In 2010, I got divorced.
Unfortunately, in modern society this happens all too often, and, while it is a tragedy, it is not an issue of justice. However, there is more to this story. There are two ways, in my experience, that injustice has become a part of many divorces.
The first kind of injustice deals with the nature of love and commitment in society. In modern marriages, either party can file for divorce at any time, with or without warning. He or she can decide suddenly, without explanation or reason, to leave the marriage. Aside from personal choice, there is nothing binding about the commitment of marriage. It can be entered on a whim, and it can be left on one as well.
In a letter addressed to his son Michael, author J. R. R. Tolkien describes the modern idea of love. He describes how, realistically, marriage takes a lot of work and hardship, and he characterizes life as living in a cold world. However, he contrasts this perspective with the Romantic idea of love that he believes most people hold, in which love is something easy and where, if it takes work, it must not be “true love.” This Romantic idea is where people “fall in love” and can just as easily fall out of it. He writes, “One result of that is to make young folk look for a ‘love’ that will keep them always nice and warm in a cold world, without any effort of theirs; and the incurably romantic go on looking even in the squalor of the divorce courts.” As Tolkien explains, people think of love as warm feelings and as something “natural,” not as something that requires hard work. So, while both members of a marriage make a commitment in the beginning, either party can decide to leave if things no longer are going the way he or she expects. This is a problem that, in a lot of ways, our culture has perpetuated.
In my own experience, my ex-wife decided, for reasons unknown, that she was done with the marriage. In the time it took to tell me (one and a half years), she thought she had found something missing in our marriage, each time with someone else. None of those relationships lasted and were finished before our divorce had been finalized. I know that I am an imperfect person, with many faults and mistakes, many of which may have affected my ex-wife’s views on our marriage. While I have made peace with the fact of my divorce, I will always be left with a feeling of injustice. She never told me her reasons, never wanted to discuss the whys of the divorce. I have no idea why we got divorced. What I do know is that, for reasons unknown, my life crumbled and fell apart.
The other type of injustice that our modern day version of divorce allows is financial. While the first has more to do with the emotional or with a partner’s expectations, this one has to do with money. Yet, the two are intertwined.
With only one income in a two person family, money for my ex-wife and I was extremely tight. We often lived paycheck to paycheck, leaving credit cards or students loans unpaid for a couple months at a time, and we relied on our tax returns every April to catch up, only to start the vicious cycle again over the even leaner summer months when I wasn’t teaching. To be able to get through some of those summers, I had to take out personal loans from my credit union and payday loans, sometimes three at a time.
In an effort to make more money, in the long term at least, I went back to school and started a MA degree in English Literature in 2009. Like the tax returns, I took on extra loans as a means of helping us stay afloat, especially with the added costs of school. So, five semesters later when my wife finally told me that she wanted a divorce, we had to go through the arduous process of dividing up everything we had.
How hard could it have been to split up our belongings after only three years of marriage? Well, harder than imagined. In part, that was because I was an emotional wreck while, I suspect, she knew what she wanted and was after. The issue is that during a divorce, two people aren’t only splitting up their physical belongings, like cars, books, and clothing. There are also the assets and debts that have to be split up as well and in as fair and equitable a manner as possible.
According to this article in The Telegraph, it is this period of division which is exactly when divorce proceedings can become unjust. “The poorer party may let contentious matters go and accept compromises simply to keep costs down.” In hindsight, this is exactly what happened in my story.
At the time, it made sense for each of us to leave the marriage with what we entered, as it would be the easiest way to split up our belongings. However, in reality, that meant that she left with all of the assets and property, and I left with a job and all of the debt. Every time that I was unhappy with some aspect of the settlement, her response was something along the lines of, “Fine. I’ll call my parents and get the name of their lawyer, and you’ll need to get one, too. This could take years, if that’s what you want.” As I said, I was barely keeping up with the debt that I had, and I could afford neither the emotional cost of a protracted divorce nor the financial cost of hiring a lawyer over the course of several months. So, I will admit, I would let the matter drop, as I was too exhausted to resist the emotional manipulation. From conversations with friends and family members that have also been divorced, I know that I am not the only one who has been subjected to emotional manipulation. If I know that many people personally, I can only imagine how many people, on a state or national perspective, have to deal with the same problem.
It was only recently, as I was doing research for this post, that I found that this kind of manipulation, and other kinds of divorce-related injustice, is common in the legal proceedings. I found out that it is common for debt and assets to be balanced, so that someone who takes on more of the debt-and I had a lot of it-may also receive more of the assets to balance it out. If I had only known then what I know now, my divorce may have turned out very differently. The poor and women are more likely to give in to manipulation or accept unfair settlements to avoid the potential costs of divorce. Those costs, in America, average between $15,000 and $20,000, which is equal to the price of a year’s tuition at a state school in California, like Cal State Fullerton. Additionally, men tend to become richer after a divorce, while women tend to suffer financially after divorce.
My wife divorced me, and when the dust settled she had a new chance at a new life in a new state, debt free. What did I have? Over $75,000 dollars in debt. For a grand total of 3 years of a marriage, I am saddled with loans that will last a decade or two, if not longer. What happened to me, I must live with; but, there must be someway to to prevent this from happening to others.
There must be some way to make sure that more people know of their rights and duties during divorce. Part of the problem is the lack of easily accessible information about the divorce process. Each state in America has its own divorce laws and regulations. Additionally, it is difficult to make sense of all of the information without a law degree. There are many different options (annulment, separation, and divorce), a lot of confusing forms, and very little free help to make sense of it all. The help that we could find was a “seminar” at the city courthouse, which was essentially a clerk or lawyer with a PowerPoint presentation, who walked through the needed forms and tried to explain what each one required. However, there was no opportunity to have someone check our forms to see if we filled them in correctly, or to have individual help with our specific situation. Essentially, without a lawyer, the divorcing couple has to fill out the forms on their own, make sense of the information as best as they can, and this process can take months, as the court sends the forms back to the people to make corrections or clarifications or sign forms that were missed. I do my own taxes every year, and IRS forms and guides are a walk in the park compared to making sense of divorce legalities.
This brings us back to the high costs of divorce. To get the help to make sense of this process, divorcees need to shell out some serious money. Not everyone has those kinds of resources, and even when they do, the process of divorce is notorious for taking months, if not years. For example, in California, the process takes a minimum of 6 months before the couple is legally divorced, and that is only if the court has accepted the paperwork. The only consistent source of information is only available to those that can afford it. Sometimes, that is neither person in the divorce, or only one of them.
Even when it goes as smoothly as possible, divorce is an ugly process that destroys families and individuals. Americans, and Californians (as much of this is a state issue) must find a way to make sure that emotional and spiritual devastation does not translate into the kind of financial devastation that can last years and decades after the marriage itself has ended. Healing a heart takes long enough as is; mending a broken wallet does not need to be an additional injustice.
– Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. “43 From a letter to Michael Tolkien 6-8 March 1941.” The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981. 48-54. Print.