lessons from divorce judge lynn

18 Lessons We Learned from Divorce Court’s Judge Lynn

Recently, Hello Divorce founder and CEO, Erin Levine, sat down with Judge Lynn Toler of Divorce Court fame. Since she stepped down from the Divorce Court bench, Judge Lynn has endeared herself to her over half a million social media followers with her wit, charisma, and practical relationship advice.

Judge Lynn and Erin’s conversation ranged from whether or not “having your day in court” is important to get over a cheater (and everywhere in between). Here we breakdown some of Judge Lynn’s most quotable answers and advice.

Erin: Should you stay or should you go? How do you know when it is time to leave a relationship?

Judge Lynn: It depends on the nature of the troubles that you have. If you’re in an abusive relationship, now is always the time. But now is the time in a safe manner. So, it not may not be immediately, but now is the time to find the way out because it becomes the most dangerous as a person gets ready to leave. So that’s one section over there.

If you’re talking about a cheat, then what you have to determine is this: can you get over it or not? Assume you were the one that was cheating on: if you can get over it and work through it, you should do that. But if you can’t get over it and you’re resentful for it, and you’ve done everything in your marital arsenal, and you’ve tried everything so that when you do make the decision to head to the door you say, there was nothing more I could have done. You don’t want to leave having thought there is more I could have done.

And if it’s an angry, unhappy marriage, there’s staying, there’s leaving, and there’s the third option, which is significantly changing the nature of your engagement. You have to try to figure out what you’re looking at. Are you looking at someone who cares about you, but simply doesn’t know the ways and means and how to do it, or are you looking at somebody who doesn’t care about you and simply is existing with you? So you have to be able to step back, and you also have to be able to say, “Am I the source of the problem?”

I love it when I’m the source of the problem, because I know I can fix myself.

I love it when I’m the source of the problem, because I know I can fix myself. But you have to be honest with it – have I done everything to save the marriage? Take a look at yourself and ask yourself, “Am I the source of the problem?” And not just because your spouse keeps telling you you are the source of the problem, but if you really are, and there’s a difference.

In terms of cheating, how can someone get over the resentment of being cheated on? How do they know if it will happen again?

Judge Lynn: I don’t think you do know. I don’t think you ever know anything like that. You can assess the situation, you can go to counseling, you can see what the underlying situation is, but you have to be so okay with yourself to say that, I’m not resentful, I’m going to stay and if he cheats again or she cheats again, I’m going to go. I will not fall apart, I will not die. I have this option now. And I don’t have to make sure that he never does it again, I just have to know that I am in a place that I can leave if he does do it again.

In a divorce, how important is it to stand before a judge and have your day in court? Should you try to navigate your divorce in a different way?

Judge Lynn: I’m for navigating it a different way. I love mediation. I think that you get on a court’s docket and you have your 10 minutes with the judge, and it’s a third party who doesn’t care about your kids, doesn’t really know you, don’t know him, don’t know her, don’t know any of it, and they are making decisions without adequate input from you.

Alternatively, if you’re in mediation, you can wrangle a little bit, and both of you can decide who’s going to do what with the children, understanding that both of you know and understand the kids, and what they will respond to and how well they do. I like it when there is mediation with attorneys attached, so it’s not an imbalanced affair. But you do have legal advice to say, Oh, this mediation isn’t going well. You can always go to court after that.

So, even if you’re not the financial breadwinner, even if some of these concepts like dividing retirement benefits are new to you, you can still participate in an out-of-court process?

Judge Lynn: Absolutely. But you should have an attorney so that you’re knowingly understanding, what does it mean to give up my right to participate in his retirement? What does it mean to give up my right to have primary custody of the children, but have co-legal custody? You have to understand what all that means in order to engage in a resolution that is meaningful and knowing.

In a divorce, you are dissolving the most complex financial contract of your life. If there’s any complexity, like kids or money or support, how do you know your rights?

Judge Lynn: Exactly. You absolutely do [need to know your rights]. And you can’t know them through Google, your girlfriends, or your friends. This isn’t good enough because all of them will have gone through a divorce that might be in a different state. Divorce is different in different states, and so you have to have an attorney in your state or access to an attorney who knows what the rules are where you live.

Support and community during divorce is so important. What are the perils, though, of relying on your friends or family for “advice” about divorce?

Judge Lynn: We used to live in a neighborhood where like half of the people in the cul-de-sac got divorced. It was catching, and you can get swayed by that. You get swayed by the community, and you also will hear stories that are seen through the fearful eyes of others.

Whatever thing happened to you in your divorce will be what I talk to you about. That may not be at all the issue with your divorce, so I’m looking out for this issue that’s really not mine, because it was yours, and I ignore the real issues that I have. Every divorce is so different. Even if the money is the same, and the retirement’s the same, and the kids are the same, you aren’t the same as I am. There are certain things that I might be willing to let go of for my sanity’s sake. So you’ve got to be able to really understand where your head is, not just your money and your kids and your house.

On the flip side, how can you best support a friend going through something as traumatic as divorce? 

Judge Lynn: Listen and ask questions like: Well, why do you feel that way? Is it different from the other thing? Because it helps the person figure out what it is they need to do if you ask questions about their reasoning process. Not threatening like, “why would you do that?” But, okay, so what if he didn’t do it, then what would you do? Help them walk it through in their head.

Related: The Good Friend’s Guide to Divorce

A lot of women contemplating divorce think: I will file for divorce when I’m prepared to share 50-50 custody of my children because that’s what the courts are going to do. Are the courts actually skewed towards 50-50 child custody?

Judge Lynn: Well, I think that legislatively or statutorily, a lot of courts want that as the default position. So I think statutorily, a lot of courts are asked to start there, but adjust that depending upon who’s doing what to whom, and who lives where, and how old the kids are, and all of the factors that have to go into determining where these little people stay. They love a 50-50 legal custody, so you both have the same ability to impact their important decisions, but physical custody is very, very different. And my question was always if you’re so focused on 50-50 custody, you’re focused on “I get my rights” as opposed to what is best for the kids? Is it best for them to go Tuesday, Wednesday, or do all of that? It might be best if they stay with my husband during the week. It might be.

Can you have joint custody and not have a perfect 50-50 schedule? For instance, can both parents feel like they are equally important? If they bring different things to the table, perhaps they don’t need to do a schedule that’s going to have the kids hopping back and forth if that’s best for them?

Judge Lynn: Exactly. Say you’ve got a child with autism and he doesn’t do well with changes of circumstance. Then you’ve got to take that into consideration when you’re determining not only your rights but also his well being.

And you should figure out how to keep the other parent involved?

Judge Lynn: Right. Yeah. He may be over my house, but maybe you could FaceTime every day, maybe you can come up, whatever you need to do to make it, make it. Love your children more than you hate one another.

Love your children more than you hate one another.

How can some take care of themselves and maintain their sense of balance and focus during divorce?

Judge Lynn: I think it’s pretty much the same for being in the midst of any stressful circumstance. You have to carve out a piece of your day for you. And it may be as little as 10 minutes of listening to music. Just to engage your brain and something that will permit you to just forget about it and feel okay. That doesn’t mean you’re letting anything happen, but you’re focusing on you and not focusing on it. Don’t be divorced, don’t be in the process of divorcing all the time, be in the process of living while conducting your divorce.

Is it easy to let divorce take over your whole life?

Judge Lynn:Very. Because you’re untangling every aspect of your life from where you sleep, to who you share your bathroom with, to your financial security, to your children. You have to touch every level of your life and untangle it from this other person. So it is all-encompassing, which is why you have to make plans. Your brain is not going to automatically decide, not dealing with it. You have to make plans to give your mind time to decompress from the pressure cooker that is this event.

In divorce, everything is in transition. And how do you get comfortable in that transition? In that uncertainty?

Judge Lynn: I think you have to be comfortable with discomfort for a minute. We tend to want to be comfortable all the time, that’s what gets us into all of this soothing that we do. The drinking, the eating, the hoarding – whatever we do to soothe ourselves. We have to be okay with a little discomfort. This too shall pass, let me get through it. If you’re looking to soothe yourself, you have to be able to soothe yourself in moments in time. What I always do is look at the guy underneath me. In other words, I may be getting a divorce, but I’m getting a divorce in the U.S.A and I’m never worried about my food. Do you know what I mean? All that kind of stuff. And you can read, and if you have a worldview, if you globalize your pain quotient, you’ll feel better about what you’re going through. All of those things will affect how you feel.

Do you have any tips for negotiating during divorce mediation?

Judge Lynn: Separate how you feel about him or her (your spouse), from how you feel about the money. Because you can find yourself spending $5,000 in attorney’s fees, fighting over a $1,000 vase. So you have to be able to separate how you feel. Are you doing it to hurt the other person or you’re doing it because this is something you really need and deserve? Do not be afraid to give up on things that you really don’t want, because that allows you to fight harder for the things that you really do. Don’t fight for 50-50 and what’s fair, fight for what you need. If the fight for fair becomes preeminent, then you fight forever and it never becomes fair. Then you’re just exhausted. So fight for fair, but be able to know what you can accept, so you can move forward.So you don’t stay in transition forever. I like some peace. I’ll give you some of my cash for some peace.

Related: How to Keep Your Divorce Conversations Productive

In preparing for mediation, should you know what your best and worst-case scenarios are?

Judge Lynn: Yeah. And also understanding what the finances are. Sometimes in a marriage, one party takes care of the marital finances, and the other party is just along for the ride. And you have to educate yourself about what your financial situation really is, so the other person can’t pull a fast one on you. Because you’ll already know.

You cannot negotiate your way out of a contract you don’t understand.

Does the win-lose mentality in divorce work? Is the court set up to punish one spouse or the other?

Judge Lynn: No. And it can seem very unfair because you can go into a court and there’s no-fault. So you could have ended it, and your spouse could have been a horrible person, but the court is not interested. So you have to decide what a win is. To me, a win would be living well. Do you know what I mean? A win would be, I’m done, financially I’m secure, I may not be where I want to be, but it’s something I can handle and something I can do. And that I wake up in the morning and I’m okay. I don’t want to beat him, I want to beat the day. I want to be happier more often than I’m not. And beating him is not a part of that equation.

What advice do you have for someone who is having trouble moving on, even though their ex already has?

Judge Lynn:Well, he or she can move on too, and I don’t mean just romantically. You don’t rush into a relationship simply to get over the one that you’ve been in or in order to stay up with your ex, but you move on. It’s always, man, if I weren’t married I would do this to the house, or I would change this, or I would go to do this class. Live deeply and well, so it’s only a portion of your life and not the sum total of your life. And it’s a signal to you, what could I do now that I’m single that I couldn’t do then? And enjoy doing that.

People love your wisdom! Where can they connect with you?

Judge Lynn: Well, I’m not on Divorce Court anymore, but I’ve got 13 years worth of episodes on YouTube, Roku, all over the place. I have two books out: My Mother’s Rules, and another, Dear Sonali, Letters to the Daughter I Never Had. The first is about emotional intelligence, the second one’s about being young, 20-year old girls, and if I had a daughter (I have six sons) what I would have said to her. And I’m on Instagram, that’s where I’m usually, and Facebook: @realjudgelynn.

Can’t get enough of Judge Lynn? Neither can we! Watch the full interview between Judge Lynn and Hello Divorce’s Erin Levine here:

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