A Successful Divorce?
To begin with.
I don’t wish to make light of divorce. It is difficult and painful – at the best of times. I went through divorce myself over 20 years ago, and there are still moments where I feel that hurt – particularly for my kids. Fortunately, however, over time, my former spouse and I became very cooperative in our parenting – and as I point out to most of my clients with children, when my kids graduated high school and college, we were able to share that moment with them without a hint of anger or reproach – and I recall my son taking me aside after his University graduation to tell me how much be appreciated that he could have his mom and dad there, at the same time, to share that moment.
Which isn’t to say it was easy – it wasn’t. There were many times where I’m sure my former spouse drove me crazy and I her. But we figured out the kids were more important than our own egos.
The point of this blog is not to suggest you can have an “easy” divorce, but to suggest you can make it “easier”. That you can reduce stress, time, and EXPENSE if you are able to put together what I would call the “building blocks” of a successful divorce.
THE BUILDING BLOCKS:
a) Trust and Honest Disclosure
This is the tough one. Inherent in probably every divorce is the sense of a “breach of trust”. At a minimum, someone you promised to be with, and who promised to be with you, is not keeping that promise. And so, couples have a distinct lack of trust. This fear and sometimes even paranoia makes lawyers wealthy and makes couples bitter and, well, impoverished with massive legal bills if they aren’t careful.
So – how do you build SOME trust to reduce the chances of people like me eating up your kids college fund?
Start with openness and honesty.
Begin with full and frank disclosure of your financial affairs. Don’t force your spouse to hunt and beg and chase you for it. Gather up your basic initial disclosure as quickly as possible and you provide it to your spouse or their lawyer. Even if they haven’t done the same. Model “trusting” behavior. Keep in mind, they’re going to get it anyway, so why sow the seeds of distrust by dragging your heals on disclosure, and forcing them (and you) to spend money on lawyers to get that information.
b) Mental Health Counseling
I would, in fact, recommend joint counseling – in Collaborative Law we call it a “neutral coach“. They are people you can express your stress, your anguish, your frustration with – and who can assist you in learning to reduce your “fight or flight” reaction to your divorce circumstances.
If you have a “neutral coach”, they can facilitate mediation of the nagging issues which accompany many divorces, and help you attend to differences in a constructive as opposed to a destructive fashion. If you can’t obtain a neutral coach – at least get counseling for yourself – and if you tell yourself, “I’m not the one who needs counseling” – well, that means, most definitely, you ARE the one who needs counseling. Hell, I’m a divorce lawyer, I’ve done this for 32 years, and when I got divorced, I spent a lot of time with a counselor to help center myself – and I’m glad I did.
Studies have shown, in fact, that in response to high stress, our cerebral cortex functioning actually diminishes, in a sense, we all become “stupider” when going through divorce. Counseling will help reduce that stress, and, in fact, make you more able to make your best decisions – increasing the likelihood that your divorce will not become a “war” and decreasing your likely legal bill.
c) Don’t Trust the Lawyers
Speaking of legal bills.
While this may sound odd coming from, well, a lawyer… in fact, I often explain to my clients the inherent conflict of interest between a lawyer and their own client.
The more you fight, the more money we make. That’s just a fact. So – when your lawyer says, “you need to fight” – take that with a small grain of salt, and consider that, perhaps, the “fight” might be more beneficial for your lawyer’s bottom line than your own.
And – something I also tell most of my clients – don’t use your lawyer as a “threat” to your spouse. The “my lawyer is going to eat you alive” is not only silly and childish, but it provokes the “fight or flight” response in your spouse, increasing the likelihood of an irrational response to the divorce, to finances, to parenting.. to everything. In fact, if you are going to talk about your lawyer, better to say, “Look, we can both argue and make the lawyers fat and happy, but it would seem better if we could be cooperative.” That’s much less threatening, and it states the obvious. It also is a very compelling “logical” view of the divorce paradigm, which is more likely to result in them engaging their cerebral cortex to “think” about what makes sense, as opposed to reacting irrationally.
The lawyer, at their best, is compassionate and empathetic – but they are not your friend or your buddy. They are in business. And while they (we) can be very helpful and important, they can also be very expensive. Use their services judiciously, not out of spite or anger.
At their worst, lawyers can actually CREATE conflict where it doesn’t need to exist – often, in my opinion, to stroke their own ego, or, worse, to inflate their billing.
d) Understand that Disagreement is NORMAL
Listen. You’re getting divorced. If you agreed on everything, you wouldn’t be in that position, would you? So why would you expect that your perspective would be accepted and shared by your spouse?
Disagreeing on matters is, actually, completely normal and to be expected – so don’t get all agitated when the “expected” occurs. Accept it is an impediment to resolution – but not a personal attack on you. Your spouse just disagrees. Which is fine. The question is, “what do we do in response”?
You “attack the problem” not the person. You accept that there is an item of disagreement – and a rational approach is to then ask, “So how do we solve the problem?”
Parties in divorce have significant interests in common, actually. They want resolution. They are both scared of the unknown, both the immediate unknown and the future unknown. Understand that – and then move beyond it. We both want to come to agreement regarding the value of the house, or the business, or how to divide our incomes, or how to provide for our retirement down the road, or how to best share our parenting obligations. ALL of these items of disagreement have solutions. I have no divorce files which are 32 years old. They ALL get resolved. The question is, do you resolve them in the trial process (expensive, stressful, uncertain) or in some less confrontational manner.
When in disagreement, ask your spouse or your lawyer, “how do we find a solution?” Get appraisals, hire child experts to mediate parenting differences, brainstorm with your spouse to find out how many different ideas you can come up with – beyond, “Do it my way.”
e) Focus on Where You’re Going, Not Where You’ve Been
We all view our lives through the lens of “stories well tell ourselves”. When we meet “prince charming” they are perfect. The way they smile, their scent, the way they move and talk.. it’s all dreamy. The reality is they weren’t perfect – but it’s the story you told yourself and your friends when the relationship started.
When you break up, it’s the same – just from the opposite perspective. They are the “wicked witch of west”. They are horrible, awful people, with no redeeming qualities, who exist only to cause you pain. Again, the reality is they aren’t that bad either – but again it’s the story you tell yourself and your friends. And that perspective and that narrative leads to an unreal picture of that person, it leads to anger and spite, and if you stay in that narrative, well, again, people like me make lots of money.
So – then – turn the page. Chapter 1, “Prince Charming” is long gone, and you’re living in Chapter 2 “The Wicked Witch” phase. Think about, and in fact, focus on getting to Chapter 3 “Better Times.” Look forward to what it will feel like when this chapter is over, when the legal bills stop coming, where you are fishing with your daughter, or doing to a sharing a glass of wine with your friends talking about something other than where you’ve been. You can’t change where you’ve been, but you can make plans for where you want to go.
Imagine how your children would feel if they could love both parents, freely and equally, and share important moments with them without anger and sadness encroaching on those moments.
f) Understand and Accept the Need to Compromise
Too often, we hear people talking about being able to maintain the “lifestyle they’ve been accustomed do.” People saying things like, “Why should my lifestyle change because he/she/they decided to leave? Well, here’s a news flash. When you take a fixed amount of income, and apply it to TWO households instead of ONE, lifestyle will be negatively impacted. Compromise is INEVITABLE. Accept that reality and move to discuss to what extent you will share that accommodation.
Beyond that – if you can’t or won’t compromise, be prepared for a Judge to impose it upon you – at great expense and, potential impact beyond anything that was being negotiated.
Divorce is never “easy”. It takes work. It takes effort to avoid the traps we see so many couples fall into. With work, however, many, many couples manage to achieve a “successful divorce.” They move on with their lives in a less damaged and less traumatized fashion. The resolve their divorce in a manner which leaves more money in THEIR pockets, and less in their lawyer’s.
For more advice or assistance with your divorce, contact me: Robert G. Harvie, Q.C.