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So, you've decided your marriage has to end. You may think that kicking off such a major life event is a daunting proposition. But more than two-thirds of divorces are filed by women, so it must not be so hard, right? The fact is, it's just a matter of being organized, calm, and rational.
Yes, that's possible!
To get the best advice possible, we spoke to Diana Mercer, an attorney-mediator and coauthor of Your Divorce Advisor: A Lawyer and a Psychologist Guide You Through the Legal and Emotional Landscape of Divorce and a founder of Peace Talks Mediation in Los Angeles, California. "There are two divorces that you go through," she says. "There's the actual, physical divorce -- from filing the initial papers to getting the final documents in the mail, signed by a judge. But there's also an emotional divorce: the time it takes to go through the grieving process and get your life back on track, what I call 'the crazy time.'" The two might diverge, she says, and that's okay.
"The court system is quite backed up, and some states have long waiting periods, so sometimes getting those papers can take a long time -- by the time they arrive, it's an anticlimax," she says. "On the other hand, sometimes the actual divorce might be quite smooth, but one person just can't let go, and the emotional disruption drags on and on."
Los Angeles divorce attorney Clark Garen agrees. "Any divorce holdup comes back to one root: the people really don't want to let go of each other," he says. "That doesn't mean they want to be together. It means they can't let go of the anger and move on -- they want to get even. When two people are truly ready to let go, the actual divorce is pretty simple."
After 18 months, Mercer tells us, most people have put their lives back together and show signs of moving on -- getting back on track at work, dating again, or just "waking up one day, and finding that's [divorce] not the first thing you think about." If that emotional disruption drags on for more than three years, it's considered pathological, and can eat up your life if you don't get help. "What do you want your eulogy to say, 'she spent 10 years litigating her divorce?'" Mercer asks. "At some point, you have to start living for yourself, not the divorce." As for the actual paper divorce, depending on your state, the waiting period required by law, the backups in the court system, and your ability to negotiate, it could take as little as a year, but probably not less.
Of course, that might involve reining in your own emotions, or the overenthusiastic tendencies of your lawyer. "A couple is angry and their nerves are frayed, and [they might go] to a lawyer, who is often willing to feed their anger in order to enrich his own pockets. A divorce isn't about 'who gets the most money,' it's about 'how can we separate and still continue on as healthy individuals.'"
Two healthy individuals, no longer bound by law to spend Thanksgiving with each others' parents: sounds like a plan. But the journey there can take you over a really big river and through some dank and dangerous woods. Being prepared -- mentally and otherwise -- can help reduce the length of the divorce process. If you're about to start proceedings, here are five steps to get you on solid ground before you make your leap.
1. Learn what your rights are. Most likely, this means a consultation with a lawyer, which you should find through referrals (friends, coworkers, anyone you trust). Most lawyers will give you a low-cost (or even free) initial consultation, but you should still feel comfortable with this person before you walk into his or her office -- a phone conversation shouldn't make you feel powerless or nervous. You want to ask, "What is my best- and worst-case scenario?"
You may end up in mediation -- a low-cost option in which a professional, often with a therapy or a law degree (find one through www.mediate.com), helps you and your spouse negotiate a deal that gets vetted by lawyers before you sign. But even if you do end up in mediation, "you'll need to start with a firm grasp on how your state's laws work," Mercer says.
2. Get a support network in place. Got a patient friend? How about a therapist? How about as many of each as you can muster up, plus family and those two stalwarts, Ben and Jerry? "If you broke your arm, you'd have it set so you'd heal properly," says Garen. "If you want your psyche to recover from the trauma of divorce, you'd better see a psychotherapist so it doesn't heal crooked." This isn't simply a breakup; it's something different, a true life change.
You should check your area for divorce support groups -- through Google, or your lawyer's office, or your local clergy. You might find an online bulletin board that you feel comfortable with (start with www.divorcesupport.com, or search for others). Divorce magazine is available on the Web and offers subscription-based print editions in certain regions (Florida, New York/New Jersey, Illinois, Southern California, and Texas). As tough as you might think you are, you'll need help.
3. Make a list of your assets and debts. This is called a "net worth statement," and it'll help you figure out how you stand financially at the time of the split. "You want to create a one-sheet, just like you would for a mortgage broker, of your monthly expenses, income, and assets," Mercer advises. Include anything worth a lot of money -- the car, expensive electronics -- that might be used as a bargaining chip (or turn into a point of contention). It might feel like you're out of your league, but when you're on your own, you're going to have to pay the bills -- so you'd better get comfortable with numbers.
4. Make a list of your own goals. What do you hope to achieve once you're divorced? Will you need maintenance? Are you going back to school? Do you need a year or two with a small child before you re-enter the work force? "If you know what your plan is, you'll know how much support to ask for fairly," says Mercer. "Even if you constantly revise your goals, putting them on paper will keep you focused during negotiations, and help keep your feet on solid ground during this emotional maelstrom."
If you have children: As part of this, put together a parenting plan. How would you like custody to work? How would you like to communicate with your ex? How often? Can you see how you'd do the job together? "Again, even if you revise it, this dose of realism will help you keep your mind on what's important," Mercer counsels -- and it may stop you in your tracks if you're tempted by the "let's-get-revenge-for-all-those-crappy-years" monster. "I always ask my female clients: is their father a good parent? If so, why are you fighting so hard for primary physical custody?" It may feel like a victory, he says, but the result can be one parent who's overburdened while the other yearns for more parenting time. Rather than treating custody as a matter of pride, take the children's best interests into account rather than your own desires; it may be in their best interests to be a bit more generous with your custody agreement.
5. Start the process of resolving your emotions. "If you're having trouble with any of the above issues, it probably comes down to you needing to do this," says Mercer. "Unresolved emotions are the real reason for most divorce hold-ups." Hence reaffirming the need for a support network, preferably with someone impartial acting as a calm sounding board. "When I was a divorce lawyer, I spent half my career trying to talk people out of things they wanted to do to 'get' the other person, and then later being asked, 'Why'd you let me do that?' You need someone who's an emotional ballast, a steadying force who will calm you down if you get into a bad place."