Till death (all of) us do part

This is what I would consider a ‘think piece’ and it is still a thinking-in-progress, really my mind working out loud, so please indulge me as I spin this.  

I have the rare opportunity to be forced out of my comfortable niche and into a foreign environment, little different from the one that Margaret Meade found when she chose to live among the Trobriand Islanders, not as one of them, not as a tourist, but as a scientist and silent observer, recorder of a culture so alien that every moment spent among them put her senses on high alert.  This is my little participant observer project in progress, while I am on a completely different mission as I explained last week.

kramer vs kramer 2When you hang around a courthouse you find out what is really going on in the world, out of public sight for the most part, rarely covered proportionally by the media because they don’t have the long view. All most reporters care about is grabbing headlines on a daily or hourly basis.

There is plenty of downtime when you are a juror.  During that space, you are sitting around the building in one or another location, inside or out, waiting for your services to be required again.  Out of a typical day at trial, you might have three hours doing nothing.

I bring my tablet and phone so if I wanted to, I could entertain myself adequately for those three hours (that are not necessarily contiguous, unfortunately — otherwise I would bring my ultrabook and try to work). I get some reading done, but the subject matter is very heavy and I limit my exposure to it while I am on what is a serious case in the first place.  Handling my duties as a juror requires a calm alertness and stability of mind that precludes lingering too much on anything external that might make me even jumpier and anxious than I already am (see, I know my limitations — I was my first and most complicated subject, as a psychologist, lol).

So, I tend to just sit and chill during at least half of my court ‘dwell-time’.  Now, courthouses have hard floors (for easy cleaning, I assume).  So, with few soft surfaces anywhere, mostly glass, stone, tile, wood, concrete, etc.) they are echo-chambers where sounds carry and bounce.  The acoustics are such that every small sound is audible.  Therefore, when you are sitting just about anywhere except in the courtroom, you hear everything.  That in itself is nerve-racking for a relatively quiet human being like me, who avoids being noticed unless I want to be.  So, for example, you won’t hear me shouting into my cell phone, opening my snack bags or beverage noisily, coughing or sneezing loudly — I keep a very small physical footprint. As Geoff reminded me, it doesn’t matter, because my persona is so potent, people just sense my presence anyway. Hmmm, not sure that is a compliment, but he is probably right.  My silence speaks louder than most people’s, well, noisance. 🙂

As it happens, no matter where you are on the premises, you overhear conversations.  These can be between family members, friends, or attorneys and their clients.  There are also an array of clerks, court reporters, social workers, criminalists, deputies, bailiffs, and all sorts of other personnel who contribute to the many functions of the legal system housed there.

You might ask, then, what is the most common conversation one overhears or incident one witnesses, when spending hours in that environment?  What would we guess? Misdemeanors, felonies, theft, bodily harm, capital crimes, juvenile delinquency?  No.  It is almost always divorce and custody kramer vs kramerbattles, especially the latter. (I recall with considerable irony the fact that on The Good Wife, one of my favorite shows, the divorce attorneys by far bring the most business to the firm, probably a reflection of their share in real life as well).

One might also think that people would be circumspect about their private lives when in public, especially in a place where they can be overheard by law enforcement, lawyers, the public, jurors (!!) and the staff of the legal system. But, what you find is that this environment seems to stress people to the point that they become somewhat disinhibited.  The venue heightens emotionality to the point that people forget where they are, and let their hair down almost completely.

So, while you are sitting, observant, quiet, watchful and contemplative, minding your own business as I tend to do normally and especially during this process, you hear a great deal of private information, whether you try to escape it or not. In fact, it makes me uncomfortable as I am used to the client-therapist privacy model.  What is especially painful, is hearing children in distress (of all ages, strikingly) and parents discussing each other in such tormented terms, for all the world to witness.

kramer vs kramer 3What I have found thus far — and by the way, this is anecdotal and I don’t give it much more credence or weight than what can be attributed to personal experience, other than it being tempered by my background and interests.  But, I am now alert to see if this experience continues along the lines of what I heard and saw the first two weeks of being on the court grounds —  is that the same story line appears to crop up, over and over again.  It is usually the dad, with his new girlfriend or wife, there trying to improve the visitation rights.  Inevitably, the first wife/girlfriend is allegedly either blocking the process, late for the meeting with the judge, failing to hold up her end of the bargain in some way. And, curiously, it is usually the new girlfriend/wife, doing all the talking.  Over and over I am struck by the way the father is the more silent of the parties.  The fight is between two unrelated and adversarial women, i.e., the former significant other and the current one.  Or, it is a woman trying to get away from a physically and financially indigent, irresponsible or abusive husband/boyfriend. Those women are usually there with their mothers and tend to be young.

Another common scenario is the mother, child in tow, volubly hashing things out with her attorney or the free community advocate who has gone through the process and serves as an informal guide to parents trying to make their way through the system and work out an equitable arrangement.  As many people are aware, rarely are all parties satisfied.  Most couples feel they should have a 50/50 time sharing custody, but it doesn’t always work out that way and someone inevitably feels they have been wronged by their opponents or the court. The anger and anguish are not only audible, they are kramer vs kramer 4palpable.  There is a great deal of physical posturing involved that makes the impact of the arguments, phone calls, and conversations that one is privy to in this setting, all the more penetrating.

All of this is punctuated by the sights and sounds of the children themselves, often as young as a few months, tragically, but ranging all the way up to teenagers.  I sat a table or two away from a woman that had to be in her 50s with two grown boys, that seemed to  be in their 20s. They were clearly there with their attorney battling something that I could not imagine (and didn’t want to, as all of this seems like such an invasion of privacy, except that it is playing out in the common arena — so great is the pressure involved, that no one seems to care).

The ultimate losers are the children, no matter what their caregivers ultimately arrange.  It is a travesty that adults cannot imagine (even if they had been through it themselves, it is often before the age of reason, and therefore pre-cognitive memory, i.e. about seven years) from their own vantage points, emotional needs, and rationalizations.  I recall that Laura Schlesinger, of whom I am not particularly fond, advised parents to gut things out until the children are 18.  At one time I thought kramer vs kramer 5that was bad advice. But, I have come to realize that when you have children, you owe them a true childhood, as free of these and all adult cares as possible.  You chose your spouse and unless that person is committing egregious violations, you owe it to any children you share to put your own needs second to that child’s for as long as possible.  You damage them irreparably, otherwise, and what that precipitates in them, as they mature, is not only scarring that may never be recognized for its origins, nor properly healed, but a lifetime of neurosis that will need treatment to be kept under control. Wounded children, typically become scarred  adults, and more harm ensues because they will become flawed parents, in all likelihood, as the cycle is perpetuated. I am reminded of our societal responsibility to mitigate this, if we can, and of Melissa Harris Perry’s famous comment that children belong to all of us, not just two self-interested individuals.  They are ours, because they grow up and become the society in which we and our children live.  It is in the interest of the group to contribute to the health and well-being of all its members.

If only we took the time to objectively see and know ourselves, and then get to know that person we think we fell in love with, thoroughly and decide with full knowledge and consciousness whether we are equipped either by nature or preparation (which I think should be extensive) to raise a healthy, whole, happy child and launch a magnificent human being out into the world, we might change the course of humanity.

If nothing else, every couple imagining marriage and children should be sent on a field trip to a courthouse and spend a few days ethnographically, observing, watching, listening.  That is just one more benefit to living in a free and open society where human interactions play out in full view for anyone who is paying attention.  When we marry someone and have children with them, we are tethered to that person for life.  The success or failure of that relationship is not just a couple affair, it is a group project.  Our children are transactors in this group that we formed and thus are raised in it, for good or otherwise.  We are parents for life, once that takes place.  They are shaped and influenced kramer vs kramer 6by the choices we made, again, for life.  That should be a sobering prospect, so great is the responsibility involved.  It all began with some sort of relatively fleeting attraction, but it set off a cascade of rippling consequences that virtually never ends.

More to come on this in some future post …

Images: imdb.com, theatlantic.com, berlinale.de, lifestyled.com.au


32 Comments on “Till death (all of) us do part”

  1. How could I not but applaud such a magnificent post? Especially coming from such a delicate but fearsome blogging presence? };-)>

    Until legitimate research indicates otherwise, I assume an overall equal culpability between men and women in not working towards the best interest of children in marriage and divorce. I agree that children are everyone’s responsibility, and as a society (or societies), we are failing in this regard.

    Your point about breaking or perpetuating the cycle of abuse is so relevant. I sought to break the cycle of intergenerational narcissism that resided in my former wife’s maternal lineage (possibly along the paternal side, as well) in my marriage breakdown, but was willfully thwarted by a family “justice” system that had embraced feminist ideology instead of science-based evidence and the Rule of Law.

    You’ve outdone yourself here, Beth. Bravo.


    • Thank you Nav. I am really amazed at how much our US (and others elsewhere?) legal system is consumed with couple/family law and disputes. I don’t know what the answer is, unless it is having couple counseling prior to marriage, and having a thorough questionnaire that the two parties fill out and discuss before marrying and having kids. But that presumes people know themselves and few of us do, even though we think we do. Maybe group therapy where other people feel safe giving us honest feedback. I don’t know — I am trying to figure out a preemptive solution. Thank you for the kind words! We all seem to be working on these same issues, from different experiences and points of view, don’t we?


      • Indeed we are, Beth. Methinks the solution requires the thoughtful and considered input of a variety of individuals who are considering the problem from a variety of perspectives, and all acting in good faith to ascertain the exact problem or problems, and the optimal way to remedy this or these.

        I will tend to view this issue and other social issue from a Lasch-social narcissism perspective, but this should not automatically be held to constitute a universal explanation for every social ill. I do recall reading that, in Canada, the introduction of “no-fault” divorce with single parent primary custody resulted in an enormous growth in the “divorce industry.” Simply, divorce lawyers know how much money is available due to the financial disclosure requirements, and there is financial incentive for lawyers to drag out divorce and conflict to increase their billable hours.

        Not all lawyers are like this, but some are. Indeed, this may interest you, as I believe it is close to home: http://croixsdadsblog.wordpress.com

        I also think that we as a broader society should revisit a variant of the arranged marriage. Not that young adults should be married against their will, of course. Marriage is more than simply a contract between two adults as a life-long partnering bond. It binds families together, and has a sanctity of community aspect to it, in that state or religion, or both, must bless it (less true with the advent of “common law” marriages).

        Surely it is in our best interest to invest the time and effort to help younger adults understand themselves better, and to apply collective wisdom and scientific understanding to help individuals make the right choice for their spouse.


        • I am going to investigate your Lasch concepts more so I have a better idea of the theory. Certainly whenever people have problems, a cottage industry develops to capitalise on them, something that bothers me from an ethical and moral or normative perspective, but is just reality. That is why ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’, to quote Franklin. I think that since you are in the midst of working out a set of books/theories yourself, you are using that as a prism through which to view various problems. Some will be illuminated and some will not. For you to do that is natural and to be expected. In fact, when I taught university classes while getting my graduate degrees, I used the concept of just that: take a theoretical position and view a social problem according to that position. It does help to focus and people usually learn more about a greater range of phenomena by doing that. The way one does when on a debating team. 🙂


          • I’m grateful for the kind benefit of your experience in this, Beth. I may have mentioned this before, but my prism is a deliberate one, as you discerned. I’m guided by the principles of historical analysis articulated by the late Professor Carroll Quigley in his classic “The Evolution of Civilizations,” with the exception that I am taking an informal geometric approach v. a formal scientific one.

            Although I write for a popular audience, I do want my underlying thesis to have enough rigour to be worthy of learned consideration, which demands a degree of normative thinking.


            • Well, you are putting it out there and the responses should generate enough attention that someone will put your theories to the test. It will be interesting to see what comes of it. And I am sure, we will all be waiting to hear from you via your blog on the outcomes.


            • I’m going to structure my underlying thesis (written for all and not just academic readers) such that it constitutes an informal logical geometry v. a proper theory, a bit like I understand string theory to actually be when it comes to physics. I suspect I will be on safer ground this way.

              I do look forward to the response to the thesis, as I think that it may be the first to rationally predict a hostile opposition to it, as it will cause a widespread narcissistic injury.

              This was a thought-provoking post, Beth. I really enjoyed it and the ensuing discourse. Thank you.


  2. Great post, Beth, and one that’s very relative to my own life…I’d like to say first, that as you spoke of posture and such, you reminded me of a female version of Dr. Sweets on Bones…the one and only series I currently watch (and the only television, for that matter :))

    Yesterday, I had to give my son over to his father for the weekend. There had been threats of abduction during stalking activity, so I broke the court order and have kept him with me for the past four months. (My son’s father was visiting him at school during lunch).

    Anyhow, I was extremely nervous about the whole thing…mainly because I know my Ex was playing the extreme victim and I wondered how the whole hearing would play out. Additionally, he brought a man whom I’ve never seen in my life as one of his witnesses. There is absolutely no telling what he, his sister, and this strange man were planning, but thank God I didn’t have to find out. We were able to come to an agreement without a hearing.

    My point is that while I know my Ex is dishonest, willing to lie under oath, irresponsible, and such…my son was very happy to see his father. I had to remind myself that it didn’t necessarily matter what I think about my Ex nor how immoral he may act towards me. What matters is how my son feels. It’s not up to me to control his environment 100% because of my own discomfort or bad past with his father.

    Granted, I do have concerns for my son’s mental well-being because of the risk of his father using him as a tool, my son’s safety (his dad never restrains him properly in his car seat), and what might be said about me to my son…but ultimately, I can’t dwell on all of that as long as my son seems to be happy with his dad. I can only watch for indicators should they come up. I just need to keep calm and allow my son to enjoy his time with his dad, because ultimately, it’s not about me…it’s about my son.

    Thank you for this post, and the reminder 🙂


    • Whew, that is a tough one. I would be on edge, every minute, believe me. I had a boyfriend (whom I almost married) that was what I would informally characterize as a narcissist – a very dominating individual that I was too young to recognize as a poor marriage and father prospect, as I have mentioned on your blog. Something saved me from potential tragedy — not my own cognizance of the possible problem, shockingly, given my training, but just running into someone else instead. I often shake just thinking about what might have been. And sitting around the courthouse, makes this subject all the more compelling. We all need to pay far more attention to this and your blog certainly helps people facing what you have faced. ❤


  3. Your observations, along with your heart for telling them, gives us a wisdom and understanding that we would not otherwise have, Beth. Thank you so very much for this lucid and compassionate post. I pray those that need to read it are drawn here and drink deeply from it.


  4. Great post! A wonderful breath of fresh and thought-provoking air!

    Thank you for sharing your mind working out loud, usually something which people choose to keep private and yet the best observations, of self and other, reside therein. If only more people would share that part of themselves… rather than the edited for effect version.

    I love your use of images from Kramer vs Kramer. That film! I’ve never been able to shake it and the impression it left on me as a child.

    Each individual gets so caught up in their own story and wanting it to be heard, perhaps even make it the official version which everyone must accept… yet there is always more sides to a story than just one person’s version, especially when others are involved in it.

    Look forward to more of your stranger in a strange land posts.

    re: Your presence – if you’re doing something different to everyone else, everyone else notices, it makes you stand out, even if the reason you’re doing it is to not stand out 🙂


    • Thank you for all those supportive comments. I was also affected by the Kramer movie – it was a tragedy, all around even though it worked out the best way it could in the end. As for doing things differently, I plead guilty on that count. I always seem to be bucking the crowd, sometimes intentionally and other times unwittingly. It is tough, because there are strong societal pressures to conform. So given all that, most of my posts are likely to be, as you put it, ‘stranger in a strange land’, and then stranger still, lol. 😉


  5. You have a way of expressing deep truths that resonate, Beth, as does this post (great lemonade!) I have no children so cannot speak as a parent. I have been married 2x and I know that, both times, it was 2 broken needy people, each hoping and expecting the other to bring healing and to meet needs. Both failed. Had we had children, that marital disillusionment would have incorporated the child(ren) as we 2 failed spouses worked out our frustrations through a deeply flawed legal system – ultimately, perpetuating the cycle, with our broken child(ren) marrying with the same unrealistic expectations, etc…


    • My husband right off the bat told me that he didn’t feel ready for children, when he himself was not finished evolving. It is a brave position, more nowadays, than it was when we got married. I admired his conviction and sense of responsibility. I hope I never have to be in court fighting anyone close to me — it just seems like everyone loses except the lawyers. And now that I am inspecting our legal system at close range, I realize that as much as being a lawyer is a more lucrative profession than the one I chose, I simply couldn’t bear to do what they do, on any side of a case. Thank you for contributing to my discussions so positively Vera, as always. 🙂


  6. I do not know why I have not arrived here sooner to read your thoughts!!
    Splendid – just wonderful.
    What an incredible environment to glean human tragedy in – almost makes me want to go sit in a courthouse for a while each day. (and the way you described it was fabulous!)

    Thanks for a great read 😀 AND the great insight into how SERIOUS raising OUR children really is.


          • Firstly – the concept you speak of is certainly not trivial??
            Perhaps we feel the triviality in the fact that our words are ‘unlikely’ to change the intricacies of the lives of those people you witnessed? On a global scale it seems insurmountable.

            You seem to have great insight and it is GOOOD that you share it – because you never know who reads your words 😉
            So I disagree 😉 – Blogs can be more than just a trivial passing of our thoughts through our fingers.
            But I agree – that I often feel the same when reading back again I wonder if I could have been doing something more constructive!! lol!

            PS – keep writing yeah!


            • BB, you are right, of course (write, of course, lol). I just see this blog as a way to get my ruminations set down for whatever personal value they might have for me, now, as an integrative tool so they sort themselves out, and later so I can see whether or not they still hold true. If anyone reads it, it is a bonus. Thank you for doing that! 🙂


            • An absolute pleasure – and again Ma’am BB ( 😉 ) — I completely understand what you say there – so I will not repeat it in different words right :D.
              It has it’s place = that’s what matters ~


  7. When I started teaching, I used to do a ‘life graph’ with the students (8th graders) that they then used as a starting point for writing a personal narrative. Without fail, the lowest point on a child’s graph, if it applied, would be the ‘parents got divorced’ plot point. It was always, without fail described as the absolute worst thing that had happened to them. The same held true for high school students. I think our society as a whole has become so blase about something that is so devastating on a personal level that it’s confusing to kids (adults too, but kids most of all). How can I be this hurt over something that society says is ‘no big deal’? Not having children myself, I had no idea how harmful it was to a child to go through it (my parents never divorced and neither did the parents of my best friends, interestingly enough). I have to agree with you that unless something unspeakable is going on in the home, it’s probably best for the kids if you ‘stick it out’ until they are at least out of high school. Sucks but it’s true. One more reason I’m so glad I don’t have kids.


    • First of all, what a great idea! To get 8th graders to come out of their shells, loosen up and write about themselves with a life graph. As for divorce, as you say, we are just used to it now as an option for families. Kids have to put up with step-mothers and half siblings or step-siblings and all the confusing grandparents and half cousins. People still get hurt and the kids most of all. We also think as a society that everyone should have kids. Based on what? The fact that they can? So few people have any idea what it takes to be a proper parent. Honestly, today, yesterday, same thing at court, custody, divorce, wrangling over the kids. Sad.


      • I just gave them graph paper and had them draw a baseline in the middle, then visual the upper half as positive events, the lower half as negative ones. Then they had to graph their top five positives and negatives. Without fail the lowest negative would be a divorce, if one had occurred. Another low one? Parents getting remarried. Oddly enough, I can’t recall any consistent top ones. The smart-asses would put “being born” as one, until I learned to disallow it from the get-go. LOL.


        • I think that was such a brilliant and sensitive (as well as sensible) thing to do! How many subject teachers get to know the person the kid is like that? You should write up a guide …


          • In all fairness, it was another teacher’s idea. Probably one of the other teachers I taught with at some point down the road did it first, and i continued to use it, Who knows who came up with it originally.


            • Yeah, I guess there is little new under the sun, etc., etc., but what I think is novel is using it in an English class. One of my biggest beefs with our teacher training is how little attention is paid to instructing teachers on the human being aspect of their clientele, lol. You had that instinct, and of course went on to study it even further. I think every teacher should receive the human development training that special ed teachers get. Anyway, I love that particular technique and that you cared enough to apply it when you could have just confined yourself to teaching subject matter. 🙂


  8. Reblogged this on thebufferzoneblog and commented:
    Interrupting our series of amusing dysfunctional family survey incidents for this serious post by Beth Byrnes. She is a child psychologist, behavioral scientist, gardener, knitter, and baker among other things, and I wish could write half as well as she does. I might be able to master her sugar cookies though.


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