In this blog we consider the legal and psychological ramifications of taking the first step in the divorce process, how these are intertwined and the significant impact they can have, against a background of living with a pandemic. As well as outlining the top five mistakes to avoid if you are considering a divorce or separation.
For some, the pandemic has accentuated existing strains on their relationships, others may feel that they have to face the reality that without the hustle and bustle of normal life they can no longer recognise the person they are living with. Yet, working up the resolve to leave a dysfunctional and unhappy relationship can take time. The timeframe from entertaining the possibility of divorce to taking the steps to facilitate it can take years. Often one party is far ahead emotionally and psychologically which makes it very difficult for the party playing catch up, especially when divorce proceedings may be initiated at a point when they are not ready to accept that the marriage is at an end.
In the context of the pandemic, the timeframe to take action to divorce can be slower particularly when much of the process is going to have to be played out whilst living under the same roof, in some form of COVID-19-related lockdown. Divorce is an interrelated emotional and legal process that can take its toll over a long period of time (the legal process on average can take nine months to two years to complete) so it is no wonder that staying in a familiar, albeit fraught, situation can seem better than facing the reality of divorce.
Some couples divorce and separate really well. This may be more luck than judgment. However, it does also come down to getting the basics right and the successful ones are able to focus on what really matters; reaching sensible agreements in a cost effective manner and in realistic timescales. They are then able to move on with their lives. For others the process is long, hard, intrusive and expensive and unfortunately children are often caught in the cross-fire.
There are many ways to get it wrong during the divorce process. However, set out below are the most common top five mistakes to avoid when you are contemplating a divorce or separation.
Rushing into decisions
Some relationships simply run their course and come to a natural end. Ideally each partner comes to that place at around the same time but unfortunately that is not the norm: usually someone is ahead and perhaps taking a lead in the separation. If that is you, then take care in how you manage it because what you do next is sure to have a profound and lasting effect on how things unroll when the separation finally happens, most notably:
- How your former partner sees you;
- How they talk about you to friends and family;
- How they perceive your ability to parent your children (and how much freedom they are willing to give you in that parenting arrangement); and
- The communication between you and the ease of having discussions and reaching agreements. This is much more than the immediate decisions around home, children, savings, divorce but also way into the future and the discussions about children’s choices and how you are involved in the major events in their lives (graduations/weddings/grandchildren etc).
It is important to pause and draw breath; think about how it is for your partner and search for the resources to make sure that you manage this stage well.
There is often anger: anger at the spouse perceived to be causing emotional pain, anger at being in a situation not of your choosing, anger at not being with your children, anger at having to part with financial security that may have been built up over a lifetime. Anger often feeds a desire to attack the other party which can feed into the divorce process in a very negative way, propelling a family into costly and destructive litigation that could have been avoided or managed very differently. Many expect, or hope, that divorce as a legal construct, will equate to ‘justice’. It is often said in legal circles that a ‘good outcome’ is one where neither side gets exactly what they want, and compromises have to be made. This is often the case when dealing with the financial disengagement of a couple: the financial upheaval can be very stressful. Many people are very attached to their family home and it can take time to come to terms with the fact that it will have to be sold, for example.
Another way of getting things in a hopelessly bad place is to keep “putting off the evil/inevitable day.”
If you know you need to end the relationship, then you need to get on with it. From experience by and large children do not benefit from having their parents “stay together for their sake.” When the relationship that the children see is an unhappy one, this is the model for the relationships that they themselves will have in later life. While you hang on, resentments are likely to build and problems become more impacted and harder to resolve.
The reality of divorce does involve losses and changes. These need to be set against the potential benefits. Considering and writing down the emotional and legal losses and the changes that a divorce would bring, alongside the future benefits can help with taking the first steps. As you go through the emotional process of divorce, having these considerations available will be useful, especially if you are able to name and categorise what you are experiencing. For example, you may feel a deep sadness about life plans that will no longer be possible. This deep sadness can cloud judgement as we are generally programmed to avoid pain. If you have children, the thought of spending less time with them can be incredibly hard and lead to intense guilt. Guilt is another powerful emotion that can take over and prolong the divorce decision-making process. Divorce can often be perceived as a failure, for some people, a divorce can be their first encounter with this feeling and they may not have the coping skills for dealing with perceived failure. They may worry about losing the social status of being married. We are not advocating jumping into a divorce or separation today but we are saying that if you know that there is no way back then start planning your dignified and respectful separation and do it soon. Ideally you do not want to plan for too long, many poor separations start with an argument when the plan to leave leaks out, which is of course another of the really poor first steps to take on this journey.
Assume it wipes the slate clean so you can start over
Mistake number three sees quite intelligent people thinking that separating will take them back to some earlier chapter in their lives so that they can re-run and do it differently this time. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but things are going to be more complicated than they were:
- You will be poorer than you were (but the money that you have will be all yours);
- Parenting children across two homes is never an easy task (though as you are more able to be yourself, you may have better relationships with them);
- Friends and family will all have views (some of them unexpected and some quite unfair);
- You are a bit older, already busy but now you are going to face the management of myriad things to get all of this sorted. It will be hard work and you are probably going to face having to make bigger concessions that you would assume would be remotely appropriate to get to an agreement.
So start out on this road with realism about where it is leading and understand from the outset that it will be hard but of course ultimately you will end up in a much better position.
Going it alone & not seeking legal help until it is too late
Lawyers are expensive and, anyway, where on earth would you start to look for one? An enticing option is see if you can sort things out solo (and leave the lawyer bit till later).
The thing is that the financial deal that you make has to be approved by the legal system to bind you both. Far too many people spend an age around the kitchen table telling each other what would be fair until one or other is beaten down into an agreement or each agrees that any agreement is quite impossible. It is all pretty pointless and at some point the conversation will have to be taken to the legal system when all the hard won points are re-examined and all the concessions come back up to be reconsidered.
For many, having an initial consultation with a divorce lawyer can allay many of their fears, particularly for the financially weaker party, by reassuring them and clarifying the process. You would do far better to get advice and guidance on the system at the start. You can then seek help on how to reach agreements that are binding and use the early-stage energy and willingness to make progress within a system (for example, mediation) that is capable of delivering a conclusion that the legal system will adopt.
Otherwise you are quite likely to find yourself putting the finishing touches to a building that someone is going to tell you has to be knocked down and positioned somewhere else entirely to a very different design.
Getting everyone else involved
This strategy can cause you damage in up to three ways (and usually all of them):
- It is unfair to your kids;
- It will cause you grief down the road; and
- It may result in you not getting the support you do need.
Your children (of whatever age) will have a whole lot of transitioning to do just making sense of your separation. You really need to avoid pulling them into the to-and-fro between the adults too. In proceedings relating to children the approach is different, with the child being central to all considerations. The loss of time with a child can feel insurmountable and is undeniably, for most people the single most painful aspect of divorce. The situation is slowly improving however, with many more children being able to enjoy an equal (or close to) division of time between their parents.
We are social animals, hard-wired to share with our friends and family details of the hurt done to us but this comes with a significant downside in situations of divorce and separation in the modern world. Having played out your story to family and friends, they are now invested in what happens next. The comfort and support that you may have gained over the early stages is very likely to shift to being a burden later on when everyone has their view on what you are doing and how you are progressing the situation. They will feel entitled to share it with you.
Friends and family will be well-intentioned but they will not be as well-informed and they are not the ones who will be living your future. Further, your children will need the overarching umbrella of friends and family intact as they go forward with their lives: a split and polarised context is really not going to help them.
Finally, by having friends and family around, you are likely to by-pass the help you really do need. These will be tough times and you are likely to be engaging in a system that is enraging while negotiating with a former partner whose reactions you may quickly come to find unrecognisable and unpredictable. There are professionals who provide support all day and every day to those going through divorce and separation. It is complex work and the value of helping you to make sense of the challenges you face is priceless (as well as saving a vast amount in legal costs). This is not the stuff of deep analysis: it is short-term and pragmatic, perhaps no more than providing insights as to what your former partner is going through or what your children are experiencing, enabling you to better manage how you deal with the situations you are encountering.
Don’t waste the opportunities you have to do this well. The consequences of doing it badly can be large and long-lasting.
We take what appear to be short-cuts in life because we cannot see far enough along the path to recognise the consequences. For example:
- The shortcut to ending a relationship may lead to long fights around parenting arrangements or the long march to court;
- The shortcut to avoid legal costs or that strange unknown world of counselling may seem sensible until we find ourselves surrounded by failed discussions with the nightmare of more serious conflict drawing in.
This is why you need help to better understand the consequences of the choices you have.
Understanding and remembering that there are losses and changes alongside the benefits can help to ease the process of divorce and lessen any decision-making fatigue, especially coupled with legal advice to demystify the process and provide reassurance.
At Goodlaw we understand your worries and offer you expert advice and support:
- Our lawyers know the world of divorce and separation well and are available to talk through your situation and help you plan the early stages and anticipate what the future might hold;
- Getting in touch with us does not surrender control to professionals who take over. We are here to help with the questions and issues that you face at the time and youremain in control of what is done. We do a lot of efficient and focused guidance for people who, with the answers they need, take things no further or return only some- time later;
- We have vast arrays of information to provide detailed guidance around the specific issues you may face.
There is no denying that divorce and separation can be a challenging and complex time for couples. However, if you can avoid some of the top mistakes outlined above during your divorce and separation, things can become so much easier. Shall we get started?