Divorce 101: The DO’S and DON’TS in the treacherous middle
Just Keep Swimming
Navigating the path to a divorce decree can be perilous. Imagine yourself on one side of a body of water. On the other lies a picturesque island: whiter sand, better food, fill in the blank. Only catch is, to arrive and survive you must swim the treacherous waters in between. No shortcuts. In the midst of the water, you cannot see where you came from nor the gorgeous other side, as currently your complete attention is required to stay afloat. This swim is my metaphor for the often dark and seemingly endless time between married and divorced.
Regardless of who initiated the split or whether it was mutual, moving from “we” to “me,” even if that may be what you’ve been longing for, can be lonely and painful. It smacks of failure. The truth is, you got dressed up, held hands, stood beaming before the people you love and said forever, and forever just got shorter. Divorce can be a simultaneous relief and breathtaking humiliation replete with landmines you never knew existed. Sure, you’ve probably been at least a bit miserable for a while, but once the trigger is pulled, random reactions can and likely will gush out of one or both of you.
The situation leaves both parties sitting ducks: vulnerable. Vulnerable makes even the best of us uncomfortable: we make choices we might usually avoid, were we not feeling alone or desperate. But as uncomfortable and reactive as this behavior may appear, this response is fairly predictable, normal even. What’s more, it is temporary. You will not feel this way forever. Let that be your mantra.
Specifically, be discriminating and conscious about the choices you make during this tumultuous time; consider how your actions might “read” to an outsider. Whether you are “doing anything wrong” or not is immaterial. Whether this is “fair” in your opinion— also irrelevant. Focus on a new skillset. Become your own PR man or woman. Think damage control.
It might not seem important now, but look at yourself and your behavior through the lens of the opposing attorney or a judge who doesn’t know you. Or from the vantage point of the you that you hope to be in two years looking back with a bit of perspective. Before you post that meme or denigrate the new girlfriend, even if she DID wear that outfit, remember, divorce is watching you. And more important, so are your children.
What Do I Need to Do?
Follow our checklist. When consulting new clients, we walk them through a list of items one should and should NOT do when going through the divorce process. Please trust that this is not to constrain you or make you miserable. Rather, it is to protect you. We want to keep the door open to positive negotiating positions, attitudes, and emotional states, to keep your ability to negotiate future terms that will benefit you in the long run.
Divorce is already complicated—we have seen too many clients make an already painful situation much harder for themselves. But we’ll be honest: you are probably not going to like at least one of our excellent, wise suggestions. Which is okay: just do it anyway.
Remember the time of your divorce is finite, but once it is over, if you’ve done it right, you have the rest of your life to do what you want. Cling to the expression “forest for the trees.” Or delayed gratification. Or whatever makes you adhere to the rulebook. We’ll go from easiest to hardest:
- Do: Stay In Your House. Typically one of the biggest assets you share and have ownership in is your home; if you move at the outset, it puts you at a disadvantage in negotiations over who gets to keep the house later – especially if you and your spouse have children. You should only leave if you believe you and/or your children are in danger, or if your attorney specifically advises you to move. If it’s difficult for you and your spouse to co-exist in the same house, you should encourage your spouse to move out. Maybe he or she will take you up on it.
- Don’t: Fight With Your Spouse. We realize this might sound counter-intuitive. Don’t fight with the person you can’t stand so much you want to divorce. We know. Do it anyway. Steer clear of arguments, and no ifs ands or buts, NEVER engage in anything that could be construed as physical fighting. If you are assaulted or threatened by your spouse, contact the police as soon as possible, then contact your lawyer immediately after reaching the police. You will want to press charges, for your own safety. (On the other hand, never make false, or over-blown, accusations of physical abuse or assault—these will likely come back to haunt you.)
- Do: Put Children First. Your kids will not stay at the age they are now; hopefully they will be in your life as they grow. In order to have a positive relationship with them moving forward, you’re going to have to suck it up and make this about them and not you. Remember your children are a part of both of you: if you criticize your spouse in your child’s presence, regardless of the truth, what your kid remembers is that you were denigrating a part of who they are. It is insidious and difficult to come back from. Find a friend or a therapist if you need to vent. Unless you have a safety concern, don’t interfere with visits or phone calls between your children and your spouse. When your children are with your spouse, make sure you’re keeping in regular contact with them. This is not the time to be aloof. Your children, despite what they say or do, need you.
- Don’t: Start Dating. This one is inextricably linked to #3: If you’ve entered a new relationship prior to or upon getting divorced, defer it, and if you’ve been exceedingly wise and have not started down that thorny road, DON’T start until the divorce proceedings are complete. Any new relationship muddies the water for everyone. It isn’t worth it. I am still astounded by the sheer number of clients who ignore this clear, simple if not pleasant advice and damage their relationship with the children over it. Or severely complicate the settlement process. While the presence of a relationship may not affect a court decision, it will most certainly affect a negotiated settlement. And, should your case go to litigation, a number of lawyers won’t hesitate to make your infidelity part of the case. Is that something your children need to contend with along with the dissolution of your marriage? Odds are you are in no shape to date right now, anyway—this is a time to take stock and make changes moving forward into a new and eventually healthier existence. Get closer to that place before tripping into another relationship that will likely implode anyway.
This is admittedly a challenging list. It requires more self-sacrifice than many care to contend with. However, these are necessary steps to place yourself in the best possible position to either face divorce court, to enter into mediation, or to enter the collaborative divorce process. It will be ultimately worth it to you, and most importantly, to your children.
About the Author
Larry Hance is managing partner and founder of the Dallas law firm Hance Law Group. With more than 35 years of experience in family law, Mr. Hance uses his experience with the legal system, judges and other lawyers to help clients achieve the best possible results.