Being Divorced, But Not Broken

I received a message from a former client recently that reinforced and clarified for me why I focus my practice on helping people handle their divorce outside of an adversarial model. She indicated that now a year after their divorce her ex-husband comes to her home and brings dinner and sits down with her and their son to have dinner on a weekly basis.  (For context, this was not a couple that was trying to destroy each other, but there was plenty of difficult issues, hard feelings, hurt, and disagreements to make this a difficult case.) Hearing that struck a very important chord for me. That got me to thinking about why that outcome meant so much to me.  I realized that what meant the most to me in these outcomes is that people are not broken as a result of their divorce.  It is hard to define what broken is, but we’ve all seen it.  Some people are never the same after a divorce, they never get past it, they never find peace or love or satisfaction in life again.  They cannot fully commit to their new life or next relationship because their thoughts are dominated by ruminations on their divorce.  They cannot relate to their children (including adult children and even grandchildren) without mentioning their divorce.  Their divorce becomes the central event in their life and they never get past it.  It is that brokenness that I and my brethren work so hard to avoid. This is not to blame these people.  No one can blame someone for being devastated by a difficult event in their life. But, a difficult life event does not have to be traumatic.  Divorce is without question one of life’s most difficult events.  But what I seek to do, and what others who are truly committed to collaborative divorce and non-adversarial divorce processes seek to do, is to prevent a difficult divorce from becoming a traumatic divorce. Anyone who has litigated divorces for any real period of time knows that even the “winners” in court are often traumatized and broken by the experience.  “Winning” takes its own toll.  So, winning a divorce war is no protection from the trauma of the war.  There are plenty of broken winners walking out of family courts. And, importantly, my client’s son was not broken by his parents’ divorce.  His life changed, but it was not broken. The point is that is that while divorce will always be difficult, the reason that I do what I do, and the reason that you should look into handling your divorce in a non-adversarial process, is that you can be divorced without being broken.      

Saving Your Communities in Divorce

In a previous post I discussed that while there is loss in a divorce, many of the best things in your life can be saved in divorce if it is handled well. One of the most common, but unnecessary, losses that I see resulting from divorce is the loss of community.  Communities can be many things, church communities, neighborhood communities, co-worker communities, extended family communities, social group communities, etc… These communities serve one of our most fundamental needs, the need to belong.  As a result, they are crucial to our well being. Therefore, the loss of these communities can sometimes be the hardest losses to endure in divorce.  The good news is that losing these communities is almost always unnecessary. Sometimes a community is highly judgmental of divorcing couples, or one of the spouses in particular, and the community chooses to end a relationship on its own.  There is very little that a person can do about that. After all, we can only control our own behavior, not others’ reactions to our behavior. But, frequently these communities are lost due to the perceived level of conflict between the spouses and the group member’s discomfort with that conflict.  People often feel like they have to “choose sides” because they don’t think that they can manage a relationship with both spouses due to the conflict.  The discomfort of being around seething or embittered former spouses who are insulting each other or making ugly comments cause people to just avoid one or both spouses. While we as people who make up these communities can stand to find ways to be more comfortable with conflict, the reality is that saving your communities in divorce is largely up to the spouses. The best way that I know to save these community ties is to reduce the animosity and emotional behaviors in divorce.  While no process can eliminate all of the difficult emotions and social awkwardness of divorce, some divorce processes are designed to manage and reduce these dynamics while others either intentionally or unintentionally increase the animosity. The less conflict and anger you and your spouse display the less discomfort your social communities will experience around you.  And the more comfortable these communities are around you and your spouse, the less likely you are to lose these communities and the relationships that mean so much in your life and even the lives of your children. While no divorce process is perfect, give some thought to how important your communities are to you and your family and how you can preserve them as you move through your divorce.

Getting Your Divorce Ship to Shore

I am sometimes asked by prospective clients “Why do we need lawyers when we basically agree on everything already?”  It is a fair, logical and reasonable question. One analogy that I use (with some poetic license) to explain this is that divorce is akin to a sea voyage.  You have to get from where you are, which is knowing that you are separating, to where you want to be (want is a relative term here), which is having the legal and other issues of your divorce resolved so everyone can begin healing and building new futures.  And you have to do that while protecting the precious cargo of your children, your life savings, and your mental health. Like a voyage, the divorce process often feels long, difficult, dangerous, and harrowing.  It frequently feels like you are subject to forces outside your control and you wonder how and whether the experience will ever end. You know your ship and cargo, but you don’t know the waters.  You know yourself, your spouse, your children, your finances, your goals, and your worries.  But, you don’t know divorce law, you’re not a trained expert at negotiation, and you’ve never sailed into this particular port. The real value of a divorce attorney is that they know what you don’t know.  They know the waters, currents, shoals, and the shifting sandbars of the law and tax code.  They are your harbor pilot.  They get you the last but hardest bit of the way to your resolution. If you are lucky, then you and your spouse can safely sail the ship a good bit of the way yourselves, agreeing to the basic terms of how you will co-parent your children, provide for their financial support, divide your property and debts, and meet the financial needs of two households. But even in that case, you will need good harbor pilots to get the ship safely to the dock and avoid the unknown, unforeseen, and hidden dangers that lurk beneath the surface of this unfamiliar harbor.  There are many hidden details to be sorted out in any divorce, traps that can wreck your agreements, and channels that you may not have seen that may better suit your case. In truth, in most cases, divorce attorneys are needed for the entire voyage.  But even in cases where you can handle most of the journey yourself, you will need a good harbor pilot to get you safely to the dock.  Most lawyers who have practiced long enough have seen a case break apart on a rock that the parties never saw coming.  A good lawyer can help you avoid that rock and safely reach the end of your divorce journey.  

The Losses Avoided

Divorce involves loss.  That is an inescapable reality of the changes that come with the end of a marriage. Human nature is to weigh losses heavier than gains.  We have a natural psychological tendency to focus on what we may lose, as opposed to what we stand to gain. But, when assessing your divorce options, it makes sense to not just think about losses that may be realized, but also think about losses that may be avoided. When weighing and considering the outcome of your divorce, in addition to whatever you feel you may have gained or lost, the losses avoided must be given significant weight as well.  The amount of loss in your divorce is largely up to you and your spouse.  Some loss is unavoidable:  the cost of two homes is higher than for one, future plans may change, a parent may have less overall time to spend with children when parents live in two homes.  But, there are many losses that can be avoided if a divorce is handled well.  Legal fees can be held in check, the familial relationships can be salvaged, disruptions to children’s lives can be minimized, time lost at work and the impact on careers can be minimized, church and community families can be maintained, homes can be saved, traditions maintained; the list goes on. Another way of saying this is that whatever may be lost in a divorce, things are also saved.  The question for anyone facing a divorce is what do you want to save and how can you save it?  How can you save as many of the good things as possible? If you find yourself facing the prospect of a separation and divorce, you will automatically think of the losses that you fear coming.  But it is also wise to think of the losses that can be avoided, and how you can best avoid them. In my experience, perhaps the biggest difference between a “good” divorce and a “bad” divorce is that the good divorces avoid far more losses, and save more of the good things than the bad ones. The best way that I know to avoid unnecessary losses in divorce is to manage conflict instead of fueling it, to refrain from emotional behaviors instead of giving in to the urge, to jointly problem solve instead of blaming, threatening and manipulating, to retain your decision making authority instead of handing it over to the government, and to jointly work to insulate and nurture your children instead of fighting over them like property. That is not easy, and it may not be for every client and family. But it is possible, and in my practice, it is the rule instead of the exception. All it takes are two clients who are committed to avoiding unnecessary losses,  attorneys who know how to help them, and a well-designed process.  

What You Need to Know About the Divorce Industry

If you are facing a separation and divorce, and looking for legal counsel, then you need to be an educated consumer of legal services.  That means doing your research, meeting someone before you hire them, and understanding what kind of lawyer you are hiring and the processes by which that attorney is going to help you. This helps protect you from a dynamic within the legal profession described by a colleague in a recent article as follows:
What does this mean? It means that more and more lawyers are competing for the same clients. This encourages lawyers in consults to bad mouth other lawyers and convince clients that they are superior and should be hired. It also encourages the starving lawyer to “churn” the case or to lead their clients down the more expensive and painful path of litigation rather than the often times superior (but less lucrative) choice to attempt to resolve a case. Finally, it encourages the lawyer to “show off” for their client in Court and in nasty emails and letters. (Whether it helps the case or not.)
Contrary to popular opinion, the majority of family law and divorce attorney are dignified, mature professionals who would not sacrifice their integrity to gain or keep a client, to make more money or to “win” a case.  But, all of those lawyers (and the judges) know colleagues that employ the tactics described above and ruin the reputation of the entire profession. The problem is that you can’t know whether any particular attorney is going to lead you down this path without doing your homework.  So, be mindful of the dynamic described above and hire an attorney that you are confident is not going to drag you into it with them. If you are considering an attorney and hear them badmouth other lawyers or your spouse, or they aren’t willing to truly help you avoid litigation when appropriate, then give some thought to whether that attorney is right for you. The reality is that many, if not most, expensive divorces feed off of anger and clients that cannot reign in their emotional behavior.  Certainly, complex legal questions and difficult situations play a part as well.  But, as a consumer of legal services, you need to be very intentional about whether you are hiring an attorney that will fan the flames of conflict and thereby increase the time and cost of your divorce or reduce the time and cost by dampening strong client emotions and focusing on problem-solving.

Has Marriage Become Harder? Maybe…

The divorce rate in the United States has been worrying people for a long time. People have been researching it and trying to find the reasons for it for decades. I’ve heard a lot of theories, but I recently heard a new one. In this podcast from Hidden Brain, researchers discuss their theory that marriage has become more difficult in the last hundred years.  The theory, in general, is that we have come to expect far more out of the institution of marriage than ever before.  And those expectations have become so great that the institution cannot possibly live up to them. So, the theory goes, the higher divorce rates are a reflection of our expectations about marriage, rather than any flaws with marriage itself. It is a fascinating theory, a great listen, and food for thought for anyone that is married or may want to marry someday.

Radical Acceptance: A Key to Getting Through Your Divorce

I recently had a client tell me that the concept of “Radical Acceptance” is what gets her through her days. She was given this article by her therapist, and it has made all the difference in the world for her psychological well being through her divorce (just in case you are wondering whether having a therapist to talk to during a divorce actually helps, here is your proof). As you can read in the article, the term refers to the idea that when there are things in our lives that we cannot change, then the best response is to simply accept that they are our reality and move forward accordingly.  Further, when we resist realities in our life, we only increase our suffering brought on by those things.  In a divorce setting, this resistance, in my experience, frequently takes some of the following forms:
  • Denial, i.e. an unfounded hope that your spouse will change their mind.
  • Avoidance, i.e. an inability or refusal to think about or take action regarding the separation or divorce.
  • Repression, i.e. being unable to identify or express any emotion about the separation or divorce.
  • Delaying, i.e. dragging out the divorce negotiation process in order to maintain a connection with your spouse and delay the inevitable change in the nature of your relationship with your spouse after divorce.
  • Obstructing, i.e. making unreasonable demands and pursuing unrealistic avenues in negotiations in a conscious or unconscious attempt to prevent the divorce from moving forward.
As I understand the concept, every minute that you continue to live in the “unreality” that your divorce is not happening is a minute that you are not living in and enjoying your new life and future.  It is, in essence, not just a wasted minute, but a minute spent in an unnecessary purgatory.  A purgatory that you have the power to leave on your own accord. But aside from emotional suffering, failing to accept the reality of your divorce frequently leads to skyrocketing legal fees, much longer resolution periods, extended suffering for children, financial losses, and high opportunity costs.  I have had cases where a client’s (mine or another party) refusal to accept the reality of the divorce has easily doubled the cost and time required to resolve their case.  And, I’ve had cases where it led to one party deciding that they needed to go to court to get a resolution, even when that was the last thing that they wanted to do.  I have had cases where market changes, interest rates, housing supply changes and employment market changes during delays in a case due to one party’s inability to accept the reality of the divorce made things much harder (and more expensive) to resolve.  I fear that I am about to have cases where one party’s inability to confront the reality of their divorce will cause their resolution to move into 2019, and they will lose the tax benefits of alimony payments that expire at the end of this year. It is important to acknowledge that divorce is one of the hardest things that you can go through in life.  There is no way around that.  But, it doesn’t need to be any harder than absolutely necessary. One of the main reasons that I chose to focus my career on collaborative divorce instead of litigation and adversarial modes of divorce is that I abhor unnecessary suffering for clients and families in divorce and do not want to be a reason for it or a part of it.  It is all too frequent, and so much of that suffering is unnecessary.  I have not found a better way to avoid that unnecessary suffering than collaborative divorce.  But a legal process, no matter how well designed and executed, can only go so far towards reducing the unnecessary suffering in divorce.  Ultimately, perhaps the primary way to save yourself suffering is to simply accept the reality and move forward. If you’re interested in learning more about the idea of radical acceptance and how to use it to help you through your divorce, you can read books on the idea (I recommend libraries and local bookstores like Quail Ridge Books) or just ask a therapist about it.  It will likely save you and your family a lot of unnecessary suffering, money, and time.

Divorce Selfies Show That Divorce Doesn’t Have to Be Awful

There is societal assumption that divorce has to be awful, that it has to ruin lives and be ugly.  I can tell you first-hand story after story why that’s not true and, more importantly, how to avoid that kind of divorce. But, sometimes, there are better ways to make the point.  And, the trend of divorce selfies is one of them. These people prove that you can do a hard thing well and not destroy each other, yourselves or your children in the process. So, take a look at these, find some more by searching the hashtag #divorceselfie on Twitter, and take hope that there is such a thing as a good divorce if you both want it.

How Do You Think About Money?

yankee-dollar-1239438-640x221One issue that comes up in every marriage and every divorce is money. How to make it? How much to make? How to spend it? How much to spend? What to sacrifice in order to get money and what is not worth sacrificing for more money? The different ways that spouses answer these questions in their own heads often reveal themselves in arguments, marriage counseling or, in a worst-case scenario,  a divorce negotiation. Unfortunately, we are not very good at seeing, understanding, or talking about our own individual views of money. So, we don’t talk about it with our spouse, or, we only talk about it in the form of a fight. Rather than wait until a fight or a divorce, you can get an insight into your views about money now, and start a conversation with your spouse about it while you’re both calm and nobody is worked up. The best quick tool that I know of to help you understand your (and your spouse’s) views about money are the Klontz Money Script Inventory and the Klontz Money Behavior Inventory. These were developed by two psychologists that are also Certified Financial Planners. The inventory is designed to help you gain insight into how you think about money. If you and your spouse both take it then you can see some areas where you think and behave differently regarding money. You can read more about it and what your results may mean as well. There is no panacea for having different views of money. But, knowing how you differ as spouses is a huge first step to managing your differing views and not letting those differences negatively impact your marriage. In a worst case scenario, taking these inventories in the early stages of your divorce process will help you and your attorney understand how you approach money issues. That, in turn, allows you to find a divorce solution that better fits your money values in terms of property division, alimony and child support. There is no downside (that I can think of) to understanding more about how you as an individual and your spouse think about money.  And, the upside is that it can head off unnecessary arguments, maybe save your marriage, and, at the very least, help you have a better divorce outcome.

Divorce Story: Most Valuable 5 Minutes of Your Week

If divorce is or may be an issue for you, this will be the most valuable 5 minutes of your week. As I was driving home yesterday I heard this interview with two women going through divorce.  One is in the very early stages, and one has recently finished up and is adjusting to her new life.  Their perspectives and insight are really valuable and give you a really good idea of the kinds of issues that people have to wrestle with as they go through the divorce process.