“Coming in Hot” — Finding the Landing Strip in Divorce
I’ve been on trial and in hearings for a few cases almost non-stop for the last few weeks. They have been tough cases. Each has been in active litigation for almost several years. For the last two weeks we’ve spent countless hours trying to settle a lot of thorny issues. As I dealt with these cases, I recalled a former client, a very perceptive and intelligent guy, who always remained the face of calm and reason during the period of his own trial — reiterating frequently our need to bring the case to settlement onto the “landing pad.”
During this same time, my ex-wife has carried more than her share of the load with our son and I am grateful. When she and I travel together (which we still do on coparenting vacations), we always joke with each other about the plane landing. “We’re coming’ in hot” is our customary tag-line we repeat to each other jokingly as we touch down. And it is that theme of the “landing” that I want to explore relative to divorce.So many times, it feels like we are, as lawyers, flying (with the client) a massive jumbo jet that we are trying to land on a dime. The controls are heavy, the wind is choppy, and the landing strip is not going to be long enough. So how do we get the case to “land”? What is it that permits some cases to touch down relatively well (ultimately) and some cases to go all the way or even off the runway?I think it has to be, in large part, staying in that oft-cited “zone” and taking things as they come.
We all — as lawyers and clients — have feelings. We get mad, irritable, impatient, and positional. We can lose our cool and we can get lost in the weeds. We get offended by this or outraged by that. Our passions become the tail wagging the settlement dog. The other side appears to be changing the deal, the other side appears to be negotiating in bad faith, new issues arise, and old issues reappear. Nothing seems linear and everything seems chaotic.But we have to stay in it. Too many people, lawyers and parties in a case, just throw up their hands. They walk away from the table. Sometimes you have to do that — don’t get me wrong. Sometimes that is a tactic (in order to return to the table) and sometimes it is substantively necessary. But in the main, staying at the table is vital. We all have a tendency to avoid pain and discomfort of all kinds. And that innate tendency causes us sometimes to make substantively suboptimal decisions
.For the last two weeks, I have heard lawyers and others repeatedly say — “let’s just try the case” or “it is easier just to try the case.” And in some ways it IS easier to fight. It is easier to step away from hard conversations and difficult issues and just go through the formal process. It doesn’t require the same interpersonal engagement. It doesn’t require the tough give and take. But in so many other ways, a trial and all it means is not easier in either the near or long terms.And the truth is that where kids are involved — whether it is a trial or a settlement — these resolutions are tentative and do not resolve things fully and forever. You have a child and that means a necessity of engagement with the other side (in some form) for many years possibly.
For a lot of you — just like my ex-wife and me, a divorce and coparenting relationship is a constant settlement of sorts. Repeated daily. In my own relationship with my former spouse after divorce, we communicate well I think. We share goals. But we disagree — often profoundly. But like the situation at the settlement table, we try to remain engaged and focused. We try not to fall into that easy pattern of “fuck it…” and then we’re off to the races. We try to find the landing strips on all of the issues that arise. And we inevitably do. Sometimes that requires a lot of patience. Sometimes it requires diverting to a different runway. Sometimes it means circling the figurative airport for a while until the runaway is accessible. But it always means the two of us staying in the seat, hands on the controls, trying to land on a resolution, a process or a result. Settlement is harder than trial. Making peace is harder than fighting. It is easier to break things than it is to build them.
Former Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn commented once that “any jackass can knock down a barn, but it takes a good carpenter to build one.” This is true in divorce as well. In divorce, remaining in the moment, residing non-judgmentally with your maelstrom of feelings and maintaining clarity and focus are essential. It takes a good set of nerves to fly and land a plane.
Sometimes we can all feel like “Ted Striker” in “Airplane!” — sweat is pouring off us and we’re flashing back to some horrible time before when we couldn’t touch down. That’s ok. Take a breath. Splash the glass of water on your face. And get back in it. When you feel that fear (or anger or impatience) arise — pay attention to it. That pain is the signal. Not to run. Not to fight and not to flee. But to remain. In the moment. The next moment will soon come and if you have the patience to ride it out — it will likely be better than the one that preceded it. Maybe it won’t. But remain in that next moment too. And keep remaining until it does get better. Because it will.
Safe travels to those navigating your own divorce process — and may you find your own landing strip.