A practicing divorce lawyer offers tips, advice, and encouragement for those navigating the maze of divorce.
The Divorce Process
1. Divorce is not an event; it’s a process. Whether it takes three weeks, three months, or three years, nothing will be solved immediately. Take a deep breath and relax as much as you can.
2. There are steps most people go through in the process of a separation and divorce, similar to the steps in the grieving process after a death: denial, anger, grief, and acceptance. A person in the denial stage can go through the motions of filing paperwork, but will not be “ready” for a divorce until the steps are completed.
3. Often, partners do not progress through these steps at the same speed or same time. A spouse who has been secretly planning to leave the marriage for some time may have gone through all four stages before the spouse who’s left behind becomes aware there’s a problem. The process should and can wait until the second spouse works through his or her feelings.
4. Two issues should be handled expeditiously: 1) You and the children must be safe. 2) You and the children must have a roof over your heads and food on the table. These are survival questions. Once they’re provided for, the rest can take as long as you need.
5. Unless a survival issue is at hand, there’s no reason to rush to file a divorce. Often there is no advantage to filing first. Wait until you feel you can handle it, both financially and psychologically.
6. The longer you have been invested in a marriage, the more thought you should give to working to save it, if that’s possible. Marriage counseling, if both parties put their hearts into it, often helps. If there is no hope, either because of misconduct or a lack of love, then you should give some thought to ending the relationship expeditiously. Life isn’t a dress rehearsal. You don’t have the opportunity to do it again, if you regret being unhappy for 10 or 20 years by failing to take action.
7. You can always “win” a divorce the hard way, cutting and slashing, with a winner-take-all attitude. It will cost you a lot more, both in money and mental health. But will it really be worth it 10 years from now? There are some people who can have a “friendly” divorce.
8. There are some people who can’t, because the facts are too unpleasant. If you’re one of the former, work through your settlement and go on with your lives.
9. If you’re one of the latter, deal with the abuse or the adultery or the immediate problem as distantly as you can, and try to settle the rest. No one will expect you to be best friends. But you have the ability to take control of whatever issues are not too painful and work through them. Empower yourself.
10. When you’re going through a divorce, everyone will have war stories and advice for you. What you really need to know is that each legal process is different, because the facts of each person’s existence are never identical. Just because Joe or Sandy at your shop pays $100 a month in child support or got the house doesn’t mean you will. Just because they didn’t, doesn’t mean you won’t.
11. Laws change; the way people got divorced 20 years ago may be totally irrelevant. Ask a legal professional for the straight story, based on current law in your state.
12. Some people really get emotionally invested in concern about their partner’s new love. You might take some comfort in the fact that rebound relationships hardly ever work.
13. Be aware that once you involve the court in your life, the rules change. Husbands and wives who may have cheated on their taxes for years find that one may use it in court against the other. Parents who may have smoked marijuana together the whole time they were married may get turned in to the police now that a custody action is pending. Casual babysitting arrangements that were fine when the parties were together come under fire. Think about possible consequences before you act.
Friends and Family
14. Your friends and family can be the backbone of your support at this time in your life. If you suddenly decide to quit your job and move to a distant city to get away from the whole situation (and the ex), you may be leaving the only support system you have in place.
15. At the same time, those you care about can do a lot to help or harm your children during the legal process and after. They should never run down the other parent in front of the children. This is still the child’s mother or father, due a certain love and respect simply because of that relationship. If that person is a deadbeat, a liar, or an abuser, the child will learn that on his own as the years pass. Let him keep that idealism — we all lose it soon enough.
16. Encourage children’s relationships with extended family when it’s not harmful. Just as you will always be your child’s parent, these people will always be your child’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other relatives. Sometimes when parents are fighting, it’s nice for the children to have familiar places they can escape to, with family members to remind them they’re loved.
17. If friends offer to take the children for an evening to give you a break, say yes! There seems to be a SuperMan/ Woman expectation in our culture that encourages single parents to make martyrs of themselves and prove they can do it all. You deserve to take time for yourself — make it a weekly gift to you.
18. Often, friends and family members who always disagreed with your choice of partner (but who never said so) will be glad to tell you once you’ve broken up. Give yourself permission to tell them to butt out when you’ve heard enough.
19. At the same time, take advantage of the opportunity to renew closeness with those who may have grown distant because of conflict with your partner. Get past those petty resentments and rejoin the family!
20. People you know will often encourage you to “get back on the horse” and start dating soon after a breakup. There is no “right” period of time to wait. Some consideration should be given to the legal consequences; ask your attorney if dating will affect any upcoming custody or support matters. If it won’t hurt your case, and you feel up to it, go ahead!
21. But, if you don’t feel like dating, speak up and tell people you’re not interested. It’s your life. Only you know what progress you’re making.
22. If you have a new companion, that person may want to be supportive of you to the point that he/she involves him/herself in the conflict with your soon-to-be ex, particularly in areas of custody and support. While it’s commendable for them to want to help, often just the fact of that person’s existence is enough to drive the other party mad. Remember that these are your kids. You and the other parent should be the ones discussing any children or money issues. Don’t complicate the situation by allowing third parties, however well-intentioned, to interfere in what should be simple negotiations based on what is best for your children.
After It’s Over
23. Take a deep breath. Divorce has probably been one of the most difficult periods of your life, even if it’s something you chose. If you have children, you’re realizing that you’re still tied to their other parent after the divorce, at least until they’re 18, and probably on through graduations, weddings, and even grandchildren. (But take heart — many find after the pressure cooker of the breakup is done, they can become civil again, at least for the sake of their children.) There are final documents to sign, deeds to draw and record, pensions to be collected, houses to be closed up and sold. That life is done.
One door closes behind; another opens ahead. How you spend the rest of your life is up to you. Empower yourself to say “Yes!” to all that awaits, and step through that door. You have survived. Be well. Tread your road gladly, armed with the lessons you’ve learned. Be good to yourself.
This article has been edited and excerpted from 101 Little Instructions for Surviving your Divorce (Impact Publishers, 2000) by Barbara J. Walton. Practicing in the area of family law since 1986, Walton is a child of divorce as well as being a single mother, so she has personal as well as professional experience with the challenges of separation and divorce. Each brief “instruction” offers help through the various stages of the process — including legal, financial, and emotional issues. Available at better bookstores, or directly from the publisher at www.impactpublishers.com.