So, you're getting a divorce. That sucks. If it's just the two of you, I implore you to opt for the quickest, simplest divorce possible, then run -- don't walk -- into your new life. But if you and your almost-ex spawned a child with both your DNA, get ready to say hello to a different kind of life that feels strangely familiar, because the two of you still have many years to navigate together. You'll just be doing it from different houses. With different spouses. And maybe a few more kids. Doesn't that sound like fun?
I can't stress enough how critical the divorce itself is to the future well-being of your relationship. If you're reading this article after a messy divorce, you may be thinking, "Ah, crap!" But don't panic. A less than ideal parting of the ways doesn't mean all is lost. You may need a little extra time and effort to repair and reconstruct the relationship.
When I divorced my ex nine years ago, I didn't file for divorce until seven months after separating. Why? Because I couldn't afford a lawyer right away. But my money woes actually had a positive effect on the divorce. Enough time had passed since the announcement I was moving out (Independent Me chose to find new digs, since leaving was my idea) for that initial sting to dissipate. We spent seven months stumbling through our three-year-old son Noah's custody options, learning how to help each other with scheduling conflicts (just to be nice!) and agreeing on whose wallet would get lighter and when (I'll pay for school pictures if you go to Old Navy for new underwear). By the time I was able to cough up the cash for representation, we'd already made most of the decisions a lawyer would help us sort out. We only needed someone to handle the paperwork. And so I hired one lawyer for the both of us.*
It Was a Difficult Time
Don't think for a minute our relationship was so ideal we high-fived in court. It was difficult and terribly uncomfortable. I never stopped feeling guilty for changing my son's simple life. Not for one minute. It was next to impossible for me to make eye contact with my ex. I'd made a decision that benefited only me (although to this day I don't regret it), and I fully understood the weight of my actions. Hiring one divorce lawyer won't be an option for everyone. There may be issues the two of you can't agree on by yourselves. Maybe the reason for your parting is more hurtful (hello, infidelity?), or you've both harbored a lot of anger for years. What's more important? Keeping the peace. Even if your mate left you for someone new, you have to suck it up and get through the divorce without punishment. No, "I'll show you!" allowed. And no being stubborn about that ugly, yet ridiculously expensive stained-glass lamp you never really liked, either. Just get through it, get what you need, and move on with your life. You'll be finding someone better when you're good and ready.
Work Out as Many Details as Possible with Your Spouse
Whether you're angry to the point that only vodka will help, or you're secretly relieved to be free, work out as many details as possible for both the divorce and custody arrangement before you hire a lawyer. "The more agreeable you are, the less painful the divorce process will be for you," says Joyce Morely, Ed.D, a psychotherapist and relationship expert, who also happens to be a divorced mother of three daughters. "Be amicable. Practice respect by looking at the needs of the other while at the same time meeting your own needs. Figure out the points of contention and come to an agreement about how to divide everything: the finances, the children's time. If you can do that together, writing it all down and signing it, you can stick to one lawyer."*
My friend Janis' husband left after ten years of marriage. They had three young boys at the time, ages three, five, and seven. Though the divorce came as a surprise and Janis had to deal with the anxiety of wondering how she'd provide for herself and the kids while "bursting into tears at strange times," she and her ex managed to get through a civil divorce -- largely because of a combination of deciding all the legal issues in advance and doing their best to be decent to one another.
"The legal part of the divorce was extremely easy," she recalls, "which was good, because I was like a deer in headlights. I didn't have to go to court. Other than signing a lot of papers in a lawyer's office, I didn't have to do anything. He was an okay guy and responsible financially, so money was taken care of between the two of us and we didn't have to deal with Friend of the Court."
Try to Solve Issues Before Going to Court
Indeed, one of the most important issues you should try to resolve before heading to court is the house: Will one person remain in the house, and if so, who? Or, will you sell it and split the profits so you both can start over in fresh surroundings? Whatever you decide to do with your abode, I beg of you, DO NOT stay in the same home until the divorce is final. That's the quickest way to find dozens of new reasons to detest each other. Everything bad that could possibly happen will happen. Why? Because at least one of you is feeling dejected at the moment, and watching the other go on with a different life will not go over well. This is also when couples start doing things to purposely annoy each other.
You want my stuff picked up so the house looks good for potential buyers? Say hello to wet towels on the floor, worn underwear on top of the comforter, and hair clippings strewn across the toilet seat. And what if one of you has already begun dating? You can't hide getting gussied up with an extra spray of the good-smelling stuff for a special evening (oh, sure, no hurt feelings there). And nothing makes you feel guilty (or sixteen) like sneaking into your own home at 3 a.m. For the sake of post-divorce peace, one of you needs to find somewhere else to live.
We went with selling the house and buying two smaller homes, mainly because neither of us could afford the mortgage on our larger house on our own. And I wasn't about to deal with alimony. Unless you're a stay-at-home mom/dad, work part-time because you both agreed one person should be around more often for the kids, or your ex has a deep pocket, alimony is one of those "areas" that will leave the person who's paying (84 percent of the payers are men, according to Divorce Magazine) feeling singled out, bitter, and cheering for the other to marry anything on two legs.
Child support, of course, is a totally different subject. The kids deserve to be financially sound (and have winter coats when there's a wind chill below freezing point). They should also have daycare, soccer uniforms, and everything else they had before their parents decided to split. You, on the other hand, should stay away from other people's money, if at all possible. You can slow down the rebuilding process if your ex finds out you spent the child support on a cruise for you and your new hottie. Independence is an amazing feeling. Sure, it's the harder route financially, but once you get settled into your own life with your own money, not only will you have taught your tots a valuable lesson about self-reliance, you'll also increase your chances of having a cordial relationship with your ex.
Stay Away from Blame to Lessen Hostility
The number one way to lessen hostility? Stay away from blame. "To move forward, you have to move beyond self blame, as well as blame of each other," says Morely. "That's often what gets in the way of healing." This advice makes perfect sense, but can be so hard to follow. Blame is what we do while showering. Blame rolls through our heads when we can't drift off to sleep at night. It plays constantly between our ears while we're stuck in a traffic jam, and comes to mind virtually every time something reminds of us of the divorce. Whether you're blaming yourself or dropping it all on your ex's head, placing blame -- a natural impulse when you're in the thick of divorce -- is what keeps us angry, pent up, and a candidate for high blood pressure. While blame may feel all good and powerful for a little while (yes, pointy finger, I'm talking to you), in the end you just make yourself feel crappy. Because blame, no matter whom it's directed at, means you haven't let go.
It's Possible to Become Friends Again
If your divorce did go bad, and you can't get yourself to therapy (or, the bar) fast enough, fear not. It is possible to be civil -- and even (gasp!) become friends once again. This is true even if your ex is resentful, holding a grudge, and/or talking negatively about you to the postal carrier and the UPS guy. It only takes one person to make a bad situation better. And since you're the one reading this article, you're going to have to step up and start the repair process. Changes will take time, but your kindness and respect will chip away at your ex's bitterness until that person you once liked begins to reappear. You may not have made a good marriage, but you still have a chance to be good friends. Okay, maybe just friends. Or at least good parents, who get along.
This article was excerpted and edited with permission from the book I Do, Part 2: How to Survive Divorce, Co-Parent Your Kids, and Blend Your Families Without Losing Your Mind by Karen Buscemi, ©2011 Norlights Press. Karen Buscemi has been a freelance writer for 12 years, with articles appearing in Self, Women's Health, Figure, and Successful Living. Learn more at www.karenbuscemi.com.
Editor's Note: To ensure your long term interests are taken care of, we recommend that you hire your own lawyer and the appropriate financial experts.
For more articles on separation and divorce process, visit www.divorcemag.com/articles/Separation_Divorce_Process.