15 Useful “Do’s and Don’ts” That Might Not Readily Come To Mind in Effectively Starting the Divorce Process

There are a lot of books (and nowadays, online materials) written about divorce and I have read only a few of them. Several are very good, e.g. “Good Karma Divorce” (Lowrance, 2010), and many are horrible. What I know comes from first hand experience over the last 30 years or so of working in dispute resolution and with folks going through this often traumatic life transition.

Some of this may apply to you. Some of it will not. Take what is useful and leave the rest.

1. DO:  Consider writing your partner the ultimate love letter.

This may sound counterintuitive. I often advise people who are contemplating splitting up to write their partner a love letter of sorts. (I may assist them in this) In addition to clearly talking about the need for a change in the relationship, this also provides the opportunity to remember and affirm the love that certainly was once there and hopefully can continue to at least be honored and respected.  This letter can provide a means of memorializing thoughts and feelings and frame a breakup situation in the most compassionate of terms.

There will be ups and downs when people are changing relationship status, but starting with a written positive framework is usually overlooked. There is such a paradigm of fear and failure when a relationship breaks up that psychologically beneficial and spiritually healthy techniques of communication get left by the wayside. Such attitudes and techniques are not about being a do-gooder. It is not Pollyanna.  It’s just about a more life affirming paradigm.

2. DO: Go into training.

Making the major life change that is divorce is often earth shattering. People often say, “Oh, I’ll work on myself when this is all over.” While understandable, it is misguided. Seldom in life do we face greater emotional and/or spiritual challenge than the breaking up of a love relationship and this is the time to act definitively for growth in our life. Failure to do so will result in emotional (and possibly physical) pain and suffering. This can be ameliorated with a sincere devotion to healthy activities like therapy, meditation, participation in a spiritual community, enhanced physical culture of exercise, yoga or the like.

3. DON’T:  Take legal advice from friends and relatives (or adversarial lawyers, for that matter).

People mean well, but when they talk to others about relationship issues, they invariably project their own experience onto someone else and tend to give fear-based advice. Everybody has either been divorced or knows someone who has, and tends to want to be an expert. In my experience, most of the advice given by friends and relatives is fear based and leads to anxiety and unwise decision making.

4. DO: Beware of Anger.

Most of us are confused about anger. I think the bottom line is that it is ok to be angry, but not to let that most destructive of afflictive emotions hurt you or someone else. The emotion of anger (like all emotions) isn’t necessarily good or bad. It just is. Anger acted upon (aggression) almost always creates unwise and unskilled behavior with potential to cause great harm.

Our tendency is to focus on justifying anger. Anger is almost always understandable, but this does not negate the spiritual and practical truth that it virtually never produces a good outcome when acted upon in unhealthy ways. Think about taking the energy behind your anger and channeling it into the rebuilding of a new, better life for you and your children.

5. DON’T:  Try to discuss anything important when upset.

This seems obvious and directly relates to point four noted above. Discussions often begin rationally, but then deteriorate as someone steps on an emotional land mine. It is difficult to call an adult “time out” in the best of circumstances.  In times of stress it is especially difficult, but even more important that one presses the “pause button” when upset, returning to the discussion when emotions have settled.

6. DON’T:  Expect 11th hour changes in another.

If your partner was hard to deal with and procrastinated during marriage, they probably will continue that pattern now. If they had anger or control issues for years, most likely that will not magically abate. If they leaned toward blame, why in the world would that diminish now? If they drank too much, despite their promises to change, with rare exceptions, they probably won’t. If someone has battled mental illness during the relationship, this will likely continue.

Conversely, if someone is generally honest and fair-minded, they will probably continue to be so even in the face of divorce. People tend to doubt this concept, especially if their partner has been involved in another relationship, but my experience is that it is usually true. This is good news.

7. DON’T:  Necessarily wait to have a first consultation with an attorney or mediator until you have completely made up your mind about splitting up.

Good attorneys and mediators will have wise advice for you on how to analyze the issues and how to get off on the right foot if and when you decide to move forward.

In my practice, a lot of people come in for a case analysis prior to making the decision to divorce. This is useful for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that I know skillful marriage and family therapists to whom I made frequent referrals. If there is a chance to save a viable marriage, I will be the first to suggest healing options.

In cases in which a marriage may not be destined to survive, but the time has not yet come to fully take action, it is very useful for me to meet with people early in the process. In these cases, understanding the law allows people to have misconceptions straightened out and unwarranted fears alleviated. Fear and misinformation at a time in which people are considering changing a relationship can create posturing behaviors that tend to polarize people and increase the level of potential conflict.

8. DON’T:  Try and figure everything out before seeking legal counsel

People often seem to think, “I, or we, need to figure out what we want to do before going to see a lawyer or mediator.” Whether this is perceived to be a money saving strategy or simply appropriate, it is usually counterproductive. If people could figure all the difficult issues associated with separating on their own, they might not even be separating.

And sure, folks can often figure out a lot of things, but those few matters that they cannot resolve often create such a bitter impasse that the rest of the agreements can get thrown out the window. I’m not suggesting here that people can’t figure out any of the details of peacefully breaking up. I’m merely saying that with emotions typically running high, it is often wise to allow ourselves some wise and kindhearted professional coaching in dealing with sensitive topics.

9. DON’T:  Tell someone to leave his or her house.

People often need to separate during the time they are resolving the issues involved in a divorce. Deciding how to do this, unless one person wants to move out, clearly requires use of some peacemaking skills. The surest way to get off on the wrong foot is to order someone out of a house. This is likely to ensure that they will dig their heels in and begin a war. (There are many ways to get this done, just not ones that naturally come to mind in times of stress.)

10. DON’T:  Make demands (at least try not to).

Don’t throw down the gauntlet on specific issues (e.g. custody, finances, property division) until you have received wise legal counsel. Difficult issues can almost always be resolved, but pushing to make a point when scared or angry can make things much more difficult.

11. DON’T:  Tell someone to get a job.

If one of the parties hasn’t been working—whether for good reason or not—and a divorce is imminent, they probably know they will need to get a job (whether they say it to you or not). You pointing that out will just state the obvious and create undue conflict.

12. DON’T: Tell the kids it’s the other parent’s decision to split up.

It may be true, but it puts a child in a difficult position and forces the other parent to defend themselves in a manner that may well involve speaking ill of you. Talk to a therapist about this if you have any doubts. The priority here needs to be protecting your children as opposed to what you might see as exposing“the truth.” Think twice whenever discussing the break-up with your children. How you and your partner handle this can dramatically impact them for the rest of their lives.

13. DON’T:  Succumb to fear.

This is the time to utilize every emotional and spiritual resource available to you in the cause of protecting your heart and mind from this pervasive emotion.   Try not to associate with or listen to people who are fear mongers. Everyone has an opinion about most things, and divorce is an endeavor in which many believe themselves to somehow be an expert. This comes from either projecting their own war story or that of someone they know. Well meaning friends and relatives can have an inexhaustible reservoir of horror stories.  These usually fear based diatribes are poison to the mind and are almost always counterproductive.

14. DO: Practice the Golden Rule.

Don’t speak ill of others if you can avoid it. It’s really hard to do, but working on it with a former partner is powerful spiritual practice.

15. DO: Pray for God’s will for you and the power to carry it out.