If you are about to divorce, you may feel helpless. You may feel that you don’t have control over what is about to happen. But as a divorce attorney for more than 20 years, I can assure you that you DO have choices. Here are two of the most important:
1. Your approach. This is the thing over which you have the greatest control. Whether you are a person seeking to divorce your spouse, or are having it thrust upon you against your will, you can control the way in which you react, and the approach you take in dealing with the changes that are about to happen.
Look at conflict differently. Clichéd divorces as seen in movies and television dramas depict spouses set against one another as mortal combatants. Shedding this concept can be a good first step in taking control of your approach to divorce. No matter how hurtful your breakup, you may have a common interest with your spouse in resolving the issues that will arise. Focusing on common interests can help you to have a more positive attitude in dealing with what may be inevitable conflict.
Acknowledge and manage emotion. If you feel that your emotions are keeping you from acting as your best self, don’t worry, this is a normal reaction! Think about it. Everything you care about is at issue, your relationship with your children, if you have them, your extended family, your home, your retirement, and your standard of living. Fear and anxiety are normal reactions to perceived or real threats to the things that matter most to us. I advise every potential client I meet to seek out a licensed therapist as a resource for working through strong feelings that arise during divorce.
Look to the future. If you are divorcing, it is likely that you have experienced a great deal of hurt in the marriage relationship. There is an appropriate time and place to grieve the loss of your marriage, acknowledge your mistakes, and learn to grow from the experience. It is likely that your divorce will take place before you have had time to do much of this work. Still, you will be asked to – you will likely be required to – make critical decisions affecting your future. In my experience guiding clients through this process, I have found that anger, fear, grief and guilt are bad negotiating partners. To the extent these can be set aside, you will be best able to negotiate a settlement that allows you to achieve your goals for the future.
2. Your process. There are permutations of each, but there are four basic methods for resolving issues surrounding your divorce.
Litigation – This is what you may think of first and, what is most likely to be portrayed in movies and on television. The litigation system is based upon a concept of a battle between you and your spouse. It sometimes results in giving control of the process to your attorney, and if you or your attorneys cannot negotiate an agreement about custody, support, or the distribution of assets and liabilities, the outcomes are determined by third parties, such as court masters or judges. Even here, however, many issues are ultimately resolved by negotiation. In Allegheny County, many court filings, which may include your personal and financial information, may be published on the Department of Court Record’s website.
Direct Negotiation – You may be able to resolve all issues just by talking with one another. One of you may then hire an attorney to memorialize your ideas in a Marriage Settlement Agreement.
Mediation – You may need help in the process of negotiation, and hire a neutral mediator to facilitate. The mediator works for both you and your spouse, and, even if s/he is an attorney, may not give legal advice to either or both of you. Still, a good mediator can be very effective in helping you to reach agreement on the issues. When successful, mediation results in a Memorandum of Understanding, which is normally taken to an attorney so that s/he may draft a Marriage Settlement Agreement.
Collaborative Process – You may have heard of celebrities or business executives using the Collaborative Process to resolve their divorces, and you may find that the benefits that led them to make that choice also appeal to you and your spouse. The Collaborative Process offers the ability to have a team of professionals working cooperatively, rather than competitively, to achieve a resolution that is acceptable to both of you. Each spouse has an attorney to help her/him achieve goals based upon his/her interests. The team also includes a neutral coach, who is a licensed mental health professional, to help all participants communicate effectively, and to facilitate meetings. And there is a neutral financial professional, who works to help the parties and the other professionals understand the nature of your assets, liabilities and available income, and plan a sustainable future for each of you.
The Collaborative Process requires transparency regarding all relevant information, and offers both privacy of negotiations and control over outcomes. In most Collaborative cases, only the bare-bones divorce paperwork is published online. I hope that you found this post helpful. Next time: How to Choose the Best Divorce Attorney for You.