“Ah yes, divorce, from the Latin word meaning to rip out a man’s genitals through his wallet.” – Robin Williams

The last time I spoke to FJ, he was cursing his soon-to-be-ex wife. He was angry at her for giving up on the marriage and vowed to do everything he could to keep her from getting his multimillion-dollar fortune. His anger was both amusing and scary. Amusing because it was so characteristic of his personality. FJ is and always has been a very passionate guy. That’s one of the things I most like about him. His passion has fueled a life of many impressive accomplishments. But it has also cost him a great deal . . . and I was worried that it would do so again.

I urged him to ease up and take a realistic perspective. “Fair or not, like it or not, she is getting half of what you have,” I told him. “That’s the way it works in your state — and there’s nothing you can do about it. If you fight her, you’re going to spend a lot of money and cause yourself a lot of heartache — and, in the end, you’ll gain nothing.”

FJ wasn’t listening. Six months later, this is what has happened:

  • He lost a million dollars in net worth because he held on to his company stock instead of selling it when he should have. Why did he hold on to it? Because he didn’t want his wife to get her hands on half of it.
  • He bought a million-dollar house a block away from the one his wife was still living in — just to spite her. After his stock fell and he paid the tax bill, he couldn’t afford to keep it. He moved into a condo apartment, taking a loss on the house and incurring double closing fees, moving fees, etc.
  • He had a stroke, which has threatened his job security.
  • And he had to pay his wife half the money anyway.

This is a dramatic story, but it’s not an unusual one. In fact, there is no drama more common — or more pathetic — than the breakup of a long, intimate relationship.

Often, such events evoke strong, negative feelings. It is completely understandable that in such a situation partners will have different memories about what happened, different interpretations of facts, and strongly different ideas about what’s fair.

But if you fight it out, only your attorneys make out. This is just as true in business as it is in marriage.

When you enter into a relationship, the equity should be clearly understood. If you don’t have a contract — and, as you know, I’m not a great proponent of contracts — you need that understanding spelled out clearly in a memo. (Which, if signed by both parties, acts as a sort of brief and admittedly loose but nonetheless legally binding contract.)

If you are in a healthy, productive relationship now but don’t have any formal agreement about what is to be done with your shared assets if you break up, introduce the topic at the first convenient time. As I said, I am not in favor of an elaborate contract — although in some circumstances (those in which the assets are encumbered by third parties, for example), it may be necessary. If your relationship is troubled, you may still be able to have such a discussion, but if you can’t — if even the mention of breaking up makes your partner go nuts –you need to make two lists and write one note.

1. List A should represent what you think would be a fair distribution of assets.

2. List B should represent what you think would be a completely unfair distribution of assets, but one your partner will probably think is fair.

3. The note should be addressed to yourself. In it, you should promise to accept list B — however much you may hate your partner at the time you read it.

When you break up a partnership, don’t try to get back at your partner for all the wrongs you feel he or she may have done to you — and don’t expect to get anything out of it except freedom. Everything more than that is a plus.

The most important thing to remember is this: Your greatest asset, and the one asset that your partner can never own, is the force of your will. Take that asset with you and put it to work, and it will give you many times more than the lifeless treasures you leave behind.