Divorce professionals will tell you that it’s best to approach your settlement discussions as a business discussion but how do you take your emotions out of your divorce negotiations?
First, let’s briefly review why these discussions need to be more about business than emotions:
- the legal system is not set up to resolve disagreements based on moral arguments. The judges are bound by statutes and case law and these likely will not provide resolution for the wrongs you’ve experienced. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t pursue a resolution that you feel is morally right but you need to recognize that doing so is likely going to mean increased legal expenses with no certainty of outcome. It’s risky and the process for pursuing such resolutions through the court system is emotionally draining.
- often times decisions based on emotions are not the best long term or even short term decisions. The classic example of this is the person who is determined to keep the marital home, and does so but then finds themselves struggling every month to make ends meet with little disposable income. A more rational analysis of this during negotiations might have shown this likely outcome and opened the path to looking at alternatives.
- ideally what we want is to make decisions that we won’t later regret. We want to look back in five years time and remember the reasoning for each decision and to believe it was the best decision we could have made at the time with the information we had at the time.
The problem is that while everyone says to approach this rationally and to leave the emotions out, the how to do that is often missing and that’s what we’re talking about in this episode of Conversations About Divorce. This Conversation is a little different … for this one, I’m being interviewed by Sahaj Durnin who is a divorce coach in Canada. You can read more about her on her website, Divorce With Ease. Listen in to the Conversation below (email subscribers click here) or keep reading for a synopsis …
Manage What You Take On
I’ve come to see divorce as three processes: the emotional process, the legal process and the practical, logistical process.
The emotional process is about coping and understanding the flood of emotions that comes with the end of a committed relationship. This often involves therapy or counselling and it should involve a divorce recovery program.
The legal process is the just that. It’s the formal process of ending your relationship, documenting how your possessions and belongings are being divided, allocating your financial assets and, of course, committing to your on-going parenting relationship.
The practical process is about transitioning from we to me. It’s about physically separating and starting to live independently. It often entails moving and it can entail changing jobs.
I’ve yet to meet the person who can effectively take on all three processes at the same time. Most of us are working, we have parenting responsibilities and with a limited number of hours in the day, there simply isn’t the time to handle all three at once. And aside from the time issue, most of us don’t have the energy to cope with them all at once.
So I say, choose two. Be realistic about what you take on and pace yourself. This transition is not a sprint. It’s more like a marathon.
Avoid Filing Too Soon
A common mistake that people make is thinking that once the decision to divorce has been made then the next step must be to file. Once you file, you put yourself onto the treadmill of having to meet court deadlines and this alone will add to the stress and pressure of your situation.
Instead of asking how or where do I file, ask do I need to file? The most common reason to file quickly is to protect yourself and this need may come from domestic abuse, access to money, waste or disappearing marital assets or a belligerent, uncooperative spouse.
If you and your spouse can get to the place of agreeing to work cooperatively on this, then it’s quite likely you do not need to initiate the legal process just yet and that will give you time.
Give Yourself Time
This is probably the most important strategy in taking the emotions out of divorce negotiations.
“When we have a little bit of space between things, whether its between the divorce and the legal process or even the divorce and the emotional process, it is possible to create distance between us and our emotions,” said Durnin. With that distance comes the capacity to observe how you are reacting to your divorce. That can lead you to a better understanding of how you are responding to proposals and you may even be able to evaluate if your response is truly serving you.
“How you do the divorce is the defining steps for how your life will be after the divorce,” said Durnin. It’s important to keep this front and center because the decisions you make now may impact the rest of your life.
While the decision to end a marriage is made unilaterally in some 80 percent of cases, I believe both parties do grieve the end of the marriage. The person who makes decision however starts their grieving process much, much earlier. The person who learns of the decision to end the marriage is often suddenly plunged into the grieving process and this puts them at a disadvantage for treating the negotiations rationally.
Giving the other party time to grieve is in both parties’ interests. It creates an much better likelihood of being able to conduct both the legal and the emotional process with dignity and respect which could result in less legal expenses, a more equitable agreement and perhaps more importantly, it may preserve your ability to parent together which offers tremendous payback for all involved. Remember, it is not the divorce that harms children but rather the on-going conflict.
Beware Of Misinformation
Most people have friends and family members who have experienced divorce and they are often very willing to share their experiences and offer unsolicited advice. It’s well-intentioned but often not helpful and sometimes just plain inaccurate especially where the law is concerned.
I’ve seen people get riled up about issues that aren’t really issues at all. I recently had a mediation couple where the husband said right up front in the first mediation he was not paying spousal support. Now, in Colorado, we have a guideline and that’s the starting point for discussions, usually. So I explained to husband that at this point, we didn’t have enough information to make this determination so I suggested he wait until I was able to run the guideline calculation. He responded that I didn’t understand. He was not paying spousal support. Period. If he was ordered to pay it, he would quit his job and move in with his mother who had already agreed that he could. And if that ended with him going to jail for contempt then so be it.
After that first session, they met with the family court facilitator who ran the guideline calculation which showed that no spousal support was payable. Husband had clearly spent a fair amount of emotional energy getting tied into knots about paying spousal support probably based on a friend’s experience.
“The moral of the story is to stay present and stay with the facts,” said Durnin.
It means resisting the temptation to fantasize over what you see as worst-case scenarios. Having an initial consult with an attorney to start learning about the legal process for where you live may help with this. You can also check Amazon for a divorce D-I-Y guide for your state – even if you don’t think you can do this yourself, learning about the process will mean you’ll be better informed for when you do start working with attorney and this will help save legal fees.
You can check for other free resources such as any classes and programs offered by your local court house or law school, if you’re lucky enough to live close by one.
Gather All The Information
Not only should you be careful about misinformation but you also need to make sure you have all the information before you start making decisions.
I’ve seen couples state early on that they will each keep their own retirement funds and then when the respective values of those funds are out in the open and the reality of future finances starts coming into focus, one party changes their mind and all hell breaks loose.
I’ve also seen people who have decided to keep the marital home but haven’t yet got a value of the home and hence aren’t able to determine how much it will cost to buyout the equity of the other party. Similarly, I’ve seen people want to commit to this without having talked to a mortgage lender about how much of a mortgage they would qualify for and on what terms.
Trying to make decisions without the whole picture or without complete information is stressful and you’re trying to decide based largely on gut feel. That’s not how this should be done. When you have the necessary information, your options become much clearer and that makes the decision-making and negotiations simpler.
I often recommend to my clients that they start by gathering all the financial information – you can check your state’s website for what financial information you’d have to eventually file and start there. This is usually everyone’s least favorite task – I’ve only had few clients who haven’t procrastinated over this. However, gathering this information not only helps you prepare for the legal process, it gives you the information you need to start negotiating and it shows you what information is missing. Knowing your monthly expenses also gives you the starting point for assessing the impact divorce is going to have on your lifestyle.
And, really, if all this number-crunching is too overwhelming, try to hold off. Give yourself more time to adjust to your new reality. If your spouse is pushing you to move through the divorce process, don’t be afraid to ask them to give you more time.
Get Professional Help
Another tip for managing your emotions and keeping them out of the negotiations is to line up your professional support team. Find the attorney you’d like to work with – that doesn’t mean you have to retain them, it just means you’ve found the person who will support you through the legal process whether you choose full representation or unbundled services. You’ll have your go-to person ready lined up.
Find the therapist or counselor who can help you work through the emotions you’re experiencing. Find the psychiatrist to support you with any depression or anxiety or other psychological conditions that may be exacerbated by the uncertainty that the end of your marriage brings.
Consider working with a divorce coach who can help you manage all of the logistics and timing of this change and identify the other professionals you’ll need on your team.
At the end of our interview, Durnin asked me for final words of wisdom. What I shared was that I’ve spoken with hundreds of people about divorce and the vast majority of them have shared that divorce is the hardest life event they’ve ever had to face however the experience made them stronger, gave them new skills, made them a better person, a better parent. While none of them ever wanted their marriage to end in divorce, with hindsight very few of them said that they wished they’d stayed married to their spouse.