In 2006, Vanessa Hammer and Brendan Hammer were in law school (she at the University of Houston and he at DePaul) and living in different states when they met at a national Hispanic moot court competition.
They married nine months later. Both saw in each other a good mate, someone with whom to make a life.
“My family was surprised we moved so fast because Im usually cautious, but at the time I had no hesitation,” she said.
The couple each began, and continue, careers as divorce lawyers. Differences about where to live and having more children compounded when an infidelity broke up the marriage, yet alignment on raising their son keeps the family intact.
Where did they grow up?
An only child, he grew up in a small town in northern Indiana. His mother was Hispanic, but he often said he was Italian.
“My surname is Anglo but I just didnt fit in,” he said. “I developed a chip on my shoulder.”
His family struggled financially.
She grew up in a large Mexican-American family in Houston. Her parents divorced when she was 10. She was raised by her grandparents and her single mother who often worked several jobs.
What was it about the other?
He was smart and good looking and knew where he wanted to go in life, she said.
“As a Mexican-American, Vanessa was very much like my mom,” he said. “We shared values, she made life more manageable and she brought me out of my shell.”
Where did they live after marrying?
After she graduated from law school in 2006, she moved to Chicago where he had one more year of law school. They made a plan to move to Texas after his graduation.
How were the early years?
For both, the first years were great. They travelled, worked hard, but discussions about where they would live and how many children they would have sowed seeds for future challenges. He did not want to leave Chicago for Texas, and when his mom became ill in 2007, it gave him a good reason to stay.
Were they happy?
Yes, he said, though he thought he had the better deal of the two of them.
“Vanessa made lots of concessions, she agreed not to do things because of my fears and I think I held her back,” he said.
“I sacrificed to leave my family and made concessions in my career in Chicago because in the back of my mind I thought we were going back to Texas,” she said.
First signs of trouble?
His mother died of cancer in May 2009 and after his father came to live with the couple. After the birth of their son in 2010, his father helped with their newborn.
“It was a lot to handle all at once,” he said. “A child and the death of my mother.”
Early on they fought about the Texas move, but by 2013, when their son was nearly 3, she felt something was amiss. He was snappish, acting strangely and drinking too much. She discovered he had had an affair. It was a reaction to a “perfect storm” of circumstances, he said: his mothers death, the pressure of his job and their son whom he at first felt replaced by.
“It was just one of many symptoms of a marriage in trouble,” he explained.
Did they try to work on things? Go to therapy?
They spent the next year in therapy exploring the deep roots of their divide. She wanted to move home to Texas and also wanted another child. He did not.
The final breakup?
They reached an impasse and divorce became inevitable. In 2014 she moved to Texas with their son, without him. He travelled often to Texas and spent weekends with their son who was troubled about the split and hated when his father left at the end of their visits.
How did you move on?
For a few years, it was messy. In the summer of 2015, Brendan left his firm where he was then partner and made the move to Houston.
“I did the thing I said I would never do,” he said.
Yet just over a year later they all moved back to Chicago, a decision, they both say, made for the betterment of their sons future.
“Culturally and educationally, Chicago better fit our values for raising a young child,” he said.
Now, despite their divorce, they are purchasing a home for their son who will stay in that home with one of them as they each take turns living in a separate residence that is also shared (but not at the same time). This concept is commonly referred to as nesting — providing the child of divorce one consistent, stable place to call home.
Did they feel stigmatised?
He did and still does.
“Divorce is treated like a disease, also what we are attempting to do in keeping the family together isnt understood by all,” he said. “Marriage has evolved, but we still have horse-and-buggy ideas about divorce.”
She does not feel stigmatised, though at first her family wanted to take her “side.” Because she is adamant that the three of them are a family she asked her family to treat Brendan with the same respect they always did and they have done so.
How did they fare financially?
As seasoned divorce lawyers, they settled their finances easily, fairly and with flexibility. But their incomes now cover two households, not one.
“Brendan has never been stingy. He goes above and beyond for our son,” she said.
How did their child react?
“I dont think he knows that we are divorced,” she said. “He knows there was a time when mom and dad didnt live together, but he knows we are a family.”
They use the word “we” as in “we are giving you this gift” or “we want to …”
They made a conscious decision not to use the word divorce with him.
“We have always presented a united front,” she said.
How did they separately move on?
About dating, they have a dont-ask, dont-tell policy but both say their priority is raising their son. Both say having an equal partner helps when one of them wants to travel, or has other commitments.
“We are clear the marriage is over, but I care about Brendan and what happens to him because he is my family,” she said.
Over the recent holidays, they travelled abroad together as a family.
Should they have divorced sooner?
No. Both say their son is the best thing that happened to them and that they have learned much about themselves in the divorce process.
Is their new life better?
In some ways, yes.
“Outside of the institution of marriage there is less pressure,” he said. “I have a lot more freedom, and if I am honest with myself I found marriage restrictive.”
She concurred: “I always felt I had to ask permission for everything, for having my own life apart from the family.”
Would they have done anything differently?
She says no.
“Even the move to Texas, though late, had to happen to prove that wasnt the answer to all our problems,” she said.
He says he sometimes thinks of the “what-ifs.” What if his mother had not fallen sick and died, what if they had started out living in Texas, what if he had unpacked some of his feeling about his childhood and his ideas about marriage.
“In some ways, I let my fears drive me,” he said.
Looking back, what advice would they offer?
As divorce lawyers they agree: The vast majority of people can have good divorces, but that is not encouraged in todays society.
“The system sets up adversarial thinking without regard to whether that makes sense. Litigation almost always solves nothing, but it costs a lot and can be very destructive,” he said.
She sees therapy as helpful to the goal of keeping an open mind without the expectation that there is someone to blame.
“Divorces can look like marriages and marriages can look like divorces,” he said. “Focus on the human issues because the legal issues — income, property and child support — are formulaic.”
Has either person changed?
“A lot and not at all. Im a lot less selfish. I understand real communication better, and have more respect and admiration for Vanessa,” he said.
Divorce also has made him more compassionate with his clients.
“Im a little less rigid and kinder to myself. Brendan gets the benefit of that,” she said.
Both say they are more open-minded about what marriage is and could be.
Advice for others divorcing?
“Have compassion for each other and dont say anything to the kids until you have a plan. Theres happy divorce and Ill-never-see-you-again divorce. Regardless of the kind you have, watch for the messages and shame that you take on. We should be nicer about divorce, and more nuanced. Understand the range of options for divorce; its not one-size-fits-all,” he said.
“If you have children, minimise their exposure to adult issues,” she said. “All a kid wants to know is that everything is going to be OK. Be a rock even if you dont feel like one.”