The feelings can become so strong that even a teaspoon can take on extraordinary importance.
If you're married, what are the odds you'll stay that way?
Stephanie Cooper '65, MFA '76, a Manhattan attorney whose practice includes matrimonial law, doesn't care.
"I pay no attention to statistics," Cooper says. "Splitting up is based in human behavior," not in numbers. She points out that when very young people marry they often grow in different directions, a fact supported by the NCH survey. "Then there are people who don't want to commit to the seriously hard work of marriage, and there are people who change marriages like they change hats."
Cooper has her own insight into the process, having divorced and remarried herself. "Divorce is a minefield because of the potential damage it can do to the participants, both parents and children. And my job is to be the one of those people who go out first with the minesweepers."
She believes in what she calls "ethical divorce." She sees her role as that of a counselor in the truest meaning: she dispenses legal knowledge, exercises judgment and tries to be both empathetic and objective. "In a legal sense, a contract is broken, " she says. "What was one becomes two. The adjustment is not only legal, however—the adjustment is emotional and financial."
Cooper, who balances her caseload with entertainment and employment law, does not accept divorce cases where she feels the couples will destroy their children through prolonged custody battles. "The first priority of the couple must be that their children's lives are as little damaged as possible. Couples with children tend to feel competitive. They know that they're changing their children's lives forever. The 'best' divorces are when people put their children first and their high emotions elsewhere. When you watch a child trying to deal with going from an ordered universe to a fractured universe, you can't wage war."
The ideal circumstances for divorce, Cooper says, occur when there are no children, and when the two parties understand they don't belong together, have no axes to grind, settle their property issues and come in saying, "Tell us how the law applies and we'll wrestle out the contract."
But many divorces fall far from the ideal, and human emotions are the root of the problem: Divorce causes primitive separation anxiety to erupt in all sorts of ways. "I never knew anyone who was getting divorced who wasn't frightened," Cooper says. "Passion is positive and negative—when there's been a passionate connection, and it goes wrong, it goes wrong passionately. The feelings can become so strong that even a teaspoon can take on extraordinary importance." On the other hand, she has clients who are so conscience-stricken they wouldn't think of talking about property until Cooper coaxes it out of them.
"It's very different to go from being part of a couple to being single. It affects every social aspect of your life. It's harder to join activities; much of the world is monogamous and married and it doesn't matter what the gender of the couple is. One plus one is more than two. Divorce always leaves wounds, and it takes time to heal. Many of my clients say divorce feels like death."
Yet divorce can also be a positive experience. "I say to my clients, 'You're setting an example to your children: A life mistake can be corrected.' One client's eight-year-old said to him, 'I don't understand why the two of you are married. You're always angry at each other and you're not happy. Why don't you just get divorced?'"