Divorce Negotiation: Don’t Look for Bandaids for Your Headache
In family law cases, money is an issue. Whether a couple is wealthy or struggling, very few divorcing couples feel that there is plenty to go around when negotiating their divorce solution. There is almost always a sense of scarcity. Sometimes that feeling of scarcity is supported by the numbers, but sometimes it is a reflexive fear reaction.
That sense of scarcity and anxiety leads people to try to get as much money as they can, and therefore, not share any more than necessary. That leads to zero sum thinking and shuts down thinking about solutions that lie outside of money, or have nothing to do with money.
In my experience, many people in divorce cases are looking to meet at least some needs that cannot be met by money. They use money as a proxy for the thing they actually want. For example, sometimes people see getting more money than their spouse as recognition, acknowledgement or a reward for being the “better person” during the marriage. Sometimes clients reflexively treat money as a proxy for an apology for perceived wrongs, recognition for career sacrifice or years holding a family together by themselves. Sometimes they see it as a reward for the years they have spent traveling for work and not being with the family so that the family could live a nicer lifestyle. It is frequently perceived by clients as a proxy for determining who is “right” and “wrong” in a divorce. (In North Carolina, fault can play a roll in spousal support and some other isolated issues, but no judge is going to announce in court who was morally right and who was morally wrong in divorce; the most they can do is award money.)
Unfortunately this approach can delay solutions, cost extra money and time, and lead to frustration. First, more money does not assuage deep hurt, resentment, rejection, betrayal or other difficult and strong feelings that sometimes accompany divorce. So, money is frequently simply an ineffective solution for meeting the need of emotional healing. It doesn’t hurt to have money, but it doesn’t always help.
Second, focusing on money to address emotional issues is misdirected. Whatever time is spent negotiating towards a financial solution for an emotional need is wasted time. And with lawyers, time is money. It is like looking for the right band-aid for a headache. Even if you succeed, it probably will not help.
And, sometimes frustration builds as the emotional needs are not met even though negotiation is plugging along. Clients can be left wondering “I got more money, why don’t I feel better about it?” Even more common is that they never feel that their spouse ever “got it”.
None of this is to say that people in a divorce should simply disregard their financial needs and legal options or forgo obtaining the financial means to meet those needs. Rather, it is a reminder that in order to have the best negotiation and outcome possible, its is important to spend some time determining which of your needs can be met with money, and which cannot. Then you can focus the negotiations on the right solutions for the particular needs. Spend some time thinking about whether the needs you are trying to meet are financial, emotional or otherwise. Then think about focusing on meeting financial needs with money, and other needs through other avenues.