Do's and Don'ts of Divorce
by Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT
Oct 6th 2011
Many divorces go along smoothly, but when problems occur, they usually reflect the dynamics that didn't work in the marriage - only made worse, because divorce is one of the biggest crises a person goes through. Emotions, especially fear and anger, are at their peak. All divorces are unique, and vary depending on: 1. The marital relationship; 2. The reasons for the divorce; 3. Whether children are involved; and 4. Who initiated the divorce. Yet there are some common issues, largely based on mistaken beliefs and strong emotions.
Mistakes to Avoid
Unfortunately divorce is an adversarial process. It can be a mistake to assume your spouse has your best interests at heart during the divorce. Probably, he or she won't. I'm not suggesting you act out of anger, but you may be hurt and disappointed if you assume everything will be divided without anger and that you'll remain close friends. It's better to expect anger, but try not to react to it. Anger, jealousy, guilt, fear, and hurt can interfere with your judgment and escalate conflict. You may remain friends, but it takes a certain amount of energy to separate. Think of the tremendous force required to split the atom. At least one spouse generally gets angry to break up the marriage.
Hopefully, you can at least be honest with each other, but often fear takes over, facts get hidden, and attorneys sometimes fuel conflict. Disclosure is the best approach, since deception or concealment is likely to backfire and breed resistance and contempt when the truth inevitably comes out. It's also a mistake to try to over-control everything out of fear or anger. It may be hard to accept that you won't get all you want, particularly if you're relinquishing some or a lot of control over your children. Yet it's possible to be assertive and still be kind. (See 6 Keys to Assertive Communication.)
Obtain legal advice early, and find an experienced Family Law Specialist with trial experience. Listen to your attorney, but also listen to yourself. If you've had problems standing up for yourself in your marriage, find a strong attorney to stand up for you. Mediation can be an effective alternative if your communication with your spouse is good, but it's important to retain your own attorney to advise you of your rights. However, mediation is not advisable, if you get intimidated by your spouse or there was addiction or any abuse in the marriage.
Now's the time to take care of you and your children. It's a big mistake not to get enough support. Get all you can from lawyers, accountants, therapists, family, friends, and spiritual groups. You can't be there for your children if you're not getting your needs met. In fact, most parents neglect their children during divorce. The losses and changes you go through are so overwhelming and stressful that it's hard to be present for them, but they're really sad and scared, too. Even savvy teenagers. The teens are a vulnerable period, especially for boys. Spend quality alone time with each one of your children, and listen to them. Don't talk about your spouse or use them as confidants. That's very destructive. It's also a mistake to let children of any age decide with whom they want to live. Listen to their feelings, but make that decision with your husband. It's too big of a responsibility, even for a 17 year-old.
Another mistake is to take too much or too little time with the divorce. As discussed more extensively in my published article, Growing Through Divorce, there are four stages to divorce and the "emotional divorce" is the most pivotal and difficult. Rushing doesn't give you time to work through emotions that end up fueling legal battles. On the other hand, a divorce that drags on for years reflects that you haven't emotionally unbonded and need professional help to let go.
After a divorce, the two biggest challenges are setting new boundaries with your ex and balancing grieving with moving forward in your life. If you haven't unbonded emotionally, there'll be a lot of reactivity and fights, or the reverse, insufficient boundaries and too much closeness that keep you from moving on.
Do's of Divorce:
- Create a support and social network. This is important not only for support, but as part of building a new single lifestyle. Plan activities, take a class, or buy season tickets that force you to get out even when you don't feel
- like it. Avoid any temptation to isolate.
- Engage competent legal counsel. Some states, including California, certify family law specialists.
- Be assertive and courteous. Ask for what you need, and be willing to compromise.
- Find your passion and learn something new about it. Take action. What you do today creates your future tomorrow.
- Accept the reality that you're divorced and that it's your responsibility to create happiness in your life. It's okay to be angry about it. That's part of acceptance.
- Establish new, clear boundaries with your ex.
- Journal and write daily things you did well. Also jot down and date small signs of healing - such as crying less, trying new things, socializing more.
Don'ts of Divorce:
- Expect your spouse to take care of your needs.
- Make decisions based on your emotions.
- Confide in or talking negatively to your children about your ex.
- Lie, conceal, manipulate, or over-control.
- Judge yourself. Negative self-talk is destructive. It saps your energy, and can turn fatigue or sadness into hopelessness.
- Ruminate about the past. Don't let depression take over. Get professional help if you feel stuck.
- Wait for invitations on holidays, including your birthday. Unlike when you were married when your family honored your birthday, now you have to make plans in advance to honor yourself.