Three years ago, I lost a custody battle. I barely saw my son for two years. Earlier this week, I won a custody battle. My son, who has been living with me full-time since February, will continue to do so legally. Also, I’ll get child support for the first time since 2011.
Divorced for over a decade, and a veteran of two custody battles, I’ve learned a thing or ten about survival, and about life. Whatever doesn’t kill you doesn’t just make you stronger — it also makes you wiser.
When I got divorced ten years ago, I was a people-pleasing fraidy cat whose divorce “strategy” was to give in in order to calm my ex down. But anyone who’s ever had dealings with a terrorist knows that acomodation just invites more attacks.
If you give a regular person A, B, and C, he’ll be satisfied and move on. If you give a raging narcissist A, B, and C, he’ll come back for D, E, and F. You can give him G – Z and he’ll insist you give him Beyond Z. Unless you want to reside permanently under the bottom of his shoe, you need to push back. There is a time and a place for Gandhi, but not when you’re divorcing a narcissist.
Below are ten things I’ve learned about divorce — and life.
1. You don’t need an expensive lawyer
My first custody battle cost me upwards of $100,000. My lawyer was a charismatic raconteur with a swanky address and a suite full of well-oiled minions. And for 100 grand, what did I get? Nothing. I lost custody and child support while my cuff-linked attorney got to remodel his kitchen.
My second custody battle cost less than $5000. My lawyer was a prickly, easily exasperated one-woman show whose office was a cramped room in a no-frills part of town. What did less than $5000 buy me? Primary custody and child support. And victory.
The lesson? You don’t need the fancy attorney. You just don’t. What you need is someone who generates as little paperwork as possible and gets the job done without detours and grandstanding.
2. You don’t have to read all the correspondence — and shouldn’t
Unless you’re in pro per, there is no reason to read reams of accusations and threats. I read every shit-slinging missive from opposing counsel the first time around and went to sleep each night clutching my vial of Klonopin. This time, I didn’t read a single letter. I read my attorney’s even-handed, brief responses and then forced myself to think about something else. The result? The second custody battle didn’t consume my life and I got through it without taking even one Klonopin. Thin Mints and wine, not so much.
3. A custody battle will teach you about boundaries
My marriage to Prince only “worked” when I accommodated him. This meant squashing my needs, my voice, and walking around with a belly full of anger and resentment 24 hours a day. I divorced him thinking that I would reclaim my integrity. What I didn’t realize was that, without changing my over-accommodating ways, I’d still be a squashed, voiceless vat of resentment.
Both during the dissolution and first custody battle, I settled with Prince without setting foot in a courtroom. I was afraid of his wrath, I was afraid of what a judge might order, I was afraid of the cost. But primarily, I was afraid of asserting myself.
So this time, I was determined that my case be heard. Because refusing to attempt settlement pisses off a judge, I told my lawyer to try to negotiate with Prince’s lawyer as we waited outside the courtroom for our case to be called. But I told her not to discuss anything without first discussing child support, and that modifying Franny’s timeshare was a non-negotiable.
Every time my lawyer walked away, Prince’s lawyer grew more histrionic: telling batshit-crazy lies about me, threatening an evidentiary hearing with five zillion witnesses, screaming — I mean, SCREAMING — down the people-packed hallway. And every time my lawyer came back to me with an offer, I said no. No, no, no, no, no.
Until I got what I wanted. Without even getting in front of the judge. Ironically, the one time I actually wanted to step inside the courtroom, I didn’t need to.
4. Find your own voice and listen to it.
Because I didn’t trust myself, I used to let everyone else tell me what to do. This led to unfortunate outcomes and a lack of empowerment because I didn’t know what I thought about anything.
So when it came to Custody Battle Part Deux, I stopped asking for advice and stopped accepting unsolicited advice. I even stopped participating in conversations initiated by understandably concerned friends and family — conversations that left me exhausted and more anxious. Setting boundaries — thank you for your concern, but I’m not going to discuss this further — was incredibly liberating. I didn’t care if someone was upset by my limit-setting, I didn’t spend yet more of my free time focussing on things I couldn’t control, and I could listen to myself think.
5. Power comes from within
Not long after my divorce, when I was a virtual punching bag for my ex and my son who then hated me, a kick-boxing friend suggested I take her class because “you need to find your power, Pauline.”
I didn’t take her class and I don’t know how much kick-boxing would have helped, but I never forgot what she told me. It took several more years to find my voice through blogging. I returned to my first love — writing — and in the process of building my blog and my readership, I morphed from being a helpless girl to a woman of conviction and strength.
Bullies smell fear. Prince did what he did all those years because I wore my vulnerability around my neck. This time, when I walked into the courthouse, my body posture was different. I walked purposefully, I looked Prince’s pathetic, enabling wife straight in the eye (she refused to acknowledge me), and I got in Prince’s attorney’s face and yelled right back at him. Not the most prudent move, perhaps, but I wasn’t about to stand there and let him tell me I shouldn’t ask for child support since Prince paid the kids’ tuition.
I’m convinced Prince sensed that I was no longer afraid of him. I don’t know if that had anything to do with him giving me essentially everything I wanted, but it certainly didn’t hurt.
6. Bullies get aggressive when they’re threatened
I used to mistake Prince’s aggression with strength. Now I know that it’s a sign that he’s scared — usually, of losing control. His lawyer is the same way, which is why they found each other. So when his attorney stood in the hallway shrieking that I was a money-grubbing unfit mother who would be trounced in court, I stopped focussing on my fear and focussed on his panic.
I knew the banshee-wailing was a tactic to destabilize me and get me to accept a bum deal. So I crossed my arms, rolled my eyes, and said no, no, no, and NO until they ceded to almost all my demands. I suspect they did this in part because they were scared of the judge, who was reported to be a wild card new to family law.
7. You can’t get through life without a sense of humor
This was my mother’s motto. I credit her with my sardonic sense of humor, which has kept me from going off the deep end. It’s a gift that Luca has inherited and displayed in fine form the day of the hearing. Prince’s attorney sports a bizarre, gelled tuft of hair on top of his head, and Luca became fixated on it, whispering to me that it looked like a pine comb.
During one of Princes’s attorney’s hissy fits, I looked over at Luca seated on a bench in the hallway. He had found a pine comb GIF on his iPhone and, with a perfectly straight face, was holding it over his head. He did this every time the attorney screamed.
I was the only mother in the courthouse that couldn’t stop laughing.
8. You can’t change other people — but other people might change if you do
Narcissists will never “get over” the divorce. They thrive on having a target, and as long as you’re stuck with the impossible job of “co-parenting” with them, you’re stuck being the punching bag. The only way to survive is to detach as much as possible: from worrying about what stunt they’ll pull next, from sinking into an emotional quagmire of emotional reactivity and despair.
I consider practicing detachment to be a discipline. Everyday, I focus on accepting what I can’t control, and little by little, I’ve gotten better. I think Prince realizes that I don’t topple over as easily and this has made him back off — to a degree. Not because he’s become a better person, but because I have, and the same tricks have a diminishing return.
9. It’s okay to be angry
Yes, anger is like taking poison hoping the other person will die. But perpetually swallowing anger is like taking poison hoping that you won’t die. The fact that the Machiavelli clan chooses to spend their money vacationing, golfing, high-end shopping, and kitchen-remodeling instead of providing adequate housing for both kids, or allowing Luca access to his bank account, or helping buy new clothes for a growth-spurting 17-year-old is repulsive.
The fact that Prince and his wife held a meeting with Luca to inform him that they shouldn’t have to spend their “hard-earned money” on my child support is beyond gross. Not allowing myself to feel rage at injustice, and to express it in appropriate ways, feels inauthentic. Anger serves a purpose; it’s a stop on the way to acceptance.
10. Even if you win, the scrambled eggs still taste like scrambled eggs
I’ll never forget reading an interview with Cybill Shepherd after she won her Emmy for her role in the 80s sit-com Moonlighting. She said that once you came down from the initial high of success, you realized that your life was essentially unchanged. You still had to get up and cook breakfast. And the scrambled eggs still tasted like scrambled eggs.
My thrill of victory evaporated when I returned from the courthouse and walked into a dusty, dirty-dish-filled apartment. I yelled at Luca to “get your crap off the floor!” and he moaned that “we never have any good snacks!”
The thrill of being legally able to parent my son quickly dissolved to the reality of parenting a son: sometimes exhilarating, often exhausting.
* * *
Not being a New-Agey person, I would never wave my hand in the air and say all this happened for a reason. Well, it did happen for a reason — that I was a lost soul who had the misfortune of having children with a narcisssist — but that’s a reason I could have done without, thank you very much.
It doesn’t matter why my apocalyptic divorce happened. It just matters that it did, and I survived — a better person for it.