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Positions

Some divorcing couples dig in their heels for custody of the most unlikely things--pets, gurus, even the sofa.

August 03, 2000|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Enlightenment can be elusive, especially in the throes of divorce.

Take the stories circulating about the breakup of Hollywood couple Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid. The performers are squabbling over who gets "custody" rights to their New Age spiritual advisor Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, according to numerous tabloid and radio reports. (The couple's guru, who is obviously no Solomon, has chosen to remain silent about all the negative energy.)

Such an unusual clash, however, would hardly set a precedent in the colorful annals of divorce. Far from it. The fact is that though fractious celebrities may grab headlines, the less famous can just as easily fall prey to the sins of pride, greed and revenge.

Courthouses across the nation are bulging with files about separating couples who've torn into each other with a passion unseen since courtship. Anything or anybody can become the catalyst for the fiercest of battles, as the splitting couple seeks to even the score.

As in the case of Ryan-Quaid, the clash sometimes ignites over people connected to the couple, and not just their children. In addition to gurus, couples have legally pursued exclusive custody rights to hairstylists, maids, plumbers, pediatricians, schoolteachers and psychologists, to name a few.

"Couples battle about this kind of thing all the time," said Robert E. Emery, director of the Center for Children, Families and Law at the University of Virginia. "It's inevitable that third parties get dragged into it."

But, luckily, not for long. Though social manners may force the person caught in the middle to choose between the warring sides, the law--barring some unusual circumstance--will not make the decision for them.

Fighting over someone's services "is totally nonsensical," said attorney John Mayoue. "A court is never going to tell anyone they can't practice their profession [with whatever client they choose]."

But most fights in divorce proceedings are not so easily resolved. Within a fog of guilt, shame, anger and hurt, a rule of inverse proportion can sometimes take over: The lesser the financial value of an item, the greater the fight.

In an otherwise amicable separation, Mayoue said, one wealthy couple's recent divorce negotiations broke down over a dog's potential angst. The Atlanta couple had two dogs, which they agreed to split up so each person could have one. He would get the black lab, she would get the golden retriever.

But when the husband pushed for visitation rights for his pooch with his former four-legged pal, the case ground to a halt. His argument was the black lab would be lonely without his longtime companion. In his view, the remedy was joint visits every other weekend. The wife objected. After months of wrangling and with no compromise in sight, the presiding judge granted the black lab the legal right to see the golden retriever, but only one weekend per month.

"Here was a very complicated case involving millions of dollars that couldn't proceed because of a dog visitation issue," said Mayoue, an Atlanta attorney. "I'm sure the lab or the retriever weren't grieving over each other."

Other divorce cases seem as if they were taken from the theater of the absurd. Mablean Ephriam, a Los Angeles family law attorney and the judge on the syndicated television show "Divorce Court," recalls an unforgettable case over a fake mink coat.

The separating couple was bitterly fighting for possession of the garment, which had previously been given as a gift to them by a third party. The wife wanted it because she thought it looked good on her. The husband, as it was revealed on the show, was a transvestite and thought the coat looked best on him.

"I had them both try it on," Ephriam remembered with a laugh. "It was a big coat, and the husband had broader shoulders. It really looked better on him, so I gave it to him."

If a couple has the will and the wealth, there often is nothing that can dissuade them from attacking each other in the courts. Even the pleadings of an attorney--who has an obvious stake in pursuing the action--can be ignored.

Ephriam remembers a Southern California couple who had settled everything in their multimillion-dollar estate except the division of the household furnishings. The couple's negotiations soon stalled over a $300 couch. (The husband said it was his favorite couch, and the wife said it had sentimental value because it was a gift from a relative.)

"I reminded the couple my fee was $375 an hour," said Ephriam. It was several months and thousands of dollars before the husband finally relented.

As Ephriam suggests, protracted battles are rarely just about the matter at hand.

"Usually, each party feels as if they have given up too much, been too nice and too accommodating," she said. "Then they reach a point where they won't budge another inch."

Prolonged struggles, particularly over ostensibly silly items, frequently indicate the couple has unfinished emotional business. Couples who've made peace with their separation usually have drama-free divorces.

But in couples where there is ambivalence or opposition to the divorce, things can get ugly quickly. In these circumstances, fighting, while a form of animosity, is the only way to continue the relationship, according to Emery.

"Anger is part of the grief process," he added. "Ultimately, it comes down to an issue of letting go, mourning the loss of the relationship and moving on."

*

Martin Miller can be reached at martin.miller@latimes.com.

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