The ‘D’ word- ‘DIVORCE’- A word that conjures up feelings in us all (and they are generally anything but good feelings). The word is most commonly associated with strong negative emotions of loss, betrayal, guilt, fear and uncertainty. The thing is, when the average person is experiencing divorce, they are suffering immense grief. As human beings, this means that our brains are not functioning in the way that we really need them to. Our decision making capacities are affected. At a time when we are being asked to make some really significant decisions about our lives, our future and our family, our bodies and our brains are often not functioning well at all- we are compromised as a result of the overwhelming range of emotions that divorce brings upon us.
As a divorce lawyer, I spend many hours of my day fixing the mistakes that people have made during their divorce. Most don’t set out to deliberately cause themselves or others pain, but the decisions that they have made when they are compromised and in grief are not the best decisions and sometimes can result in some pretty significant legal challenges.
But the biggest mistake you can make during divorce is to rush in way too fast. Before their spouse has even had time to think about the fact that their marriage has come to an end, a long lawyers letter has arrived in their inbox setting out just what is about to happen (and rarely is it good!)
The thing is, unless you are in danger or have some unusual or urgent matter to deal with, there is a good chance that your local family lawyer is about the last place you need to visit in the first week of your separation!
By all means arm yourself with information, but think really carefully before you instruct your solicitor to shoot off a 5 page email setting out just how your relationship came to an end and informing your former partner of just what they can expect over the next few months if they don’t start jumping in time with your drum!
It may come as a big surprise but we lawyers actually have no power to make anyone do anything! (I know I am giving away a big secret there!) So when we write a letter that says something like ‘Do this within 14 days or else!’ there really isn’t much we can do when the 14 days it up and nothing has been done. And the stuff we can do? Well it tends to involve writing letters and emails or filing expensive Court proceedings which (in my experience anyway) don’t really have much of a positive effect on a former spouse who is suffering a serious case of heartbreak!
So what do you do? You have just separated, you are scared, angry and have no idea of where to begin?
Occasionally I meet with someone who has ‘just’ separated- by ‘just’ I mean in the last few days. I will of course have a chat with them about the law (but often not too much!) Instead our conversation tends to focus on putting their mind at ease and answering their burning questions so that they can slow down and focus on a ‘holding pattern’.
A ‘holding pattern’ for me is essential if you want to move through the legal aspects of your divorce and separation with as little angst as possible.
A ‘holding pattern’ is just that- a temporary arrangement that may not be perfect but gets your family through the early and often most difficult stage of your separation. A holding pattern will often last the first 6-8 weeks (and sometimes longer if it is working!)
Where possible, I recommend keeping your lives ‘the same’ in the short term to give you time to properly plan where you might both go next. It is often not necessary for your finances to immediately change a day after you have separated. Similarly, you don’t have to start organising long term living arrangements for your children two days after you have separated. Take your time, breathe and really think about what needs to happen immediately. There is every chance that almost nothing needs to change in the first few days.
If I could have the opportunity to sit down with a separating couple the day that their relationship has come to an end, I would talk to them about slowing down. I would see if it was possible for them to agree on arrangements for the next six weeks. Six weeks gives everyone a little bit of time to start to grieve, to start to consider their future and to start to remove some fear. If I suggested to you that you had to move house in only two weeks there is every chance that you would go into a state of either panic or denial. However, if I said to you that you had about six weeks where nothing was going to change, where you could have security in your accommodation and your children’s lives were not going to be any different, there is every chance that you would be able to relax just a little and start to focus on the future. I call this a ‘holding pattern’. The sooner you and your partner can find a holding pattern the better. It is only a short-term solution, but one intended to allow both of you time to start to grieve and the security to know that your lives are not going to turn upside down overnight.
Take your time and be careful
When you jump in too quickly after your divorce you will be trying to make big decisions before you’re emotionally ready. When this happens, you end up spending way too much money, telling the wrong people (often lawyers) how you’re feeling when in fact you should be spending a lot more time with professionals, friends and family that can really help you through that initial stage of grief.
If you’re trying to make big decisions too early in the timeline, they won’t feel right and you’ll be questioning your every move. Whereas a few months down the track, when the dust has settled, you’ll be able to think more rationally. Neuroscience is telling us that our brains in the early stage of grief really can’t function well, and it’s too much to ask yourself to make significant decisions like where you’re going to live, where your children are going to live and what you’re going to do financially moving forward.
The thing is, any divorce is a process of change. There is no perfect way to divorce, and while there may be fault, there is little you can do now to change it so you really are left with a choice. A choice to let those dangerous and controlling feelings take over your mind, or to start to let them go. Some would say forgive, others would say forget. I would say understand and accept. Accept it for what it is, learn from and understand where you’ve been but don’t forget it as it makes you who you are. And know that the past is not going to determine your future unless you let it.
It’s perhaps easy for me, a divorce lawyer, to sit back and tell you all the things that can go wrong, because I see it every day in my work. I see the impact of these mistakes in the clients that I work with, in their families and particularly in their children. I see their legal costs escalate. I see them lose kilos and kilos of weight. I see their work affected. I see their children performing poorly at school, engaging with counsellors and psychologists, and in some more serious circumstances self-harming.
Divorce is not pleasant, it’s not easy and there is no magic rule book that you can pull out that will get you through. You are falling out of love, leaving behind a life that you once knew, a life that you had no doubt dreamed of and planned. But just because your past did not turn out the way that you had hoped doesn’t mean that your future can’t be better than you imagined. It’s all up to you.
If you are experiencing divorce or separation and don’t know where to start, Clarissa’s book, ‘Splitsville- How to separate, stay out of Court and stay friends’ will keep you on the right path. Available in bookstores now or Order your copy here.
If you are looking to better understand the legal process during separation and divorce, come and join my next Family Law Information Session here in Brisbane. They are held monthly, but if you can’t attend in person, don’t worry you can listen to my online session. Learn more here.