Article by Dorothy O’Neil, Esq.
It’s Saturday night, well, more like 2:00 a.m. on Sunday morning. You sit alone in an empty, dark room, retracing every step of the night where you and your spouse finally muttered the words that have been creeping up your spine, expanding in your throat, causing your jaw to clench, and taking over your whole spirit: Divorce.
Separation has been on your mind for months. You and your spouse have just stopped communicating, stopped putting in the effort, and now walk the house only acknowledging each other to address the children’s wants or needs. Roommates. You feel the grief of loss beginning to emerge, the fear of the unknown, and what your lives might look like after separation. What will people think? What will people say?
Once spouses reach the point of putting “divorce” on the table, it usually sends their minds reeling about the next steps, their worst fears, the reality of separating houses, and time with children. They are overwhelmed, anxious, and scared. All are natural reactions to separation and divorce, even if the separation is not a volatile one.
When I talk to potential clients during our initial consultations, they often express their fears and concerns. We dive in and discuss as many as we can. I often ask how they see their divorce story playing out. With a confused expression, nearly every one asks me what a divorce story is, and so I explain: Your divorce story is how you would like to see your divorce unfold. If you shifted your focus away from all the bad stuff that has happened up to this point, and could visualize your ideal separation from your spouse, what would that look like?
Most psychologists and counselors discuss this divorce story exercise with their divorcing clients, and we do it in the legal field too. I complete this exercise with potential clients to understand their goals, and learn what is most important to them. From there, I can help develop potential resolutions and settlement options to meet those goals.
There are many ways to construct your divorce story but some of the most important considerations are:
1. What story will you tell your family and friends?
In my experience, the best outcomes arise from spouses who take control early by working together to develop their narrative. If the spouses can do so, it may alleviate the fear of what the other spouse is telling everyone else. For example, “We have been having issues for quite some time now. We have exhausted our resources, including counseling, and agreed that we gave it our best shot. We are going to separate, but we do not want it to get ugly. We want to work together, to co-parent and focus on the kids.” That is really all you need to say. Anything else is frankly no one’s business. Seizing control early in the separation, and sticking to the mutual narrative, cancels out a large number of other influences (such as family and friends) that can often lead to more conflict through the divorce.
2. What story will you tell your children?
Similar to the narrative you will tell friends and family, you and your spouse should create a mutual narrative for your children.
What you say is important, but also how you say it, and when you say it. If one parent talks to the children separately from the other, with a different narrative, children may become anxious about what the “truth” is. Sitting the children down together, keeping calm, sharing the narrative, allowing their reaction and reinforcing your love for them, shows the children that you and your spouse are putting them first, and are dedicated to working together for their benefit. Remember that children are smart and notice tension between parents. Do not avoid these discussions with your children, as they could help minimize negative impacts from the divorce or separation. If you need help talking with your children about the separation in a healthy way, a counselor can be a valuable resource.
3. What will your divorce procedure be?
Will you fight about every penny and detail in court? Or will you choose an out-of-court alternative to sit down together, and make the decisions necessary to unravel your lives? I encourage potential clients to explore alternative options to settle their divorce cases. Going to court almost always heightens emotions because you are pleading your case to a judge and asking the judge to choose your story and your position. Using alternative settlement options, such as mediation and the collaborative divorce process, eliminates a judge in the room, and allows parties to focus on the logistics of the divorce, rather than being “right.” This allows each party to have a say in how their lives will look post-divorce.
4. What will your co-parenting relationship look like?
Most couples do not realize they must create an entirely new relationship—a post-separation, co-parenting relationship. How will they act at school functions? Will they sit together or apart? Who will take the kids to doctors’ appointments? Will they each share the extracurricular activity responsibilities? How will they ensure homework is completed, when the kids are splitting time between each parents’ house? Often, they have no idea how to do this. Attorneys and counselors can provide tools and resources to help parents get on the same page with this new venture.
It is important to remember that there really is no set blueprint for divorce. Since each family is unique, each divorce is unique. Taking early control of how your divorce story unfolds together, allows each spouse to approach the divorce with less defensiveness, and more focus on the future.