Divorce and Happy Endings, or “The Great Mulligan”

I don’t remember my parents ever showing love to one another. As the youngest of four children, I guess things had gone south by the time I came along.

They divorced when I was seven. My family, which consisted of two brothers, one sister, my parents, and me, lived in Los Angeles. After the divorce, my mom moved us four hours north to Fresno. I was excited to move to a new place. It felt like an adventure. I didn’t really figure out until later that my dad wouldn’t be joining us.

In addition to the mutual hostility, my parents openly ridiculed each other in front of me, and it always sent me into a thumb sucking, rocking-back-and-forth fit. All through the verbal combat and disparagement, I craved unity and peace. I despaired that no matter how sweet and good I tried to be, I couldn’t help them be happy. If I was theirs, but they hated each other, how could they possibly love me?

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I remember when I was a little girl,  grown ups would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. My answers varied. I always wanted to be a writer, and for a while I simultaneously wanted to be a movie star, then a veterinarian, then the President of the United States. One answer I never gave was, “I want to grow up to be a divorce attorney,” but that’s what happened.

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Halfway between Los Angeles and Fresno sits the town of Bakersfield. Surrounded by agriculture and oil fields, it’s hot as hell in the summer, foggy in the winter, and stunning for a few days in spring and fall. Bakersfield was also a collage of disparity, with some of the highest rates of alcoholism, air pollution, illiteracy, and poverty in the whole nation. The extreme poverty of the farm labor and oil-field working classes stands in stark contrast with the mega-wealthy farming families and oil company executives. Some very famous country music has its origins there.

Because Bakersfield was halfway between my irresponsible father and my mad-as-hell mother, we would stop there to use the bathroom while being shuttled back and forth for (sporadic) visitation with my dad. As we passed through Bakersfield in the summers, my legs stuck to the Naugahyde seats of our car. In the winters, from the windows I saw nothing but grey mist. It always smelled like cow shit and diesel fumes. I came to associate Bakersfield with my parents divorce. Bakersfield was failure, sadness, and shame. Bakersfield reminded me of the distance between the two people I loved most.

In pondering where to live when I grew up, I dreamed of Paris, New York, or the White House. I never imagined I’d end up in Bakersfield, but that’s what happened.

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As someone with decades of professional divorce-related experience, a child of a “broken home,” and a thrice divorced person myself, I have come to some conclusions about divorce. Mainly this: Divorce is good.

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Based on my parent’s choices, there were things I decided I would never do to my kids. One was to talk disparagingly about their other parent, and I was determined to never keep my children from having contact with their other parent in the event of our divorce.

I lived up to those goals after my first divorce. My ex-husband and I cooperatively raised our son despite not being a nuclear family. We shared time with him and neither of us spoke ill of the other (within our son’s earshot, at least). We even continued to celebrate holidays and milestones together, including in those celebrations our subsequent spouses, in-laws, stepchildren, and the like.

My son is the real reason I ended up in Bakersfield. We had moved there not long after he was born for my husband’s work. We divorced when our son was two years old and afterward, I moved to San Diego to attend law school, toddler in tow. I was happy to leave Bakersfield behind. But after years of traveling the four hour distance to facilitate visitation (harkening back to my own childhood), I decided to return to Bakersfield after graduation so our son would have both his parents in the same town. Neither of us would have to miss a ball game or a recital. He could see us both every week.

The first job I got when I moved back to Bakersfield was with a family law firm. The irony was not lost on me; that I would practice divorce law in a town  I came to know because of my parents’ divorce. Divorce law was not exactly what I dreamed of practicing, just as Bakersfield was not the town I (ever) imagined living in, but things worked out okay. At first, I took the family law job for the salary, which was higher than at other firms. I needed the money. But I ended up being really good at it. And my parent’s mistakes informed how I came to practice law.

There is a cynical saying about the messy business of divorce: “Misery is a growth industry.” When my clients were unreasonable about allowing visitation with the other parent or they excoriated their ex in front of the children, I came down hard on them. I fired several clients who refused to take my advice and insisted on weaponizing their kids. I empowered the clients who had been cowed by their exes. I liked backing down the bullies and barking dogs that sat on the other side of the courtroom, and I especially liked that I had a knack for talking sense into people.

Within a few years, I started my own family law firm. I had a robust practice for almost thirty years. I represented clients from all walks of life, shepherding them through their divorces, custody battles, child and spousal support skirmishes, and property settlements. I did scores of guardianships and adoptions. I performed the first same-sex adoption ever in conservative Kern County in the 1990s. I also sat as a judge pro temp in family law. That was fun. I was born to wear black (very slimming) and tell people what to do. Just ask my exes.

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Being a divorce lawyer is not for the faint of heart. When someone dies, there is a funeral. A funeral is for the living. It is part of the process of grieving, a process that includes clergy, family and friends giving those left behind emotional support, advice, and casseroles. In a divorce, the lawyer often is the process. Divorce clients are experiencing high levels of stress, and usually the only person who will listen to them (albeit for a fee) is the divorce lawyer. The divorce lawyer has to be able to withstand, absorb, or deflect their client’s anger, fear, and lust for revenge. They must bear witness to their client’s pain and give them sound advice so that their client doesn’t make poor decisions while blinded by agony. Let me state the obvious: Divorce often brings out the worst in people as they are going through it, particularly in the early stages. And a bad divorce lawyer can make things even worse. There are divorce lawyers who encourage unreasonable expectations and sling mud in order to churn fees. It pains me to say it and throw (some of) my brethren under the bus, but that happens.

As for my personal life, I did my part to support the divorce lawyer full employment act. I didn’t just divorce once. I married again in my early thirties, but only briefly, to a man who didn’t quite get the concept of fidelity. We had a tumultuous engagement that culminated in a sort of “Britany Spears” weekend in Las Vegas. I married him and declared it over as soon as I sobered up. That’s a story for another time.

Again, in my late thirties, I re-married. This one lasted almost ten years. It was a good marriage, mostly. People were shocked when they found out we were divorcing, but, hey, I think we had a good run. After the initial bouts of crying (mine) and bluffing (his) we settled our affairs by mutual agreement and went on about our separate lives. We stayed friendly. I had become a pro at this, after all.

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So yes, I do believe that divorce is good. I don’t mean everyone should do it, although I did come up with a few slogans for my advertising: “Life is short. Call your divorce lawyer,” and, “It’s never too late for a happy ending. Call your divorce lawyer.” I ultimately scrapped them both as insensitive, but divorce is a good thing to have available to you if you need it. And let’s face facts – a LOT of people end up needing it.

I am glad my parents divorced. As hard as going back and forth between them was, it would have been worse to be stuck in a house my entire childhood with bitterly unhappy people raging at each other. They were much better off apart, and after I became an adult they were even able to be civil with one another. My own divorces, though painful,  allowed me to redefine myself in positive ways. If I hadn’t gotten divorced the first time, I never would have gone to law school. The second time? Well, I likely would have killed that man. And the third time, if I’d never gotten divorced, I wouldn’t have married my current husband, who is amazing.

Each of my ex-husbands taught me skills. I mean both practical and relationship skills. My husbands taught me to cook, to frame a house, to water-ski ,and to play the drums. More importantly, I learned to be more patient, less selfish, and how to clearly identify and express my needs without nagging. With each heartbreak, I grew as a person.

In closing, here are a three pieces of advice I give to clients and friends who are embarking upon what I have come to refer to as “The Great Mulligan.” 1

  1. No matter how scared/hurt/pissed off you are, you will soon see this as an opportunity. This is a chance to remake your life into one that more closely resembles the one you wanted before you had to make concessions and compromises for the sake of your mate.
  2. Don’t talk shit about your ex to or in front of the kids. (See above.) If the other guy is a louse, the kids will figure it out on their own. If you disparage the other parent, your children will resent you. That person is the only father/mother they have. Let them love them.
  3. Especially where there are children involved, try not to think of your divorce as an end to your relationship as “family” to your ex. Consider thinking of it as the “post-marital” phase of your relationship – a relationship that is still very important because you share children. Treat your ex with respect and compassion. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to all situations – like ones involving violence or sexual abuse. I’m talking about the bulk of divorces, where people grow apart or were just not ever meant to be together in the first place.

The most important thing I hope people grasp about divorce is that it’s not a failure. Divorce has allowed millions of people to become better versions of themselves. One needn’t regret a marriage that has ended. I don’t regret any of mine. I am a stronger person and a more compassionate mate because of those relationships. I eventually sold my law practice, moved out of Bakersfield, and I am finally pursuing my first love: Writing.

It would be wiser for all of us to be grateful for the lessons learned during former marriages and honor our exes as teachers, even if all they taught us was how to not choose someone (like them) with whom we are incompatible.

The truth is that it’s never too late for a happy ending. Those, too, can happen.

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1 A “mulligan” is a golfing term which means, a “do over,” a chance to take another shot and improve one’s game and score, without penalty.

Karen Gaul Schulman is a writer and attorney who lives in Los Angeles, California. She left her family law practice of 30 years to pursue a life of letters and play with her grandchildren. She is currently an MFA candidate at Antioch University LA.