Recently, we spent a Sunday evening at a new Easthampton, MA business: a “free movie” venue called “Popcorn Noir”. This creative venture offers gourmet popcorn, snacks, dinner, hot cider; and intimate seating for 20 or so lucky viewers. Members pay a modest annual fee to have access to this storefront treasure with vintage films.
We watched the Billy Wilder-directed Fred McMurray and Barbara Stanwyck classic “Double Indemnity”, from 1944. A film student introduced the show with the comment that one thing that made this noir piece so effective was that every actor played “against type”. For those of us who grew up with McMurray on “My Three Sons” (most of us) knew exactly what she meant. She also described the coming feature as a tale of three people enmeshed in a spiral of events of mutual destruction, leaving them all dead.
This all got me thinking (after the show) about divorce mediation! Divorce lawyers like to tell prospective clients that criminal lawyers see bad people on their best behavior while family law clients are “good people at their worst”. This cliché is largely geared towards providing cover to the upset spouse for out-of-control feelings and decisions, but there is also truth to this stereotype. Many people react to the crucible of stress, worry and fear of impending divorce in ways that lead them to make quick decisions that yield far-reaching and long-term effects on families, sometimes quite negative. As friends and family urge the spouses to “protect” themselves (and their children) from each other, they are often inclined to accept the most aggressive lawyers and advice, and the most assertive processes that they can find..
Sometimes this advice is absolutely on the mark, and there is no good choice but to lawyer up and get to court. But, too often, this just sets a tone of heightened confrontation, crushing costs and lost years of litigation, when calm reflection and facilitated discussion might serve the family more effectively, leaving people in a place where their ability to cooperate is less damaged and sometimes even enhanced. There is a reason that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court requires lawyers to discuss alternative dispute resolution options with clients before filing suit,. But we suspect that this rule is honored far more in the breach that in its careful and enthusiastic observance, as many lawyers perceive litigation as the “only way” to go.
Good people in crisis should not play against type. Beginning divorce with an arms race when unnecessary consigns the family to a spiral of controversy and financial calamity, when reflection and facilitated negotiation are likely to be less expensive, less antagonistic and more constructive than the alternative. Divorce does not have to be all noir. It can be seen as a transition: to be managed and experienced as an honest, direct and personalized process in which people “play” themselves, and not the mythical “worst behavior” caricature.
Mediation is not for everyone. But, almost everyone should at least consider it – seriously.