The way that a couple handles the earliest days of their divorce play a crucial role in how their divorce plays out. If the days and weeks right after one spouse breaks the news of a desired divorce are not handled properly, then the couple all but assures themselves of an unnecessarily long, expensive and bitter divorce.
In these earliest days emotions are running high, fear is taking over, and knowledge and information are scarce. All too often, one or both spouses make early, hasty, uninformed or misinformed decisions that derail any chance of a dignified resolution of divorce issues. It is understandable; research shows that people make poor decisions at times of high emotional activity. Combine that with the fear of losing children, homes and financial security and you have a recipe for some really bad decision making.
Typically these poor decisions take the shape of self-protective unilateral actions. Spouses take money out of joint accounts, secret away “their” money, run up credit accounts, and/or try to give away property to friends or family to keep it away from their spouse. One common unilateral decision that can wreak havoc on the financial piece of divorce is when one party signs a lease or buys a separate house to effectuate a physical separation. It seems logical; but, these days an additional rent or mortgage payment creates an immediate financial crisis that leads to litigation.
Worse than the protective financial measures are the steps some parents take with kids in the early days of divorce. Some parents restrict access to the kids for the other parent (typically the parent that stays in the marital home has an ability to do this). Worse, they poor mouth their spouse to the kids to get a jump on the “who loves you more” game.
Many divorce lawyers will feed a client’s fear by recommending that a client take these “protective” steps. It is not atypical for a divorce attorney to tell a client to turn off utilities, stop making mortgage payments, change the locks on the house, or clean out financial accounts. Most lawyers do this because they are afraid the other spouse’s lawyer will beat them to the punch. It is “strike before you are stricken” mentality.
The dirty little secret of taking these kinds of actions in the early days of a divorce is that they all but destroy any chance of resolving the divorce issues in a dignified, efficient and peaceful way. Many lawyers are fine with that because war makes more money for them than dignified negotiation. But, the fact is that most money taken will have to be returned, courts generally do not keep kids from either parent and protective measures create far more problems than they prevent.
Fortunately, most thinking people don’t want their divorce to be war. The good news for them is that war can be avoided if the early days of the divorce are handled properly. It takes a little mutual trust and some emotional control. But, couples that can take the following actions in the early days of the divorce have a much higher chance of avoiding a war:
1. Have a conversation with each other. If neither of you want a war, tell each other. If you are not going to try to destroy the other person, tell them. That way neither spouse is worrying what the other is going to try to do. This can help reduce the fear and anxiety that causes unilateral actions. This conversation can be especially productive if a couple meets with a mental health professional to have the conversation. It is as simple as calling a mental health professional and saying “We need to have a conversation about how to handle our divorce properly.” This person can often help get you on the right track.
2. Find lawyers that will advise you about all of your options for handling the divorce process. A good divorce lawyer will tell you that litigation is just one option (in most cases) of many. And that lawyer will be trained and experienced enough to help you in any process you choose. Perhaps some protective measures are called for in a case, but perhaps not. Find a lawyer who gives you options.
3. Create a plan. Having at least a temporary plan for how you are going to resolve the divorce issues lowers fear and anxiety and provides some structure to your chaos. A mental health professional and your lawyers can help you analyze and choose a plan. Whether you choose Collaborative Divorce, mediation, a settlement conference or something else, a plan will help.
Fear, panic and misinformation thrive in the early days of a divorce. Taking some steps to prevent those emotions from taking over usually allows a couple to avoid the war that would otherwise result. There is no way to guarantee that your divorce will not be a war. But, there are a lot of ways to guarantee that it will be.
Taking the right steps in the days after the news of a separation or divorce breaks is a crucial step in keeping your divorce options open.