In my several decades in and near divorce court, I have seen more than a fair share of sad people who can’t seem to move on from their divorces. Some of them manage to turn the process of getting a judgment terminating their marriage from something that should have been finished in a few months into litigation that stretches on for way too many years. Others who have already divorced continue to find new legal issues or causes that allow them to come back to court and continue to fight their former spouses for many additional years.
And those battles are expensive. It costs the taxpayers somewhere around $30,000 a day to keep the courtroom operating. That doesn’t include the cost of the building, the utilities, or anything like that — just the salaries of the judge, the courtroom staff, and the support group backing up the courtroom. If one of these divorced people files a motion over a question such as which school a child should attend in the coming year and then calls a series of witnesses to testify on that issue, the judge is somewhat limited as to how strictly he or she can limit testimony to move the matter along. Meanwhile, other cases back up in the hallway outside the courtroom.
Some unhappy litigants who cause divorce proceedings to drag on seem to have chosen the ending of their marriages as the most important event in their lives. Some appear to be determined to use the courts to punish their former spouses. And some of them just seem to hope a judge will declare for the entire world to hear that they are good and that their spouses treated them very badly.
Many experts say that some people have formed such a pattern of constant feuding during their marriages that they just can’t break the habit. Those who aren’t really sure they want to be divorced anyway may feel that losing their spouse is akin to losing part of their identity and that continuing the battle in court after the divorce allows them to hold on to what they consider an important part of themselves.
Vivienne Roseby and Janet R. Johnston, clinician and researchers in the field of high-conflict divorce, explain in their book In the Name of the Child that some people feel so betrayed when their spouses seek a divorce that their counterattack becomes the central obsession in their lives.
Stand up for yourself and control your emotional upsets
Your goal should be to get through this divorce as quickly and wisely as possible. But keep in mind when settling the issues involved that you are not a helpless nobody who can be pushed into accepting results and alleged compromises that just don’t feel right to you. Do not let self-pity, humiliation, guilt, or depression cause you to swallow anything you find to be unacceptable.
At the same time, remember that the breakdown of a marriage is usually not all one person’s fault and, where it is appropriate, it may be helpful for you to share some of the responsibility for the demise of your marriage. Uncontrolled rage about your spouse is going to make it difficult to reach any settlement. Compromising here or there on some issues is not a sign of weakness — particularly if it will allow you to complete the process and get on with your new life.
Find a wise friend to talk with about what is going on in your life. Or consider scheduling an appointment or two with a therapist to share your thoughts and help keep you grounded.
Walk the moral high ground
Although you may be tempted to seek revenge for things your spouse did in the past or during this divorce, the following words are among the most important advice you will hear: Resist the urge to get even. Concentrate on getting through the process as quickly and simply as possible.
You might even surprise your spouse by being generous on an issue or two –perhaps lightening your stance on monthly support or the kids’ visitation schedules. Those who follow this path almost always benefit in the long run.
Seek expert advice on technical matters
Feeling confident about the technical side of your divorce can help you avoid many sleepless hours you might otherwise spend tossing and turning, wondering whether you did the right thing.
For example, if you’re not sure whether a proposed child custody issue is right for your kids, talk with a family therapist. If there are issues about the valuation of a business or how to divide an IRA, a stock option plan, or a pension, talk with a certified public accountant, actuary, or divorce lawyer. Even if things are fairly amicable between you and your spouse, consider having a lawyer look over any agreement you are asked to sign.
Manage contacts with your spouse
You can often avoid a lot of problems by setting up some rules for when and where you and your spouse will have contact. The process of getting divorced can easily become more complicated if either of you is allowed to drop by to see or to call the other whenever the mood strikes.
Agree to periods of no contact and limit phone calls. If even such limited contact becomes too emotional, insist that communications be made only in writing. If your spouse is very angry, or working hard to avoid being divorced, understand that this is not the time to attempt to reach a compromise on the issues surrounding the end of your marriage. Try to calm things down to allow reality to set in.
Keep the lines of communication open, but if you are determined to proceed with the divorce, let your spouse know as respectfully as you can that getting back together is not an option for you.
The brighter side
As tough as the process often feels, divorce also presents a golden opportunity to make some changes in your life and to identify characteristics you should look for in a future partner. The experts say that getting over a divorce takes many people two years, some even longer.
Carol B. Thompson, who before her retirement was one of the most respected child custody evaluators in the Bay Area — and, incidentally, my wife — says this about the subject: “The notion of ‘getting over divorce’ is bogus. Marriage is a major life event and the impact of a failed marriage will have long-lasting scars for many very normal people. Instead of ‘getting over’, the focus should be on ‘getting on with life’. Not only is that a satisfying goal, it is also realistic and attainable.”
You can’t really get started on all of this until your divorce is over, so my hope for you is that you will get through this process successfully, having learned more about yourself and what you want for your future life.
|Avoiding stress while negotiating with your spouse
Court custody mediator Olga Paredes describes a process for preparing some divorcing couples for sessions in which they will be mediating, negotiating or – heaven forbid –going to a court hearing. It may be a little too “touchy-feely” for some people, but I recommend it for those who dread such confrontations. Some mental-health experts advocate using this approach in child custody matters, but it can work just as well in dealing with problematic property division or support issues.
If you are anticipating such a stressful meeting, find 30 minutes or so to be alone and undisturbed in a quiet place. Then envision the session in which you will be meeting — encountering your spouse in the waiting room, walking into a conference room together, hearing your spouse’s voice, sitting through his or her version of what went wrong with the marriage, describing the needs of your children, and the like. The more detail you can bring to your imagination, the more effective this exercise will be. It helps if you can tune into how your body reacts to what you are imagining and then calm down through breathing deeply, relaxing your stomach muscles, your shoulders, and your jaw.
Experts say most people have no problem visualizing a tense, unpleasant situation. They ask people to imagine their best response to what is happening, to think about responding to the situation in a way that would later make them feel proud of themselves, and then to rehearse that behavior several times in their minds. The idea is to create a model of behavior and then to reinforce it through rehearsal, so that it has a chance of interrupting bad patterns that make healthy communication difficult.
The goal is not to revamp your relationship, but to have some small successes in communicating so that you can work together in dissolving your marriage and, if relevant, raising your children. A few successful meetings in which there are small changes in your own or your spouse’s behavior can lead to hope of achieving the best possible divorce.
This article was excerpted with permission from the book A Judge’s Guide to Divorce: Uncommon Advice from the Bench by Judge Roderic Duncan, published by Nolo. The author has presided over thousands of divorce cases in his 20 years as a judge. He was named Judicial Officer of the Year by the Family Law Section of the California State Bar and now teaches family law to law students and new judges. This book is available at bookstores everywhere; for more information, visit www.nolo.com.
For more advice from divorce professionals, visit www.divorcemag.com/articles/divorce-tips-from-professionals