing, there’s the tardiness, there are some who interrogate the children for hours on end, asking what’s going on with your father, or with your mother? There are families who have good visitation arrangements, until one of the exes finds a new mate, and then the whole thing becomes shaky because the other one feels lonelier or more vulnerable and worry that the child will be taken from them, that he’ll have a new mother or a new father. There are also cases where one of the former spouses still has trouble genuinely accepting the divorce. They still have this fantasy that it will change.

When I did a Google search of your name, I found a lot of furious online comments. Do you have enemies among your former patients?

Because I appear as an expert in court and for lawyers, and people are sent to me for treatment by them − sometimes they show up with a lot of resentment, and then all the anger and frustration that’s been building up in them is projected onto me. I feel a sense of mission, and I have really helped a lot of men, so I accept it. As long as I’m working in this job, I expect to come in for that kind of criticism.

What advice do you have for people who are about to get divorced?

To work things out between them, gradually and calmly and with respect. To go for therapy and counseling. To prepare themselves and their spouse and the children. To really understand what goes on in the court system today. People think they’ll go to court and justice will win out. What justice? The court is about applying the law, not about justice. People need to be prepared and to understand how the whole system works, on the bureaucratic level. It’s a long and complicated process, full of crises. One needs to be quite strong and prepared going into it.

Divorce (illustrative).Credit: Marina Zlochin
Dr. Elisheva Zohar ReichCredit: Tomer Appelbaum