Dividing Personality: Don’t Fight About the Third Set of Dishes

Negotiations between divorcing spouses sometimes break down over big, important issues, such as child custody and visitation, but they also get nasty over silly, little disputes – such as who gets the Bob Dylan album that the couple acquired during the happier times of the marriage.

And silly, little disputes can be like sand in the gears, making the business of getting unmarried more abrasive and more painful.

Dividing what is called personality – a person’s “stuff,” as the late George Carlin put it, the things people accumulate during a lifetime, chattels, including clothing and furnishings – should be very easy: it should be divided by the spouses. Not their lawyers, who may charge several hundred dollars per hour negotiating the disposition of the third set of dishes that have been in a self-store box for most of the marriage. Not the judges, who understandably wish to sidestep a couple battling about the disposition of Fifi, their dog, and Aunt Bertha’s antique dinning room table.

Sometimes items of personalty become symbolic. The divorcing spouses battle for the possession of relics because ownership implies vindication for the failure of marriage. The ownership of the treasured Bob Dylan album (the one that can no longer be played because the stereo does not work) can become symbolically very important, for it is part of the memory of happier times, now forever gone.

The truth is, the majority of personality has a very small dollar value. And a great deal of what a couple acquires in a marriage – household goods, furniture, furnishings, the goods they bought at the mall – loses most of its value the moment it leaves the store. Paying a lawyer to fight for the relics not only dissipates money both spouses need to start a new life, but also drains emotional energy that each needs to keep going. Get a grip, stand back, and throw a cold eye to it: the fight is not worth the effort.

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