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It's a terrible irony that we have to make some of the most critical decisions of our lives at the same time that we're struggling with one of the greatest life stressors -- divorce. It's only natural that, having decided you can't stay married to this person for one moment longer, you also can't agree with him on the major sticking points of the split. Still, divorce is a negotiation, and if you keep a level head, you should be able to find a way around those pivotal moments when things threaten to spin out of control.
Here are eight ugly moments that real people encountered in their journey out of marriage -- and how each handled the sticky situation. How'd they do? We ask some divorce experts to weigh in on how they tackled the problem.Ugly Moment #1: "I Couldn't Get $40!"
Sally, 38, Cincinnati, Ohio The situation: "I had been thinking about divorcing, and had secretly gone to an attorney to see what my rights were. But the meeting just made me decide to work on the marriage -- divorce seemed too extreme. Unfortunately, my husband found out -- and took all the money out of our joint account without warning, and moved it to his personal account. When I went to the ATM and found myself cashless, I knew things were going to get ugly."
How she handled it: "Well, it was obvious that I had to leave this man -- so I hired my own lawyer, and prepared to defend my rights."
The experts say: "She was right to try not to divorce," says Margery Rubin, owner of DivorceSource, a New York City-based business offering practical (but not legal) advice about divorce and how it works. "But once he found out she'd gone behind his back, what did she expect?" Both parties set off each other's emotional triggers, and the result was all-out war. "I would have told her to see a couple's counselor with this man, and decide together if they were going to divorce. See if there's any way to short-circuit the anger and do it in a reasonable way."
"They needed mediation at that point," says Sam Margulies, author of A Man's Guide to a Civilized Divorce: How to Divorce with Grace, a Little Class, and a Lot of Common Sense (Rodale Press, 2004). "You can always bat back with a lawyer, but every aggressive act begets aggression on the other side. She should have approached the situation as if he made a mistake based on bad advice and, instead of reacting, spoken to him in a way that would allow them to keep control of the situation."Ugly Moment #2: "She Wanted the Divorce on Ridiculous Grounds."
Anthony, 38, Los Angeles, California The situation: "Our marriage was always confrontational. There's no question, we made each other unhappy. But when she left me, my ex wouldn't go for 'irreconcilable differences' and refused to agree to any settlement unless she could be granted the divorce on 'emotional and physical cruelty.' There was no way I was taking the rap for that."
How he handled it: "I fought it, and fought it, and fought it. It almost cost me my house, and I'm in debt up to my sideburns. But every time they lobbed an accusation my way, I had my lawyer bat it back, and when it got in front of a judge -- after we were both examined by forensic psychologists -- she finally lost that battle. In the end, I made her take the rap, admitting she'd abandoned me."
The experts say: "They're both morons," says Margulies. "It doesn't matter on what grounds you get divorced. The only thing that matters is the settlement: how did you deal with the kids, the money, and the property." The state, he says, can't legislate shame. "He says 'I got her to take the rap,' but so what? These two used the court as a forum for their own very immature emotional vindication."
But "there's no clear answer here," says Ron Hollander, a New York lawyer who handles matrimonial cases. "I personally can't understand why anyone would make grounds an issue; only a real fruitcake would behave the way she did. Her lawyers weren't doing their job -- keeping her focused on the divorce rather than the revenge -- and allowed her to fight some nonexistent battle. If I'd been this guy's lawyer, I wouldn't be able to tell him what to do. I've never seen a case where grounds came back to haunt someone, but who knows? I think he made the right judgment call, because he was clearly dealing with an unreasonable person."Ugly Moment #3: "He Said He Needed Time to Think, But Lied About Where He Was Doing His Thinking."
Rose, 40, Portland, Oregon The situation: "We were in counseling and it came out that he was having an affair. I was willing to work it through with him, but he said he wanted to move out and live with his brother for a while, to think things through. Within a week, I found out he was living with the other woman."
How she handled it: "I filed. I had him served. I couldn't work it out if he was going to lie. Then I found him a lawyer, too. He was so passive, he wouldn't even do that himself."
The experts say: "Sheesh, I would have filed at that point, too," says Hollander. "I wouldn't have found him a lawyer, though."
"I would have advised mediation [for the divorce]," says Rubin. "Mediation is where you both agree to have a professional, licensed by a state council, to act as a nonbiased third party who understands the law concerning divorce." Usually, she says, this is an ex-lawyer or a therapist. "It's much less expensive than using lawyers -- you only need them in the end, to look over the agreement you came up with." The point is, if Rose was calm enough to hire a lawyer for her ex, she was probably calm enough to mediate with him, too.
Margulies shakes his head. "My ex always says, 'If a guy says he needs space, ask what space's last name is.'"
Jeff, 36, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania The situation: "My wife and I had been estranged for a while -- it was obvious that the relationship wasn't working, and we lived apart. Then a new person came into my life, and [my wife] was so angry; I filed for divorce, but she wouldn't sign a single piece of paper or respond to any of my lawyer's motions."
How he handled it: "In the state where we were living, if you don't respond within 18 months, the other spouse is granted a divorce, so I just bided my time. It meant I couldn't get remarried when I wanted to, but I didn't know what else to do."
The experts say: "This was the right answer," says Hollander. "The law is set up, in most places, so that if you can't get in touch with the other party, you can still divorce him or her."
"If this new person is a good match for him," says Rubin, "she won't be in such a rush to run down the aisle anyway. Whether it happens now or in 18 months, it'll work out. He did the right thing. There's no rush."Ugly Moment #5: "He Wanted a Huge House Payoff."
Denise, 37, Brooklyn, New York The situation: "It was clear that once my husband had a new girlfriend, things were over between us -- but when it came to dividing the assets, he wanted a piece of the house I had bought. He wouldn't let it go, and the debate over this dragged on longer than the three-year marriage."
How she handled it: "He wasn't owed the huge amount he was demanding, so I fought him on it. I knew I was right. But it took so much in legal fees to prove it, I would have come out ahead if I'd just written him a check the day he moved out."
The experts say: "I hear her saying that she regrets fighting him on this, but hindsight is always 20-20," says Hollander. "Yes, in the end, she took a financial hit, but if she had just rolled over on this, the minute it happened, she might have set a bad precedent. Maybe there was a place and time where she could have said 'this is going on too long,' but she did have to put up some kind of fight."
Margulies has a different take. "If the law was on her side, and the house was in her name, and he was out, she should have just sat there and let him wear himself out." Divorces, he says, are miserable, but "if one person keeps a cool head, in time, the other person will usually cooperate."Ugly Moment #6: "We Had a Sudden Custody Clash."
Adam, 42, Baltimore, Maryland The situation: "We had a custody agreement, but for a year, because my son had a karate class on Monday nights, he slept over an extra night. Suddenly, my ex-wife wanted to put a stop to this. I thought we had a de facto agreement. She didn't. Suddenly lawyers were reinvolved. And lawyers are never good news."
How he handled it: "The truth is, I was hoping the extra night would reduce my child-support payments, which were astronomical. So I was the one who called the lawyers in first, and it was my lawyer who said to try to get around the system. The payments are directly tied to how much time each parent spends with the kid, and that night would have put me in the lower-payment bracket. In retrospect, I shouldn't have listened to a guy whose strategy was to cheat -- but even though I didn't end up reducing the child support, we did restructure the custody so that I get a lot more time with my son, and that makes it worth it."
The experts say: "The structure of child support guidelines were changed about 15 years ago," says Margulies. The idea, he says, was good: if a noncustodial parent spent more time with his kids, he could pay less in child support, because presumably he'd be spending money on the kids while they were in his care.
"But what happened, in fact, is that lawyers began advising the custodial parents, 'Don't let him spend more time with the kids, so you don't lose money,'" Margulies says, "and [advising] the noncustodial parents, 'See the kid more if you want to pay less.' It's parental time for sale, and it's a horrible idea." All experts agree: tying parental time to a dollar amount takes the child's needs out of the equation, and usually leads to a more bitter situation. "I would have advised him to get the extra visitation he wanted, through a mediator, and forgotten about the money -- and the lawyers," says Margulies.
"He's lucky he came out with a positive situation -- he took a huge chance," says Rubin. "Never, never use children as a weapon, and always be flexible with the custody. In the end, the more flexible parent is the one who wins in the kids' eyes."Ugly Moment #7: "The Kids' Expenses Became a Battleground."
Emily, 46, New York, New York The situation: "When it came time for child support to be worked out, my ex saw it as a way to fatten my bank account -- he couldn't make the leap to see he was paying for the care of his kids. He nickel-and-dimed me on every little expense, questioning every decision, and continues to do so."
How she handled it: "With the help of a very able lawyer, I got the child support I was entitled to. For the expenses we're supposed to split, I do my best to state my case, but if he makes a big issue of it, I back down. It's not worth the headache; my happiness is more important than a few dollars."
The experts say: "She's right," says Rubin. "She's doing the right thing. This is just the ex's anger coming up again and again." And, she points out, it means he's not moving on emotionally. He's clinging to money because he can't cling to Emily. Meanwhile, Emily is able to move on and focus on other matters. "Besides," says Rubin, "You know who your spouse is. If he's cheap, he's cheap -- a divorce isn't going to change that."
Margulies looks back to the beginning to suggest another way this could have gone. "She forced the court to tell him how much to pay," he says. "This was a humiliation to him, so the relationship is poisoned. If she could have negotiated the child support in a way that allowed him to realize it was fair, she might have gotten more cooperation out of him.Ugly Moment #8: "She Hit Me with an Alimony Request -- After She Cheated!"
Dean, 32, Atlanta, Georgia The situation: "My ex was a dancer, and depended on me to support her while she auditioned and studied. When she cheated on me, I felt so used and filed for divorce. Then she said I owed her maintenance, because I wasn't living up to the commitment I'd made to her. Then I really felt used!"
How he handled it: "We were only married two years and had no children -- she didn't have a well-muscled, toe-shoed leg to stand on. So I fought it, and fortunately, she backed down."
The experts say: "Actually, he was responsible for a little bit of maintenance," says Rubin. A marriage, she points out, does mean a commitment -- that's why you should really think twice about it in the first place. "The world does not want people on welfare; the moral high ground has nothing to do with it, and doesn't get you off the hook for your financial obligation, unfortunate as that may feel."
"He needs to pay out enough to help her make a transition to her unmarried life," says Margulies. "Instead, he said, 'Not a penny, because I was betrayed.' That's not the law -- that's soap opera."
What all these cases have in common, Margulies says, is "an over-reliance on the legal system." The couples in these cases called lawyers and "missed opportunities to stop acting out and start redirecting their attention to the future, and the goal of working things out." In other words, couples sometimes prefer to go to war against each other rather than work harder to find a peaceful outcome. That war -- and the revenge you feel you get from it -- might feel good, but just because you're divorced doesn't mean your ex doesn't matter. Especially if you have children together. "If your ex is a mess, your kids are going to be a mess. It's a paradox, but you have a vested interest in seeing that your ex-spouse thrives," says Margulies.
So the best way to handle an ugly situation is to stop it from happening in the first place, say all three experts. Get therapy, keep a level head, and do your best to take the higher ground. Of course you must protect your rights. Of course you may have to resort to battles. But whenever possible, disengage your emotions and make war the last resort, not the first -- you'll be doing yourself a huge favor. And fewer lawyers will be driving BMWs.