Setting Divorce Ground Rules to Stay Focused and Productive
The secret to beginning your divorce on the right foot? You need to set clear, reasonable ground rules. These rules will (if followed) help maintain amicable relationships, direct communication, set expectations, and create a “playbook” of sorts to follow throughout your divorce.
If you and your spouse aren’t seeing eye to eye, you’ll need to do your best with creating your ground rules, sharing them with your spouse, and sticking to them. You cannot control everything your spouse does, and they might throw your rules out the window – but at least you’re setting expectations upfront. Ideally, you and your spouse can sit down together and go create your ground rules together. You might each want to start listing them out individually and then come together to set shared rules. Here’s how to get started.
Get familiar with the divorce process
Our checklist is a good place to start. Get a good sense of all the things you’ll need to make decisions about. No matter how you divorce, every state has mandatory waiting periods and a whole lot of paperwork to fill out. You’ll want to be thoughtful and organized throughout the process so everything is accounted for, such as property division and who is responsible for debts. Even if you try to stay out of court, there are court-established rules divorcing spouses need to follow.
List out your divorce goals
Besides ending your marriage, what do you want the end result to look like? Consider your “must-haves” versus your “nice-to-haves.” What are you willing to give up to get out? What do you need to feel secure? There may be times when all you want is to punish your spouse. Try to remember in those moments that ramping up conflict by dragging your spouse to court never feels like a true “win.” You may come out ahead at a hearing or two but at what cost?
The financial and emotional toll that a long court battle takes on you is usually not worth it. That doesn’t mean rolling over and giving your spouse everything they want. But we can exit our relationship with integrity by setting boundaries where appropriate and being thoughtful about the agreements we enter into. In other words, choose your battles wisely. Ask yourself, "Will this matter to me in a year or two?" If not, let it go.
Set the tone for your goals by trying to be respectful and calm, even if you’re dealing with a high-conflict spouse. We have an example letter to help you tell your spouse you want a divorce in the nicest and most productive way possible. Ultimately, we can’t control how our ex responds or behaves during divorce, but we certainly can make efforts to avoid known triggers and manage our expectations so that we can keep costs down and feel confident that we are making decisions that are well thought out. And the odds are in your favor – 95% of divorces end in agreement.
What are your preferred methods of communication?
Effective, efficient communication is critical to keeping your divorce as quick and painless as possible. Decide how you and your ex will communicate (face to face, email, text, phone, etc.), where, and when. Be respectful of their preferences and set your own boundaries, too. See if they’ll agree to keep heated conversations out of the presence (or earshot) of your kids.
You’ll want to communicate efficiently and with minimal drama, so you can resolve the issues you need to finalize your divorce. Perhaps you will meet for coffee every Friday afternoon and limit phone calls to only between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Figure out when you want to be available, and set boundaries so you have some established “divorce-free” times.
The more you can do on your own – without professionals – the quicker and cheaper your divorce will be. You may not have knowledge of the law like an attorney or the ability to be completely neutral and unemotional like a good mediator – but you also have a huge advantage: a deep understanding of your spouse.
Will either of you seek legal advice?
Hiding things rarely helps you in a divorce. That includes surprising your spouse by hiring a lawyer. If your ex feels blindsided, they will likely take a more aggressive approach in their defense. So, if you’re considering lawyering up and having your attorney handle your divorce, tell each other. Getting some legal advice along the way can help support both your communication preferences and divorce goals.
Talk with your ex about how you want to approach challenging aspects of your divorce. The traditional lawyered-up divorce is very different (and involves a lot more drama and expense) than simply seeking legal advice for a gut check, to get some negotiation advice, or to review your forms before you send them off to court. If you have major concerns or conflicts about co-parenting, dividing your assets and debts, or are overwhelmed by the legal side, it’s wise to at least get some legal coaching.
Where will you live – and what about kids or pets?
If you purchased your home during your marriage, you both likely have equal ownership of the property. If you have kids together, a big part of your divorce will be about custody and parental rights. Many people assume that you have to split time with kids 50/50, but the truth is, you can decide together and include your decision in your final agreement.
But what about during the divorce? Usually, you will want an arrangement that is the fairest and least disruptive. Consider things like distance from work, keeping changes as minimal as possible to lessen stress, who will be able to tend to household chores more easily, etc.
Even if you are still living in the same home throughout your divorce, this can be a good time to try out a schedule where each of you spends time with the kids separately but once a week (or so) you have a family dinner or outing to show your kids a united front. Remember, this is not the end of your family – it’s a reorganization.
Will one of you take the lead with paperwork and other procedural to-dos?
Is one of you better at filling out forms, following strict guidelines, and meeting deadlines? Or does one of you simply have more time or want to own all the submission of completed paperwork? It might make sense to delegate one person as the “doer." While this job might be daunting and far from fun, you don’t have to work through it blindly. Our team helps guide clients through it – we can even help you fill it out, and then submit it to the proper court for you. See our plans.
What happens when we can’t agree?
If you begin to feel overwhelmed, scared, angry, or sad, you’re more likely to act on impulse and resort to tactics you otherwise would not. Mediation can often take the place of lawyering up. Mediators know all about the legal side of divorce, and while they can’t give you advice, they serve as objective informers, helping you and your spouse reach an agreement.
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