There, you said it. Or, at least read it.
It’s not easy – it’s not an easy word to say, it’s not an easy decision to make, and it’s not an easy process to go through.
Which makes it an important thing to think about.
The reality is, the decisions you make now are going to have implications for the rest of your life. So it’s essential that you take the time you need – and get the advice you need – to make the right decisions for you, your family and your particular situation.
Take it from Steve and Beth.* They thought they had, in her words, “about as amicable a breakup as possible. We didn’t think we really had anything to argue about.”
That misconception lasted about as long as it took the couple to actually sit down and start talking about dividing things up. “There were things he wanted that I never would have dreamed he even ever thought about. But even more than that kind of stuff, we were in way over our heads when it came to things like retirement plans, student loans, credit cards.”
“We didn’t split up because of money, and it seemed crazy to start fighting about it at that point.” So they quickly turned to some professionals who could help keep things as simple – and friendly – as possible.
Lee Rosen, now retired founding partner of The Rosen Law Firm and a legal advisor to the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, applauds their good judgment. “They certainly did the smart thing, and the right thing for them.”
He adds, however, that while “it would be nice if every situation was that non-combative, and the people involved were always willing to work together,” from his vast experience that’s not often the case.
The reality is, every couple is different, and every divorce is different. The more you know about what goes on in a divorce and the options you have, the more you can come to a resolution that fits your needs. And the more the whole process can get easier (if never quite easy).
Stress: it’s a reality.
Separation and divorce are, by their very nature, a source of major upheaval and change. You can lessen the trauma by taking some control of the process.
Kay Atchison, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and member of both the National Association of Social Workers and the North Carolina Society of Clinical Social Workers, has handled many cases involving the breakup of a marriage.
She recommends, first of all, “protect yourself – and that means emotionally as well as financially. Sometimes people get so caught up in dividing money and property; it’s a way of channeling their anger and emotions and avoids dealing directly with the pain and hurt.”
“You have to understand where the hurt is coming from,” she goes on, “and what actions make it worse. Then you can take constructive steps to reduce your pain, remove yourself from destructive patterns and situations, and stay focused on your ultimate goals.”
For many of the people she works with, “the pain can seem to come from everywhere; simple things such as seeing couples and families together can lead to wondering why you couldn’t work it out. No matter who initiates the process, separation can make you feel like a failure. You may find yourself angry, frustrated or disappointed over losing the person who was supposed to be a partner for life – and the dreams you had for your future together. It’s common to blame yourself, whether it’s warranted or not.”
Janice, for example, found herself managing reasonably well at home, able to hold things together in front of her children. “But every day when I got to work, the first thing I did was close my office door and cry for a half hour. And even when I was interacting with people in the office, I wasn’t really functioning. This perception of failure in one part of my life seeped into everything – I lost my confidence, I couldn’t make decisions, I really just didn’t perform very well.”
Dr. Reid Whiteside, a clinical psychologist who specializes in family psychotherapy, says this type of reaction is common. But it’s only a part of a bigger picture. “There are the other people in your life. Your relationship with your spouse – and others – may come to an abrupt end. Certainly, a number of relationships will have to be modified.” All of these changes can cause additional pain, anxiety and loneliness.
“And,” Rosen points out, “people have to face the fact that their financial status may decline as well.” Indeed, both you and your spouse may face a diminished standard of living for the indefinite future – a looming potential that can add more fear and doubt to an already difficult situation.
Stress reduction: it’s possible.
Initially, Dr. Whiteside says, all of this uncertainty will feel very unfamiliar, and very frightening. As it should: “you’ve been thrown into a major crisis. At this low point, it may seem impossible to do any rational thinking, let alone careful planning.”
So what can you do? “Take a deep breath and repeat to yourself: help is out there.”
Despite the crisis and despite the confusion, you can find the aid and comfort you need to survive separation and divorce, and start on your way to a better, more stable future. With thought and planning, you can save yourself time, money, and – most important of all – undue emotional suffering.
Dr. Whiteside says that friends and family can offer critical emotional comfort, and help with the details of daily living that can start to seem so overwhelming when you’re under stress – as was the case for a former patient named Barbara.
“I had never been all that close with my younger sister – too many years apart, I guess,” explained Barbara. “But when I was going through my divorce, she was the one who was really there for me. I didn’t expect it, but it made all the difference. Just swinging by to see how I was doing, or taking the kids out for a burger so I could have a break. She made my life bearable.”
This is also a time, Rosen, Dr. Whiteside and Ms. Atchison agree, when you can look to trained professionals for guidance and assistance.
Mental health professionals provide structured, focused support over a period of time – however long you feel is necessary to get back on your feet – while attorneys act as your advocate, translating the intricacies of the legal system and presenting your side of things in the most effective way.
Don’t have a prenup? How about an antenup? (Trick question – they’re the same thing.**) Board Certified Family Law Specialist and Divorce Attorney, Lisa Angel, says that while prenuptial agreements are becoming more common, most couples don’t have one. “Which means that when soon-to-be-ex partners sit down and try to negotiate a legal document covering separation, support, or property rights, it’s often the first time they find themselves in a position to think – and talk about – those kinds of issues.”
Kelly, for one, has very vivid memories of that moment. “He had always tried to take care of me, control me, really – that’s one of the big reasons we were getting a divorce. So when he showed up with all sorts of forms all filled out and told me how he had done all this work so everything would be easy for me – well, a big giant red flag went up; something didn’t smell right. And I thought, ‘sorry, mister, you’re not getting out of this that easy.’”
The best advice? According to Angel, start thinking about these issues now. She says that when it comes to property and financial matters, there are several steps you can take to safeguard assets while you’re involved in negotiations or litigation.
“For starters, take possession of the assets you want – furniture, cars – and the assets you think your spouse might sell – things like precious gems and stones, collectibles and bonds.”
“If there’s a house involved, you can file a notice in your county Deeds Office that prevents anything being sold behind your back.” For other types of property, she says, you can get an injunction that prevents your spouse from transferring or selling those assets. “Your attorney can also use an injunction to get your separate property returned to you if your spouse refuses to return it. And you can get an interim distribution of property, pending a final ruling, to ensure that you’ll have enough money to live on throughout the process.”
She offers a range of other steps to consider, including:
- protecting your own credit rating by freezing or closing joint cards and blocking your spouse’s access to other joint credit such as a home equity loan
- closing joint bank accounts and opening accounts in your own name
- changing the name on utility and other bills
Keeping down the costs.
Yes, all of this thinking and planning ahead can cost money. But it can save you much more in the long run. And, according to Lee Rosen, there are things you can do to minimize costs, while keeping control. (Don’t, he warns, let the goal of holding legal fees down make you penny-wise and pound-foolish – “like, for instance, relying on your spouse’s lawyer to do all the work. Plain and simple, he or she is not looking out for your best interests.”)
You can lower your own legal fees, if your lawyer charges on an hourly basis, by avoiding long-winded telephone conversations and unnecessarily long meetings with your attorney.
Regina got this piece of advice from a cousin who had just been in a similar situation. “She learned from unfortunate experience – she hadn’t organized her papers, and she really didn’t have anyone else she could lean on. She spent a lot more time – and money – with her lawyer than she really needed to. So I knew, as painful as it might be, I had to get my stuff together first, and go into this thing with my eyes open.”
Rosen advises many of his clients to do a lot of this document “homework” on their own – going through records, and organizing the materials an attorney will need. In addition to potentially saving on legal fees, he says, “this is an integral part of proper divorce planning, and the more of it you do yourself the more you’ll understand what decisions have to be made and what approach you want to take.”
And (deep breath again) you can take as reasonable a position as possible in negotiations. Atchison and Rosen agree that for both financial and emotional health, you should attempt to steer clear of protracted litigation. As Atchison puts it, “try to put any spite or desire to inflict pain aside, and make thoughtful choices that get you what you really want for the long term.”
I can’t remember all that.
If you’re just beginning to think about divorce, this can all seem pretty mind-numbing – as it did for Lavonia. She says that when things would start to get overwhelming, “I just stopped whatever I was doing, said a prayer, and pictured my children. And I told myself, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right – for them.”
As you begin to explore your options, Rosen encourages maintaining focus on three basic ideas.
1. Knowledge is power.
“The more you know, the better off you are – and the better your chances of getting the outcome you want.”
2. Get involved.
“This is your divorce. If you ‘hand it off’ to someone else” – either your spouse or your own attorney – “you’ll feel like you don’t know what’s going on, and it could leave you worse off both emotionally and financially. The more you participate, the less helpless you’ll feel, and the more you can guide the resolution.”
3. It’s just business.
“Resolving a marital issue is, basically, a business transaction. Dividing property, arranging for child support, establishing alimony – all can be seen as deals to be arranged. You’ll certainly have feelings about them, but it’s unwise to let those feelings get tangled up with your business sense. Don’t let emotional issues cloud the process and drag down the proceedings – with you in tow.”
And if even these points are too much right now, remember one more thing: if you need advice, support or a shoulder to cry on, ask for it. There are lots of people ready to help.
*All names have been changed.
** Believe it or not, there is something called a postnuptial agreement – basically, as Lisa Angel says, an agreement written after you’re married and (ideally) before there’s any talk of separation. Be careful: If your spouse presents you with a postnuptial agreement, and says the contract is just for estate planning purposes, “you would be well advised to discuss the draft with an attorney, who can point out what you might be giving up. Better safe than sorry – just because you don’t view your spouse as a potential adversary doesn’t mean the reverse is true. Your mate may be planning for a separation that you don’t yet know is in the cards.”