National Post

Thursday, December 17, 1998

Plan for divorce as for war
Backlash feeds backlash, and now advice for women going through divorce is getting more militant and strategic

Linda Matchan
New York Times News Service

Meet today's new divorced woman. She is tough, aggressive, and armed to the teeth with ammunition on how to get what she wants in divorce court. It all comes courtesy of a profusion of new books, videos, and workshops geared to teaching women how to go for the jugular when their marriage breaks up.

The language of this material is not just militant but militaristic. It urges women to use "psychological warfare" to trump their husbands. It recommends espionage, furtive behaviour, even, in one book, "enemy reconnaissance."

Many lawyers interviewed say such tactics are not unreasonable. Over the past decade or so, they say, the divorce landscape has changed in ways that have made the legal process more unkind and less gentle than it's ever been for women, particularly mothers seeking custody of their children. They describe a variety of factors, ranging from a feminist movement backlash to a strong lobby by father's rights groups, that make it necessary for today's divorcing woman to fight harder than ever to win in court.

Consider the new book, What Every Woman Should Know About Divorce and Custody by author Sally Abrahms and Philadelphia lawyer Gayle Rosenwald Smith.

"You have to assume you no longer have the edge in custody," the authors caution. "Up until now, women have assumed that they will prevail in court." But "this overconfidence and resulting lack of preparation is tripping them up."

"You will need to view custody as a mind game and position yourself to win," they warn grimly in an opening chapter so disillusioning it's enough to make any mother think twice about leaving.

Other writers contributing to this new genre are even more aggressive, such as lawyers Sharyn Sooho and Steven Fuchs, author of Tao of Divorce: A Woman's Guide to Winning, which they published on the Internet. The book integrates Eastern philosophy with divorce, and urges women to adopt such strategies as "enemy reconnaissance, strategic information, covert planning, and the element of surprise" to get what they want in court. (They do not rule out, for example, ransacking the house for secret places in which the husband might have hidden assets or using his secretary's diary to retrace his whereabouts when investigating adultery.)

Then there is the even more combative Divorce War! 50 Strategies Every Woman Needs to Know to Win by Kansas lawyer Bradley A. Pistotnik. Among the tactics he recommends are "control your husband by being alternately loving and indifferent to keep him in a state of continual concern" and "hire a detective to prove your husband has a bad character, and pay for the services with your husband's money.

"No matter how nice your husband has been, once he has caused you to seek a divorce, it is time to fight," Pistotnik maintains. "Loss of love is a catastrophe. Revenge is all that is left to you."

Advice comes in other forms as well. Lawyer Isabella Jancourtz, author of The Massachusetts Women's Divorce Handbook, teaches a course with a psychiatric social worker at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education designed to help women through the divorce ordeal "by taking their fate into their own hands and by becoming emotionally empowered," says Jancourtz.

A Pennsylvania lawyer has produced a four-hour video -- Navigating Divorce: Women in Control -- teaching women how to get equal control of the family assets. A California woman is in the process of launching Divorced Woman Magazine, which will debut in March. Among the subjects covered will be "shared stories from others who have been there, including financial custody issues," says executive editor Tina Stassis Gustave. "There are millions of women who need help."

"When I started law 18 years ago, the viewpoint was that men made out better with money and women with the kids," says Boston lawyer David Cherny, president-elect of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers.

Two working parents are now "more the norm than the aberration," says Cherny, and judges are much more willing to regard fathers as equal and adequate caretakers -- especially since babysitters are doing so much of the caretaking anyway. "Things aren't as automatic as they were."

There have been a lot of changes in the financial arena, too, Cherny says. "Years ago, one spouse was the wage earner and one wasn't, and the rule of thumb was that about one-third of the income was paid as alimony." But now wives often have their own income or the educational ability to earn one. "You find the courts looking at earning potential and saying there isn't as much need for alimony," Cherny says. So women -- despite their hard-won gains in the workplace -- "are almost being penalized. . . What's developed is almost a backlash. It's made for a lot more aggressive litigation over money."

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