Dear Nick and Dear Nora
Dear Spike and Pinky:
I ended the last letter with a description of the second draft of a Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA) based on a structure worked out by the couple that I knew would be sound enough to support the additions and changes necessary to settle the case. Where agreement was needed on an amount of money a blank “$_______” was inserted. Where the couple had discussed more than one solution, the language necessary to implement each option was included with an instruction to “select one.” At this stage, completion of the MSA is a matter of “multiple choice” and “fill in the blank.”
The Big Stall is a phenomenon I don’t understand, and I’m continually delighted in the various forms it can take. The central characteristics of the Big Stall include: (a) A problem develops that’s small relative to the size and complexity of the case; (b) There is an obvious solution that the couple can’t see; (c) If a lawyer or mediator points out the obvious solution, it becomes contaminated and the couple will never use it no matter how advantageous it may be; (d) When the couple is compelled to acknowledge the obvious solution, the original issue morphs into a secondary issue, which will be far more difficult to identify and impossible for anyone but the parties to resolve. Unfortunately, this secondary issue – the product of well-intended advice from a professional – is likely to involve the relationship of each party to their children.
I discovered the Big Stall while representing a man who was very intelligent and well respected in the community. I’ll call him George, and I’ll call his wife Grace. Grace’s lawyer asked me to get some financial information from George.
Instead of simply agreeing to comply with the request before it turned into a demand, George said, “I’ll give her the files when she gives back the door opener for my side of the garage.”
I said, “What?”
He explained, “Grace took those openers when she left; it was sheer meanness. Garage doors should be closed unless a car is going in or out. Garden hoses should be coiled when not in use, and firewood should be well stacked and neatly covered with a tarp. These are not hard things to do and, when they are done, the order gives me peace. When they are not done, it puts me on edge.
“I can’t tell you how many times I came home from work in my suit, white shirt, tie and good shoes and have had to coil hoses. If not the hoses, I’ve had to move her car all the way into the garage so her door can close all the way to the floor. When you take firewood from a stack protected with a tarp, the tarp is likely to become misaligned. It takes only a second to make sure the edge of the tarp is parallel to the ground, but Grace was always too busy to attend to these small details. When I came home from work it felt like she was saying, ‘Screw you, George.’”
“Those weren’t the only things. Grace rarely made our bed with hospital corners, so I often awoke in the middle of the night to find the sheet pulled out from under the mattress, and my feet exposed to cold air. She knew how to make a hospital corner because she used them when she wasn’t ‘rushed.’”
He couldn’t stop, “Grace never understood that I need order to feel well. She’d reluctantly do what I asked for a while and then stop. When we were first married she called me ‘compulsive’ and toward the end I was ‘anal.’ She has absolutely no use for the opener for my garage door.”
“I’ve worked hard to get though these emotional stages of yours. Now that she’s gone, the hoses are coiled and the tarps on the firewood are perfectly aligned, but when I come back home from work, I have to get out of my car to open my garage door. It’s the same in the morning, and I regress to anger and rage. Less anger and more rage, and it’s all directed at Grace.
I could have told George that Grace had an absolute right to the information, and that he had a duty to turn over the documents. He could not hold the documents hostage, with the return of the garage door opener as ransom. But he was obviously a touchy guy, and I worried that he’d feel demeaned if I used forceful language to tell him what he already knew.
Instead I had an inspiration, “We want her to have the opener. They’re like thermometers that can tell us when the case is ripe for settlement. Grace knows what the opener means to you, and when she’s serious about settlement, she’ll give it back without being asked. It’s like those turkeys with the red button that pops out when the turkey is done. The opener is a red button that will tell us when the case is done and ready to come out of the oven.”
The idea that the Big Stall was the manifestation of a psychological need for a pause – and not an authentic conflict over a material object – got further support when I learned you could buy a garage door opener at Sears for less than $20.
How Grace expressed her anger was brilliant. The door opener was symbolic of the reasons the marriage couldn’t endure. It was non-violent, dignified, effective, and, best of all, it was funny.
For George, this was an opportunity to learn about himself and how he perceived the outer world in a way different from what most people experience. He could have learned how he was deciding to be upset and “enraged.” He could have eliminated the stimulus for his rage by replacing the opener or by parking on “Grace’s side” of the garage. These were the “obvious solutions” that are symptomatic of the Big Stall.
If George had been determined to emerge from the divorce as a “better person,” he could have learned that he had the power to actively decide what he was going to be “enraged” about. He could have realized that other people, especially those in his family, did not cause him to be upset.
Wittgenstein is given credit for the insight that two people could be deeply engaged in a card game they played for years, but when someone tells them (correctly) that the first person to play always wins, the game can never be the same for them. George could have the same realization about himself if he could keep his mind open long enough to realize that he was choosing how to react to open garage doors, uncoiled hoses, and sloppy tarps. Once he understood his responsibility for his reaction to these trivial events, an improvement in the quality of all his relationships would follow.
I can’t resist asking you to compare Grace’s behavior early in her divorce to what you two were doing to each other this time last year. You both thrive on humor, yet it was lost. Divorce provides unique opportunities and plenty of energy to be funny in ways that heal. I hope you don’t miss too many more of them.
I thought I’d be able finish what I think needs to be said about the Big Stall in this letter, but I still have a couple of good examples to tell you about, and, for my own sake, I need describe a Big Stall that’s going on right now; it’s about me.
(Who is still your best friend even though you don’t do what I suggest. I’m used to it. )