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Marriages Come and Go, But Divorce is Often Forever

January 20, 2015
On the Law

Last Christmas Eve, I got a voicemail from my son Shamus asking if I knew of "a divorce lawyer named Mr. Barnhart."

Shamus called from New Orleans where he lives. Since he's not married, his divorce lawyer voicemail took me by surprise. He said that Public Radio International in New Orleans had broadcast an essay by a woman named "Susan" who spoke of a mysterious "Mr. Barnhart" in Grand Rapids. Evidently, Barnhart handled the dissolution of Susan's parents' marriage in 1987. The essayist spoke of the effect that the divorce had on her.

My son said the report was interesting, and he was right about that. For starters, Bruce A. Barnhart has worked in the office next to me for the last 15 years here in Grand Rapids.

The PRI essay can be found in the This American Life radio archive. (To read the transcript, scroll to Act Four.) As I found the link and hit play, I wondered whether I would hear of my partner navigating a nasty divorce, outwitting a contentious adversary, and seizing more than a fair share for his client. Perhaps he had snarled like the "pit bull" that divorce combatants often want when ending relationships with the former man or woman of their dreams. 

After all, time spent in courtrooms has provided me with access to seamy stories of ugly split-ups, the breakup of families, and battles over everything from child custody to which spouse should be "awarded" possession of old snow tires. And I cannot forget the grin on the face of a lawyer who once boasted of "presiding over the dissolution of the American family, one divorce at a time."

The radio essay surprised me. Susan said that she grew up in Grand Rapids until she was 13, when she moved to Colorado with her mother after her parents' divorced, an event that both hurt and obsessed her. She said that she was no longer a member of the perfect family of four.  Rather, she and her sister had become "two latchkey kids and a single parent, and we'd been relocated to a tract house." 

As Susan put it, "my parents' divorce was the biggest thing in my life. I dwelled on it to the point of obsession, to the point of melodrama. As far as I was concerned it was the most important fact about me."

Susan also reported that, at her mother's home in Colorado, she once stumbled across a file labeled "Divorce" while looking for something else.

After initial hesitation, the young woman reviewed her mom's divorce papers closely. She later said that going through the folder "always brought a rush of different feelings." They included fear that she would learn that her parents had done bad things or were bad people. She noted that even the smallest thing could move her, like seeing her parents' handwritten initials on legal documents.

What caught my attention was when Susan noted that, "My mother was represented by a lawyer named Bruce Barnhart. To him these agreements were probably just divorce Mad Libs. He'd sit at his big desk, with my mother across from him, and fill in the blanks."

However, Susan also learned that the mysterious Mr. Barnhart -- whom she initially described as "just a lawyer in Grand Rapids Michigan" --  was more than an ice-cold scrivener. He may have painstakingly filled in blanks, but there was also a day when Barnhart authored a note that stopped the young woman cold. Even though a final hearing to formalize the divorce was but days away, Barnhart had written to Susan's mother: "This will confirm our telephone conference. I have adjourned the hearing date from January 30, 1987 to February 27, 1987. I wish you well in your efforts to resolve your marital difficulties."

Mr. Barnhart's brief note meant a lot to Susan. Its 32 spare words meant that, at one point, her parents had tried one final time to save their marriage. Barnhart's note meant that a lawyer had tried to help the parents stay together, instead of pulling them apart, as a pit bull might pull on a rag.

I recently asked Bruce Barnhart about the PRI essay.  He had heard it a couple years ago when it was originally broadcast. Bruce, a member of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers -- an organization that includes only 1,678 members among roughly 1.4 million attorneys nationwide -- offered that "I never made speeches to clients, but I always thought that trying to keep couples together was sort of a moral duty that I had."  

My partner said he had handled hundreds of divorces. But, for all of those who might think that it takes a good lawyer to end a good or bad marriage, Bruce said that he often suggested counseling to keep couples together.  He remembered once asking a potential client to go home and make a list of all of the reasons why she had married her husband, followed by a list of the reasons why she wanted to divorce him. The woman later called and said, "I see what you are getting at," before determining to continue her marriage.

I returned my son's phone call late on Christmas morning, when even people in New Orleans were awake.  I told him about Bruce Barnhart and said that he was a good man and a very good lawyer during his roughly 45 years of family law practice. I said that Bruce remains a good man in retirement.

I also offered that Mr. Barnhart wasn't a guy who took joy in the dissolution of any "family unit." On most days, Bruce was every bit as willing to hold a couple together as he was to pull them apart.

Many marriages are as temporary as the promises and the plans and the vows that couples make to each other. Lasting commitments can be hard to hold on to. And there is only so much that even a lawyer can do.

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