If you ever need to give Seal, ScarJo, or Demi Moore the Big, Court-Approved BLOW OFF, call Laura Wasser. She’s the divorce attorney who represented Heidi Klum, Ryan Reynolds, and Ashton Kutcher. I saw her interviewed Wednesday night by Joshua Wolf Shenk, who has been studying the nature of partnerships, and who focused his final night hosting Clockshop's Cheap Talk series on how they end.
“There are very few things in my office that can be thrown,” said Wasser, a poised and straightforward striking brunette, Alicia Florrick via Laurel Canyon. While too many of her colleagues “churn their fees” — stoking their client’s resentments to bump up their billable hours — she tries to talk them down, into swift, amicable resolutions.
“Criminal defense lawyers see rotten people on their best behavior,” she says, “but family law attorneys see basically good people at their worst.” She recalled hearing one voice mail a wife left for her husband that ran through a vicious litany of faults — you’re a jerk, you’re a bastard, you’re impotent, we all hate you — and at the end, right before the hangup, a child’s voice piping up, “I don’t hate you, dad.”
Shenk compared divorce to what he found by examining creative partnerships that there’s a “cognitive process of illusion-making in relationships that is ongoing.” At some point, he observes, “it flips” — you go from writing a story about how your partner has everything you need to how they are everything that’s holding you back. Marriages end in similar fashion.
They also end in January, said Wasser. It’s her biggest month for new clients — it’s when she gets the most calls, and it’s when the people who come to her are most likely to follow through. “A lot of new clients through the year just want Family Law 101,” she said. But the people who come in January are the ones who tried to make it through just one more holiday season, and afterwards decided they never wanted to do that again.
Shenk asked how her famous clients are different from her regular clients. “It seems like private life might be sanctified from the corruptions of the outside world,” he ventured. She didn’t think they were all that different. “But for the media aspect, they’re dealing with the same things,” she said. “You can add or subtract zeros, but it’s the same fear or failure.”
In California—this surprised me—behavior is not enforceable via prenuptial agreement. There’s no “if he cheats I get everything.” Nor is there any “if she does drugs,” “if he leaves the toilet seat up,” “if she fails to lose the baby weight,” no matter what you’ve heard or hope for. TV lied to you.
Ten years is the magic number for support payments. For a marriage that ends before ten years are up, support can be ordered for half the length of the marriage, but for longer marriages, it can be extended indefinitely at a judge’s prerogative. Wasser gave examples of marriages that were ruled long-term despite the parties’ disagreements. One husband came home every Sunday to do laundry even while living apart and sleeping around. His wife maintained that the marriage hadn’t ended because he was doing laundry at the house for five years. Another confessed to Wasser that, while he’d stopped sleeping with his wife on her advice, “I’ve been getting blowjobs.” (“The wife knew the rules,” said Wasser. “She had some of the blowjobs on video.”)
(My own divorce came around the three-year mark. My ex probably could have asked for a little support; in the end she just insisted I give her half of my Grandma Diane’s unwitting anniversary present check, a demand I thought was admirably nervy since she’d moved out four months before Grandma wrote it.)
Wasser gives her clients one piece of advice that may help you with your non-court-mediated breakups. “I tell them to make a list of 5 things you were held back from doing in your relationship.” People who come to her are sad and focused on the past. This helps them get excited about the future.
So what (or who) is on your list of 5? CONFIDENTIAL TO HAPPY COUPLES: write your list at your own risk.
Powers of Two by Joshua Wolf Shenk
It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way by Laura Wasser