Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A Spectator's Seat in Divorce Court, Perjury and Broken Vows

Today I attended the sentencing hearing of the sexual predator whom our staff discovered (I last made mention of this situation here). The hearing was relocated to Auxiliary Court 3 in the lavish new Collin County Courthouse.

But before they could get to our case, they spent an hour processing divorces and related matters. My associate pastor whipped out his iPhone, activated the stopwatch function, and after a while turned to me and said, "They're doing these at about four and a half minutes a pop." An hour of four-minute divorces. You do the math. It was really depressing.

Perfunctorily each case stood before the judge, most with attorneys but some without, and rehearsed a set of formulaic questions and answers as a part of the divorce ritual. As I listened, I couldn't help but think to myself that most of these people either weren't listening to what they were saying, hadn't thought much about what they were saying, or just didn't care that they were lying and committing perjury.

Each had to affirm that "the marriage has become insupportable because of discord or conflict of personalities that destroys the legitimate ends of the marital relationship." There's so much to parse there—where to start?! Had all of those marriages really become "insupportable"? The word means incapable of being supported. Is it really the truth that they could not support the marriage, or that they would not do so? And what are "the legitimate ends of the marital relationship"? For what legitimate reasons does marriage exist? Just to make me happy? Does it not exist for me to sacrifice for the good of my spouse and my children (if any)? Does it not exist as one of the basic building blocks of our society? If it requires a little bit of flexibility and grace and forgiveness on my part to keep the marriage going, are not the legitimate ends of the marital relationship met thereby? How can it be that, in case after case after case, these people have all carefully discovered (some after as little as two or three years in the marriage) that there is absolutely no way to meet the legitimate ends of the marriage?

Next came, as night follows day, the affirmation that "no reasonable expectation of reconciliation exists." In Texas, none of these people were required by law to go to any sort of marital counseling, and statistically we know that many of them had not. Yet how could anyone assert that "no reasonable expectation of reconciliation exists" without having lifted a finger or made any effort to get help in reconciling the marriage? Is picking up the phone and asking for help not reasonable?

I think it likely that these folks were just perfunctorily babbling off a script that they had before them—saying whatever it took to get their divorce and committing perjury (even if thoughtlessly so) in the process.

Shocking? It shouldn't be. These are, in many cases, the same people who mindlessly and meaninglessly muttered their vows at the beginning of the whole journey. Their shallow and empty affirmations at their divorce proceedings serve to complete the set of bookends to their whole marital experience.


Anonymous said...


Been there, done that. It is sad watching a modern domestic relations docket.

The testimony given by the people going through this, however, is not perjury. The reason being that they are expressing their opinion about the state of the marriage and the chances of reconciliation. As Christians, we see normally see most situations as redeemable - as an aspirational matter.

When these people say that there are irreconcilable differences in the marriage (the legal test used in our state) they are expressing their view and opinion. If the other spouse signs off on the proposed divorce decree, then they, too, are agreeing that the differences are irreconcilable. If they do not sign off, the court sees that as a situation where there is a difference of opinion, and will not grant an uncontested divorce on that ground absent a period where the parties live apart (2 years in our state).

Human nature is such that we always look for something new to make us whole. That includes relationships.

That is wrong and sad.

But the courts recognize that what is said in court in these situations, that goes unrebutted, might be characterized as prematurely or overly pessimistic, but not perjury.


Bart Barber said...


I choose to retain a bit of idealism if you don't mind. When you utter something in court that is not true, I choose to continue to believe that you have done something wrong.

Amanda Jo said...

As a child of divorced parents, married to a child of divorced parents, my heart breaks for the children mixed up in this.

I know I shouldn't be, but I am always amazed by our culture's "quick fix" mentality.

What's next divorcing your children? Oh wait...Nebraska has already started rolling that ball.

Bart Barber said...


Surely it IS heartbreaking. I suppose that was the most striking and difficult thing about the whole experience—the complete absence of mourning in the process. I even saw a smirk or two on faces departing the courtroom.

Anonymous said...


I am all for idealism, and truly appreciate you zeal in that regard.

But perjury is serious, and courts do not consider these statements to be perjury for the reasons I have stated.


Bart Barber said...


A funny thing happened in court that day. A woman recently divorced was bringing (pro se) a motion to terminate the parental rights of her imprisoned ex-husband. She was reading a little script that she had doubtless downloaded off of the Internet or obtained from somebody. In the script she stated that she had an affidavit of relinquishment (I believe that's what she said) from her husband.

The judge stopped her and said, "I don't have one of those in the file." She looked up like a calf looking at a new gate. "Did your husband sign an affidavit?" he asked. She acknowledged that he had not (she had just been reading from the script).

"You just committed a felony," the judge retorted. But then he assured her that they weren't going to do anything about her felony perjury.

There are things that the legal system "winks" at. Let's face it—there are things that the legal system OUGHT to wink at (my little story included). There are things that nobody on earth would prosecute as perjury that are nonetheless the willful purveyance of false testimony in court. What I've highlighted belongs in that category.

Try all that you might, you're simply not going to convince me that those people standing before the bar all (or even in the majority!) hold the sincere opinion that nothing could be done to provide a reasonable chance of success in their marriage. Perhaps nothing that they are WILLING to do, but that's a horse of a different color.

I know whereof I speak, because I counsel with some of these folks before they get there. Those are simply the magic phrases that you have to affirm in order to get a divorce. And the participants in the legal system (taken collectively) believe that you ought to be able to get a divorce for the sole cause of wanting one. So they have a tacit "winking" agreement to make it so.

What would be honest would be simply and solely to require people to stand before a judge and say the following:

"When we gave our marital vows, at least one of us was lying. Now we would like to have a divorce, because we really don't care to invest what it takes to make our marriage work. We've reached an agreement as to how to divide our assets and debts, and although we know that our children will carry these scars with them as long as they live, we've made a plan to try to ameliorate that damage as best we can."

Wayne Smith said...


Thanks of this post.
Newspaper columnist and minister George Crane tells of a wife who came into his office full of hatred toward her husband. "I do not only want to get rid of him, I want to get even. Before I divorce him, I want to hurt him as much as he has me."
Dr. Crane suggested an ingenious plan "Go home and act as if you really love your husband. Tell him how much he means to you. Praise him for every decent trait. Go out of your way to be as kind, considerate, and generous as possible. Spare no efforts to please him, to enjoy him. Make him believe you love him. After you've convinced him of your undying love and that you cannot live without him, then drop the bomb. Tell him that you're getting a divorce. That will really hurt him." With revenge in her eyes, she smiled and exclaimed, "Beautiful, beautiful. Will he ever be surprised!" And she did it with enthusiasm. Acting "as if." For two months she showed love, kindness, listening, giving, reinforcing, sharing. When she didn't return, Crane called. "Are you ready now to go through with the divorce?"
"Divorce?" she exclaimed. "Never! I discovered I really do love him." Her actions had changed her feelings. Motion resulted in emotion. The ability to love is established not so much by fervent promise as often repeated deeds.
J. Allan Petersen.

Wayne Smith

Anonymous said...

I am afraid that our society as a whole does not take marriage seriously, and view it as "if it feels good - do it"...we can always change our minds later (ie...divorce...) Sad and heartbreaking indeed.