8 Real-Life Divorce Moments: Coping Tips

In a perfect world, you'd handle your split amicably. But divorce is far from perfect, and most splits are tough. Here, sticky questions and real-world answers that may smooth the way -- a bit.
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Divorce Tales

couple talking with woman

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.'"

Continued on page 2:  More Stressful Moments


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