Wednesday 22 November 2017

Why do smart people have such messy splits?

Susan Daly

The actor James Woods is a smart man. He has an IQ of 180 and has a political science degree from a prestigious American university.

However, he saved one of his sharpest moves for the divorce courts. In the battle against one ex-wife, he replaced boxes of his personal documents which her legal team had demanded with boxes of telephone books. He says the rival lawyers were never able to prove what he had done -- the story only came out when Woods himself told it a few years back.

"Now that we're past the statute of limitations," he said, "I've got to tell you it was my favourite move I ever did in my whole life."

Woods has two ex-wives, both of whom he married and divorced in the 10 years between 1980 and 1990. He never revealed which one he scored the legal coup against, referring to her only as "Beelzebub".

It was a nifty trick, for sure -- and maybe one a man less clever than Woods might not have come up with. But do smart people necessarily do more damage than most couples when their relationships sour?

The most eminent judge in the family courts system in the UK thinks so. Nicholas Wall claims that intelligent people often had the most acrimonious legal disputes when they split up. He believes this is particularly true when there are children involved as the parents use them as "ammunition" against each other.

'People think that post-separation parenting is easy," he said, "In fact, it is exceedingly difficult and as a rule of thumb my experience is that the more intelligent the parent, the more intractable the dispute.

"Why do we have these endless disputes? The judicial answer is, I think, quite clear. It is because separating parents who are unable to resolve issues between themselves rarely act reasonably."

Surely, though, this is true of many couples in the death throes of their relationship. Take, for example, the divorce of the actors Charlie Sheen and Denise Richards. No one has ever claimed that the pair are top of the academic tree but they certainly managed to show their fangs in their break-up. The protracted proceedings included allegations of gambling and porn addictions (from her) and a restraining order (against him).

Perhaps the messiest splits are the ones in which the parties have most to lose in material terms. Billionaires' divorce cases, for example, tend to attract huge attention because there it is often impossible to divide such huge joint assets without getting the legal big wigs involved.

And as a rule, billionaires tend to acquire their wealth through intelligence, talent or sheer determination. Bring these traits to a courtroom and of course there will be fireworks.

The Wall Street Journal writer Robert Frank told the story in 2007 of Tim and Edra Blixseth, a billionaire couple from California who were also business partners (and so, presumably, were both smart people). When they decided to divorce, Tim and Edra sat down together to divide up their assets on a notepad. So far, so emotionally intelligent.

A year later in his 'Wealth Report' column, Frank related the sad news that the couple had finally ended up in court.

"Of course, it's not impossible for rich people to have quiet divorces," he wrote, "but when you mix fierce emotion, strong personalities and large fortunes, legal battles seem all but inevitable."

The same fate awaited Justine and Elon Musk. He is the millionaire entrepreneur who founded the internet company that became PayPal. She is a successful novelist and screenwriter. No shortage of smarts there -- so how did they end up in 'America's Messiest Divorce', as it was described in the title of an article by Justine herself in last month's US Marie Claire?

The couple now share custody of their five children but are still tussling over financial issues. In this case, being bright individuals has made their battle stand out. They wouldn't be fighting over his money if he didn't have the business nous to make any. And being a writer gave Justine the platform to make public her grievances.

Intelligent people -- or perhaps we should say 'wealthy people' -- may be no more bitter in their break-ups than anyone else. It's just that they tend to have the means -- and the reason -- to enter into expensive and high-profile court battles.

Irish family-law expert Marion Campbell says that in fact warring couples with various levels of education and wealth are a regular feature of our district court lists.

"The cases that are the most fractious in the extreme are the ones where custody and access to children are at stake, no matter the circumstances of the parents," she says. We don't hear about the most furious ones of all -- those involving children -- because they cannot by law be reported on.

Campbell relates the details of a recent case in which an unmarried couple were in the district court, fighting over their young child. "The child was the subject of absolutely acrimonious letters back and forth between solicitors in terms of the custody and visitation rights of the father."

Campbell felt the only option was to put the case into the circuit court which requires what's called a Section 47 report, an independent examination and report by a psychologist or psychiatrist into what's best for the father, mother and child.

"We literally had to cross every 't' and dot every 'i' in the details of how this child's care would be arranged -- pick-up times, access over Christmas and summer. That's how acrimonious, how sticky it was. That was a working-class couple; it had nothing to do with intelligence or education.

"When it gets to court for some people, the relationship has broken down and the children are treated as pawns. There are middle-class couples, too, who fight like cats over their children. And it's got nothing to do with love -- it's to get one over the other side."

While Nicholas Wall's argument that "intelligent" couples make for nasty rivals might remain unproven, his words on the damage done to children in any bitter split should be heeded.

"Disputes over contact between absent parents and their former partners, married or otherwise, are rarely about the children concerned," he said. "Far more often, the parties are fighting over again the battles of the relationship, and the children are both the battlefield and the ammunition."

Glynis Good of the Marriage and Relationship Counselling Service counsels teens and parents struggling post-separation.

"I see that a lot of what happens is parents working against each other, in a competition, which perhaps relates to what that judge said. When we hand over decisions to courts, the children are in the middle.

"I would hate to come across as judgmental, as I've worked with separating parents. But if they can co-operatively parent, it gives their child permission to get on with their life."

See www.mrcs.ie for information on counselling services.

Irish Independent

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