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The Predictable Cycle Of Divorce: Figuring Out The Lawyer

21/01/2015 8:21 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
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An Indian family on a scooter rides past a soon to be opened family court in New Delhi, India, Tuesdeay, April 12, 2011. As recently as a decade ago, divorce was a dirty word in this socially conservative and family oriented country, where even couples in the most unhappy and violent marriages would have little choice but to to stick it out. But as the economy here has boomed, the rigid boundaries governing traditional Indian life are beginning to fall, especially among the growing ranks of the urban middle class where women have more economic freedom than ever before. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

My friend is beyond herself with grief, although she's trying to be brave. She's mourning the demise of her marriage. She's oscillating between revisiting the 'perfectness' of the past and the pain of the present. They're still staying in the same house--only different rooms. She questions why he wants a divorce in the first place. Can't they go on like this?

Even daily chores and mundane things that have so far come naturally and effortlessly, cause sudden panic reactions--how she doesn't need to wait up for dinner, what if it's all a big misunderstanding, what should she tell the help at home, will the landlord ask the next time she meets him walking downstairs, what she needs to say when they receive invitations for weddings and parties, should she tell some colleagues or not tell anyone at all. It's not the larger issues that she's dealing with, right now--how her finances are messed up, the joint home loan and she has no clue about which course of action to take.

Her reactions are normal. I think her husband is going through somewhat similar emotions.

In India, everyone will keep asking sometimes with concern and sometimes with caution about how you're managing it all. Some will want a timeline of how long it will take. Others will choose to entirely evade the topic of relationships with you--the elephant in the room.

As someone going through a divorce you find yourself fighting for and with yourself, constantly. What you may not realise initially is also that you end up fighting through it all, for validation. To cause further confusion, immediate family starts getting overprotective of you and simultaneously troubled about what everyone else would "think" or "say". With all the chaos around you, you will have the added responsibility of "proving". Parents and children will need to know you will manage, also how you plan to. Bosses will need to be shown that you aren't slacking off because of emotional downtime. Friends will need to pick a side, often even approve of your chosen course of action. Landlords will need to be shown how you will manage to pay dues. We are conditioned to be deeply affected by societal sanction. A failed relationship continues to be a big deal, even now. Most people you know will want to partake of what is going on. Some will probe, some will prod, some will gossip, some will guide.

'It must have been X or Y's fault'. Strangely the court judgment, that seems too far away in the future, will sometimes feel only half as important as the public opinion that suddenly surrounds life. Who really screwed up becomes a vital piece of information that everyone wants. Divorce is and can never be one person's screw up or fault. Never.

The immediate reaction to the D word is a strange combination of shock and grief, guilt and accusation, also disbelief and hope. You don't know what went wrong or who to blame and you keep thinking that this isn't really happening and that it will all "normalise", shortly.

The legality of it all can be long and agonising or clinical and short. All divorces are one of those two combinations. I don't know which is better or any less painful.

Cinema has dramatised courtrooms and lawyers and legal arguments beyond belief and you go in with the instinct to run away from it all. You feel there is now nothing left to lose (also nothing more to give). The supposed big deal of the "divorcee" tag is an eventuality that you need to come to terms with, for yourself. Only you will know the extent of the damage that does to the person you are and only you can control it. If, at all.

When I started talking about the impending court proceeding to my circle of support, I got multiple references of lawyers--someone knew someone else who had been referred to X lawyer and someone had consulted Y lawyer on some other matter. No two relationships are the same. No two marriages either and definitely no two divorces.

With that I got a friend to drive me to the Delhi High Court on a cold January evening to meet with a lawyer who told me four basic things that I already knew:

1. A divorce by mutual consent would be ideal

2. Even in a contested petition, Courts in India would suggest counselling/mediation at the court and then prefer if we withdrew contesting petitions and filed mutually

3. If there were claims like dowry related harassment, physical abuse, infidelity, desertions etc a significant body of proof needs to be produced in court

4. A contested petition could take a fairly long time (3-7 years) to resolve

I weighed it out in my head and the only immediate thought I had was that I had just spent INR 5000/- on a five minute meeting, after waiting for forty five, for advice that I already knew from earlier conversations with friends (some of who were also lawyers) and had found online on a random legal advice website. None of it gave me any clarity on my course of action. None of it helped me. And I had this gnawing feeling that I couldn't afford any more wastage--money, emotion and least of all time. And then I realised that, rather suddenly, somewhere in that state of emotional trauma, the lawyer has to first be an almost instinctive choice and then a firm belief. You end up picking someone you can trust and afford.

A small thing to remember is that divorce is a civil proceeding; and as most civil proceedings are, it will not be too severe for anyone except of course for the two people going through a divorce. (Unless there are criminal charges involved: dowry harassment, domestic violence, etc are all criminal offences under the Indian Penal Code). I've been told that it helps greatly if you keep a clear sight of what you want out of this proceeding. On most occasions, you think that lawyers are telling you stuff you already know. Sometimes they will say things you don't want to hear. Sometimes they will use legalese meant only to confuse you. They will also frustrate you with their lack of interest, wastage of paper, inability to stick to time, et al. They might paint doomsday situations or trivialise grave ones and sometimes they will show up late or not at all. It's not ideal, but then, what is.

With any luck and a good lawyer, you will witness confusion, restraint, argument, clarity, bravery, faith and supreme confidence, sometimes all at once. Let them take charge; they usually know what they're doing.

After the breakdown of a bond you trusted with your life, it seems impossible to depend on or trust a lawyer (possibly someone you haven't known earlier) entirely. Don't. On your part try the simplest ways of safeguarding your interest, always make time for conferences with the lawyer and go to court. Work on drafts, make corrections, and change things you feel are unnecessary. Keep pestering them for next steps. Negotiate your terms for both the settlement and the legal fees or have someone you trust--friends or family--do it for you. It is even more difficult to open your marriage up for what seems like public scrutiny. You will have to. Stick by your version of the truth (and there's always one, unfortunately). Someone will cross question and stand firm when the details go through several shredders. There isn't a way out. Not yet.

Have faith that like all else, this too, shall pass.

One of the first comments on my last blog post got me thinking; are the only people writing about divorce, relationships gurus or lawyers looking to generate more business? I'm neither. I can't possibly be. I'm barely managing to stay afloat through a divorce petition that I contested three years ago. It wasn't easy three years ago. It isn't easy now. I continue to falter and fail and then there are days where things go as per plan and everything looks like it will get easier tomorrow.

Click here if you missed the first part of The Predictable Cycle Of Divorce.

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