Few aspects of civil society can devolve more quickly and more dangerously into personal civil war than the dissolution of a marriage.
New York City police officials were reminded of that Monday as they investigated whether the gas explosion that destroyed a four-story Manhattan town house was the result of a bitter divorce battle between Dr. Nicholas Bartha and his wife, Cordula.
Police say Bartha, a 66-year-old internist, sent an e-mail message to his wife stating: "You always wanted me to sell the house. I always told you, 'I will leave the house only if I am dead.'"
According to police, Bartha had tried to kill himself several times throughout the divorce proceedings, which have been going on since 2001. In 2005, the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court held that the town house was marital property. As part of the settlement, a judge ordered Bartha to auction off the $6.4 million building and divide the proceeds with his wife.
On Friday, Bartha was handed eviction papers by a sheriff's deputy.
Attorneys and psychiatrists told ABC News the Bartha case is one of the worst they have ever seen. But not the first.
"When they are bad, they can spin out of control easily and fast, and the effect snowballs to the point where people ultimately -- after exhausting all remedies -- do something seemingly as crazy as blowing up the residence,'' said William Beslow, who has represented Tatum O'Neal, Mia Farrow and Patricia Duff in contentious divorce proceedings.
Prominent New York divorce attorney Raoul Felder was more specific. "I had a client murdered by his wife,'' Felder said. "I have seen [cases in which] a kitten [was] put in a washing machine, a puppy in the microwave -- the puppy died, the kitten lived.
"I have seen art collections slashed, a guy with a vinyl record collection had it returned by his wife all smashed into bits,'' Felder added. "I've seen clothes ripped up. One gentleman got his wife tickets to some hot play, and when she returned, her stuff was in the street. I've seen children taken at airports."
Felder said divorce cases are a unique and sometimes monstrously painful form of litigation. "In all other litigation, the stuff is replaceable,'' he said. "But dignity and validation are not replaceable. If I sue someone for not delivering lumber, it has nothing to do with me as a human being. If I lose my divorce case, there's a lack of validation as a human being.''
The U.S. divorce rate has remained relatively steady for more than a quarter century -- at least as steady as the stream of high-profile, acrimonious divorce cases.
There were 2,219,000 marriages performed in the United States in 2004 -- the most recent year for which statistics are available -- according to the National Center for Health Statistics, a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Within 15 years, about 43 percent of those marriages will end in divorce, according to CDC surveys.
"The relationship between marriage and divorce has been about two to one since at least 1976,'' said NCHS spokesman Bill Crews.
The list of bitter divorces seems endless.
Last month a Nevada businessman, Darren Mack, allegedly shot the judge in his divorce case after he allegedly killed his wife, Charla. Police believe the couple's eight-year-old daughter was upstairs playing with a friend during the attack.