Just when I thought I had already worked with the saddest and most hopeless client in my career, I met Sarah. Sarah was a sixty-something year-old homemaker. She had lived all her adult life with a disability and was married to her husband, Keith, for more than 30 years. During our first conversation, I heard in Sarah that she was a victim. She had been victim to a debilitating disorder. She was victim to her inability to express herself clearly. And most regrettably, she was victim to her husband’s most recent exploits with a woman half her age.
Sarah was a mess
I had matured into my practice through hundreds of negotiations and thousands of client interviews. What I felt Sarah needed was more than just sympathy. She needed a swift wake-me-up. She needed to know that she was not a victim. She needed to pull herself together. Now don’t get me wrong, I understand with everything in my soul how paralyzing, heartbreaking, and outright traumatizing it is for someone to be unfaithful. In fact, I WAS the victim in my first marriage. My ex-husband, a professional athlete and local “cool kid,” not only verbally and physically abused me. He also flirted openly in my face, and cheated on me with a woman who was TWICE my age. None of it made sense to me. I guess that’s why I felt for Sarah. But I was not about to participate in her pity party, either. I signaled to Sarah that I would be tough on her and that I would hold her accountable for her own choices. To my delight, she was receptive. I saw the smallest glimmer of sunshine through her storm clouds. And so, I decided to represent her.
Sarah and I met in my office to discuss her goals. Because of her 30-year financial dependence on Keith, alimony was definitely on the table. The issue, however, was that Sarah had been in “victim mode” for a very long time. The last episode was when she was recovering through treatment for a life-threatening medical issue. She was in bad shape. She needed Keith at that time more than any time over the past 3 decades. And in response, whether to escape Sarah’s helplessness (or his own helplessness to fix what was threatening his wife’s life), Keith lost himself in an affair. At the time, the couple shared one vehicle because Keith was frequently out of town for his work. But when Keith called it quits, he also left with Sarah’s only means of transportation for her life-saving medical treatments.
From the outside looking in, Keith was definitely the big bad wolf and Sarah was the helpless victim waiting for someone, anyone to save her. And because she had been the victim for most of her life, her communication was drenched in emotional reactivity, blaming, and whining about her feelings every time she experienced any degree of discomfort. During our first meeting, I allowed her to go on about 45 minutes, to get it all out. We reviewed her goals, one by one, and I told her which ones I thought were reasonable, which ones were “maybe,” and which ones were unreasonable. We signed the retainer agreement. My only condition to helping her in the case was that Sarah would commit to attend regular therapy. I also gave her a to-do list. And the final item on that list, bolded in all caps was, TAKE YOUR LIFE BACK.
Since Keith left Sarah without a car, Sarah’s son gave her a ride to meet with me that day. A few hours after our meeting, I got a call from Sarah. She told me she thought about our meeting. She told me that she finally became angry, rather than feeling sorry for herself.. So she asked her son to take her to Keith’s job where she expected the car to be parked. She found the car. She took her key and hopped into the driver’s seat. And behold, Keith’s mistress was asleep in the back seat! Sarah announced to the mistress that she needed to get all of her belongings out of the car because Sarah was taking the car back.
I was floored.
Did Sarah just tell me she took the CAR back? I’m sorry, but in that moment, all I could do was laugh. Sarah was back. And Sarah drove home that day in the car that belonged to their marriage.
Naturally, Keith was livid. His wife had taken him (and me) completely by surprise. He wanted to sort everything out and discuss moving forward. As is the case with most people who are introduced to me through their spouse or former partner, Keith did NOT trust me. In fact, talking to him was more challenging because Sarah caught him flat-footed. I can only imagine that in his mind, CHAR had to be the culprit for emboldening Sarah in this manner. I listened to Keith, though. He was an older man. In him, I heard a guy who worked hard and wanted simplicity in his life. He joked that there was nothing “simple” about Sarah. In fact, Sarah could be quite maddening, even though it was very hard not to love her. Because he felt threatened by me at first, I invited a call from his attorney. For whatever reason he never hired an attorney. We spoke more and more about the separation and divorce. He wanted peace. Sarah wanted her man back. But if Sarah could not have her relationship with Keith restored, she needed Keith’s financial support. That is what he had given her for 30 years. That is what I believed a judge would give her.
Keith found it extremely difficult to communicate with Sarah. She would berate him and make him feel bad all of the time. Sarah admitted to me a few times how she lost it and cursed Keith out. He was so tired, and eventually blocked all communication from Sarah, insisting to speak to her only through me. Keith found that I would not only listen to him, but communicate his thoughts and positions in a fair way to Sarah. Keith and I established a level of trust and respect that helped both him and Sarah move forward with their lives.
What can you live with?
As in Keith and Sarah’s case, I have found that people are usually more stable in their lives after divorce if both parties come to the table for a conversation. For Keith, it was figuring out how much he needed to provide for Sarah. For Sarah, it was choosing how she was going to maintain with the support Keith could pay comfortably. We assisted Sarah with planning. She even began dreaming again, becoming more involved in her community. With the support she was able to purchase her own car, her independence. Sarah came back to life while Keith continued his pursuit for the peace he desperately hoped for.
In time, Sarah and Keith were able to communicate with one another again. I don’t know whether reconciliation is in the cards for them. However, I am thankful for the opportunity to stabilize their situation when they needed a caring heart and a voice of reason.
Sarah was more than just another case for me…she was a soul in need of help. With her permission, I share an email she sent after things settled down:
Your Friendly Divorce Attorney,