Divorce is the legal process of ending a marriage. But when we apply it to our own lives, divorce becomes anything but simple or clear. Divorce is a life crisis. The dreams you had for your life when you said “I do” are gone. The person you thought you married isn’t the person you are married to any longer. And nothing seems “for sure” anymore.
Even if you are the one who first brought up the “D” word, the emotions attached to divorce can be complex, frightening, and painful. Inevitably, these emotions seem to become part of the process.
But do these emotions have to rule your divorce and drive you to madness? Can divorce focus more on process and less on emotions? Is there a way to approach your divorce that turns it into a strategic gateway to a better future?
Getting Stuck in the Ugliness
Whether it’s your friends, neighbors, siblings, or parents, you’ve most likely seen someone in the middle of an ugly divorce. Unhappy couples reach their limit, then anger and fear set in. People say and do things that hurt, and soon their divorce becomes as miserable as their marriage.
The ugliness can continue long after the papers have been signed and the divorce is final. Some people get stuck in the ugliness of their divorce and spend the rest of their lives hauling around that baggage of anger and fear, shame and spite – and worst of all, victimhood.
You can choose to minimize the hostility in your divorce. It may not happen quickly, and it may not always be easy, but you can transform the way you speak, act, and think during the divorce process to get past a lot of the negativity. You need to get strategic about your divorce, and start focusing on the goals you have for your “Next Best Life”. Positive, strategic, and focused on the future: that’s the “Wiser Divorce”.
Divorce as a Battleground
In too many divorces, the drama gets cranked up so high the entire process looks and sounds like a battleground. People (or their lawyers) pull out their deadliest weapons: threats, accusations, intimidation, rage, and shrieking voices. In these cases, divorce is war; in a war, somebody’s going to win, and somebody’s going to lose. However, in a war, even the winners rarely come out unscathed. There’s nothing wise or strategic about a divorce that looks like that.
This battleground mentality colors the way people react to divorce – and not just to their own divorce. You have probably seen what can happen when friends and family line up on the side of the person they think is “in the right” and start condemning the person they think is “in the wrong.”
Even the legal process itself is still designed to make divorce a battleground: the only way to end a marriage is for one party to file a lawsuit against the other. If you want to get out of a marriage that is making you miserable or wrecking your life or placing your children in the crossfire, you have to sue the person who has shared your bed, trusted you with life’s deepest secrets, and maybe even made babies with you. Divorce, by law, starts as an adversarial act. With that as the starting point, it’s easy to think the only outcome is: you will win, or you will lose.
Divorce at its core:
- Divides assets and debts;
- Determines guidelines for parenting children;
- Defines future obligations between former spouses.
However, for the most part, the legal system, families, communities, and society still tend to treat the act of ending a marriage like something to be won or lost. Divorce as a legal battleground needs to stop because it creates too much trauma. It beats people down – and, frankly, it costs way too much money. Your money, which you could use to put your kids through college or rebuild your own life.
Deciding to be Happy
In the Wiser Divorce, ending a marriage is viewed as a turning point, one of life’s many transitions – a way to shift out of unhappiness and into happiness. A change of life status to be realized leaving your hopes, dreams, and dignity still intact.
Suppose for a moment that you cannot find a way to be happy in your present marriage. Now imagine posting a question to your friends on Facebook: “Do you want me to be happy or unhappy?” Most people would vote for you to be happy. Divorce can be a decision to be happy, and to change something in your life that is no longer working.
Divorce is a way to reset your life path, and resetting your path doesn’t have to be bad. We all reset our paths many times in life: we move; we change careers; we have children; we lose 40 pounds and run a marathon; we learn to walk again after an accident or a stroke disables us; we find a way to deal with the death of someone we love. Sometimes we reset our paths for positive reasons and other times because life has dealt us a blow.
Divorce is one of those blows. Whether you have chosen it or not, your path is being reset. You have a choice whether to make the process as happy or unhappy as possible. You may choose to get stuck in your unhappiness forever, or to make the process as positive as possible.
In a best possible outcome, divorce:
- Allows you to forget and forgive
- gives you the opportunity to create a positive future for yourself
- Provides both spouses with tools to become better parents and offers a better future for their children.
My Own Turning Point
If it weren’t for my own life-transforming divorce, I might never have become a lawyer. As the oldest of three girls with supportive and encouraging parents, I had a happy and relatively carefree childhood. All I wanted to do at 17 was get out of my little town and get away from my parents. So after graduating early from high school, I left town to go to college.
My first night there I met “him” – five years older than me and about ready to graduate. We dated. He graduated. He took a job out of state, even further away from my little home-town and my parents. Why not get married and move with him? It would be an adventure (that was about as far as I went in my thinking).
So at the age of 19, I married him. By the time I was 21, we had a daughter. During those years, I became well acquainted with his abusing and boozing. Among these “acquaintances” was having my head repeatedly hit against the windshield of a car, being boot-kicked in the face, and hiding in closets with my daughter so when he came home drunk he wouldn’t find us. So there I was, a young mother with no college degree who knew I had to get a divorce for my daughter’s and my own survival.
I had to figure out what the heck I was going to do – fast. I needed a job. I needed to pay the rent and take care of my child. I also knew I needed to go back to school.
With student loans, no family in town, and my ex not paying child support, I chose to be a survivor. I lived a threadbare life working multiple jobs, finishing my undergraduate degree and going on to law school. I just wanted not to be financially broke forever, and I wanted my daughter to be proud of me. I certainly never thought I’d be a family law lawyer.
As it turned out, my own divorce helped set me on the path to become a very good divorce lawyer with great empathy and passion for my clients. Divorce had been a turning point for me, a resetting of my own path that transformed my life in positive ways. Ending my marriage forced me to grow up, not look back, work hard, make a positive plan for my future, and execute it. It helped me choose what I would never tolerate again, and focus on what things I indeed wanted my future to hold. It shaped my goals for charity work, and gave me wisdom to pass onto my daughter. And it makes me happy to say she truly sees me as her role model.
My story tells the big truth that I try to help my clients see: Divorce is a turning point, and you can turn it in a positive direction or not. It’s your choice.
Not Giving Up or Giving In
In my decades of practice as a divorce lawyer, I’ve helped hundreds of clients through the divorce process. I represent men, and I represent women. Those with children and without. I settle some cases and go to trial on others. I walk clients through settlements and mediation. I appeal judicial decisions when needed. I create new case law for the future. As a Judge Pro Tem, I’ve made rulings on cases and mediated settlement conferences. But I’ve also been cursed at, threatened, and almost assaulted by my clients’ spouses. I’ve had opposing lawyers scream inches from my face, and use draconian and unreasonable war tactics. But I’ve also worked with opposing lawyers who exhibit refreshingly positive demeanors and professionalism.
And, boy, have I heard it all. From my experience, I can tell you some things I know for sure. Divorcing doesn’t mean “sticking it” to your soon-to-be ex or walking away with the most toys. Divorce doesn’t mean somebody has to win, and somebody has to lose. The “win” is in preserving family, preserving friends, and remembering and appreciating the good in your marriage while also accepting your role in the bad. It means going through the process of divorce with dignity, respect, and grace. It means not giving up or giving in to the negativity, but continuing to pursue the goals that are going to make your life better, happier, and more complete. It means separating the emotions of divorce from the business of divorce and envisioning your life as you want it to be when you are free.
Successful athletes don’t just wake up one day to greatness. They train, they plan, they are coached, they wear the right equipment, and they envision their success. Think of preparing for and executing your divorce in the same way by asking yourself these questions:
- What will it take to be successful at this?
- How will I mentally prepare?
- Who will I surround myself with?
- What knowledge do I need to arm myself with?
- What is my positive vision for success after my divorce?
Divorce should be a series of strategic decisions designed to help you rebuild your new life going forward. The first step is to make a decision to divorce strategically, not emotionally, even if your ex cannot. This means looking honestly and unflinchingly at yourself, your attitudes, your thoughts, your words, and your behaviors.
The first step in claiming your Next Best Life is to make sure your best self shows up during your divorce. Divorce can be a transformative process that won’t destroy you emotionally or financially, but will lead you positively toward the rest of your life.
This article has been edited and excerpted with permission from The Wiser Divorce: Positive Strategies for Your Next Best Life (Megeve Press LLC, 2014) by Angie Hallier. Written by a Certified Family Law Specialist and judge pro tempore, this book discusses how to talk to your children, find the right lawyer, watch the bottom line, and keep courts and judges from controlling your destiny. The Wiser Divorce will help you achieve the optimal outcome at the end of the legal process and move forward with hope as an individual and as a family. angiehallier.com