"I need for him to face the consequences of what he has done."
I vocalized those words to my parents when we first discovered that my husband had committed marital embezzlement and felony bigamy. Those words were the driving force behind my decision to contact the police about his actions. I expressed those words through clenched teeth to the district attorney and the victim advocate while my body still trembled with the shock. I used those words as a mantra as I carefully gathered evidence and pieced together the story. And I relied on those words as I made decisions throughout the divorce process.
The need for him to pay, either by returning the money he had swindled from me or by serving jail time for his crime, was a driving force—as real and as persistent as a need for food. I was convinced he needed to face consequences so he could experience the pain he inflicted, both so I could find closure and, perhaps most of all, because it was only fair that he face the repercussions of his choices.
For a time, I thought it was going to work. The DA's office discussed the possibility of jail time, or at least a protracted probation. My attorney discussed restitution and requested the totals of monetary losses. I even felt some satisfaction when it seemed as though his career might be endangered due to his deceptions.
And then, it all collapsed. He was granted a diversion in the bigamy case. He made exactly two paltry payments out of the many ordered by the divorce decree. And as far as I knew, he even kept his job.
I was devastated. Directionless. I had spent most of my energy in the previous eight months devoted to making him pay, only to be left vacant while he appeared to dance away free and clear. I was angry. I was defeated.
And I was also at a crossroads.
I could choose to continue to driven by the need to make him pay. I was well within my rights to alert the DA's office that my now ex-husband had not met the terms of the diversion, which carried with it an automatic felony conviction. I could contact my divorce attorney and pursue contempt charges for neglecting to follow the terms of the decree.
Or, I could decide to walk away, to let go of the need to make him pay and instead invest in my own future.
I chose the second option. And it's funny, even though I'm not aware of any consequences he has faced, I've found closure. I've found financial stability. I have found a happy, new life. I have found peace.
And I didn't need him to pay for any of it.
The "I am going to make them pay" attitude comes with a high price during divorce. Here's what it will cost you:
When you're approaching the legal process with a desire to make your ex pay, the paperwork and billable hours increase exponentially. Not only are you asking your attorney to do more (which they are more than happy to bill you for), you are also prompting your ex to go on the defensive (also upping the time and costs involved), or even to launch a counterattack.
In my own case, I had a choice between "fault" and "no-fault" divorce. I chose the first one because the latter verbiage made my stomach turn. That lack of a single word probably cost me four months and $15,000. In hindsight, I should have selected the faster and easier route, even if I later scratched out the word "no" on the final decree.
A need for revenge is carried on the swells of ugly emotions. It feeds anger as you remain focused on the wrongs that were committed. It prompts episodes of "why me?" as you wail against the injustices. It even elicits feelings of envy as you feel like you're the only one paying. As long as you're focused on your ex, you're keeping yourself mired in the muck around the divorce.
I was given a form by the DA's office that asked me, the identified victim, to describe what I thought my husband's legal consequences should be for the bigamy charge. Before writing on the page, I photocopied it so that I could pen a version in line with my revenge fantasies. It was in line with the dark humor that saw me through those months, but it also showed how much anger was still roiling inside me. And as long as I was driven to make him pay, that anger would be my companion.
False Sense of Control
Divorce brings with it so many changes and so much that is out of your control that it is natural to try to dictate whatever terms you can. And using the court system in an attempt to make your ex pay can bring with it a sense of power, especially if you have the financial means to support your strike. This is especially acute in cases of an affair, where the betrayed is desperately looking for a handhold to stop the sickening sense of free fall. But the legal process isn't in your hands. The judge can choose to ignore the mountains of evidence. And your ex can choose to not follow the orders.
I found another sort of control in my quest. The sheer obsessiveness that I approached the legal process with was a distraction from the overwhelming pain and fear I was experiencing. By focusing on the next document or the latest email from the attorney, I didn't have to look too closely at myself. But as with the straw man of the legal process, this emotional control was simply a false diversion that only delayed my own progress.
Pretend for a moment that your ex is made to pay in exactly the terms you hope for. What then? Do you hurt any less? Is the disruption to your life any smaller? Has your anger suddenly dissipated? Do you now have a deep sense that your ex truly understands what you went through? Probably not. It's all too easy to place too much value on the consequences, assuming that everything will be okay once the pound of flesh has been extracted. And the realization that the payment, no matter how steep, isn't enough can be quite an abrupt letdown.
I never experienced the emotional anticlimax that follows the dispensation of consequences. Instead, I faced the letdown of payments never made and debts never settled. It was as though all of my efforts for the previous eight months were simply torn up and thrown away like so much garbage. It felt like running a marathon, only to be felled by a sprained ankle just shy of the finish line. It was over, but it wasn't finished.
Until, that is, I decided that I was done. Done with paying for my attorney's summer vacation with my need for revenge. Done with allowing the negative thoughts to set up residence in my head. Done with pretending that I could control external circumstances. And done with allowing his consequences to dictate my well-being.
I realized just how much making him pay was costing me. And I decided the price wasn't worth it.
Written by Lisa Arends
Lisa Arends is a divorcee working to inspire others to move forward, recenter, and repurpose their lives. She has written the "How-To-Thrive Guide." Learn more about "thriving" and be inspired by visiting LessonsFromTheEndOfAMarriage.com.