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 half-million+ social media followers with her wit, charisma, and practical relationship advice.
Judge Lynn and Erin's conversation ranged from whether "having your day in court" is important to how to get over a cheater – and many topics in between. Here, we break down 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 your troubles. If you're in an abusive relationship, now is always the time. But now is the time in a safe manner. So, it 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 cheating situation, then you have to determine this: Can you get over it or not? Say you were the one who was cheated on. If you can get over it and work through it, you should do that. But if you can't get over it, you're resentful, and you've tried everything in your marital arsenal, then it's time to go. You want to be able to head out the door saying, "There was nothing more I could do." You don't want to leave thinking, "Is there more I could have done?"
If it's an angry, unhappy marriage, there's staying, there's leaving, and there's a third option: significantly changing the nature of your engagement. You have 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 to show it? Or are you looking at somebody who doesn't care about you and is simply 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."
But you have to be honest: Have you done everything to save the marriage? Look at yourself and ask, "Am I the source of the problem?" Don't do this just because your spouse keeps telling you you're the source of the problem. You want to know if you really are or not – because there's a difference.
Erin: 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 that you can say, "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."
Erin: 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. When you get on a court's docket and have your 10 minutes with the judge, it's a third party who doesn't care about your kids, doesn't really know you, doesn't know your spouse, doesn't know any of it. Yet they're making decisions for you without adequate input from you.
Alternatively, if you're in mediation, you can wrangle a little bit. Both of you can decide who's going to do what with the children. After all, both of you know the kids, and you understand how they will respond.
I like it when there is mediation with attorneys attached, so it's not an imbalanced affair. That way, you have legal advice in place. So if you need to say, "Oh, this mediation isn't going well," you can always go to court after that.
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Erin: So even if you're not the financial breadwinner – even if some of these concepts are new to you, like dividing retirement benefits – you can still participate in an out-of-court process?
Judge Lynn: Absolutely. But you should have an attorney so that you know you understand everything. 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 maintain co-legal custody? You have to understand what all that means in order to engage in a meaningful resolution.
Erin: 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 these influencers may have gone through a divorce in a different state. And divorce is different in different states. You have to have an attorney in your state or access to an attorney who knows the rules where you live.
Erin: Support and community during divorce is so important. But ... what are the perils of relying on 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 hear stories as seen through the fearful eyes of others.
"Whatever thing happened to your family member or friend in their divorce is what they talk about. But that may not be at all the issue with your divorce."
Every divorce is 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. You've got to be able to understand where your head is, not just your money and your kids and your house.
Erin: 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, "Why do you feel that way? Is it different from the other thing?" When you question their reasoning process, you help the person figure out what they need to do. Don't be threatening, like, "Why would you do that?" Be like, "Okay, so what if he didn't do it? Then what would you do?" Help them walk it through in their head.
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Erin: 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 toward 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 to adjust depending upon who's doing what to whom, who lives where, how old the kids are, and all the factors that determine 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, are you more focused on "getting your rights" than what's best for the kids? Is it really best for them to go Tuesday, Wednesday, or do all of that?" In reality, it might be best if they stay with my husband all week. It might be.
Erin: 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 a schedule that makes the kids hop back and forth.
Judge Lynn: Exactly. Say you've got a child with autism, and he doesn't do well with changes of circumstance. You've got to take that into consideration when you're determining not only your rights but also the child's well-being.
Erin: And you should figure out how to keep the other parent involved?
Judge Lynn: Right. Yeah. He may be at 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."
Erin: How can someone take care of themselves and maintain their sense of balance and focus during a divorce?
Judge Lynn: I think it's pretty much the same when you're in the midst of any stressful circumstance. You have to carve out a piece of your day for you. It may be as little as 10 minutes of listening to music. Just something that will permit you to forget about it and feel okay.
That doesn't mean you're letting anything happen. You're focusing on you and not focusing on it. Don't be in the process of divorcing all the time. Be in the process of living while conducting your divorce.
Erin: Is it easy to let divorce take over your whole life?
Judge Lynn: Very. Because you're untangling every aspect of your life: where you sleep, who you share your bathroom with, your financial security, your children. You have to untangle every piece of your life from this other person. It's all-encompassing, which is why you have to make plans. Your brain is not going to automatically decide. You have to make plans to give your mind time to decompress from this "pressure cooker" situation.
Erin: In divorce, everything is in transition. 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., and I'm never worried about my food. Do you know what I mean? All that kind of stuff. 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 affect how you feel.
Erin: Do you have any tips for negotiating during divorce mediation?
Judge Lynn: Separate how you feel about 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 are you doing it because this is something you really need and deserve? Do not be afraid to give up things you really don't want because that allows you to fight harder for things you really do want. 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 know what you'll 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.
Erin: In preparing for mediation, should you know what your best-case 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. 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."
Erin: 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 feeling 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."
Erin: What advice do you have for someone who is having trouble moving on, even though their ex already has?
Judge Lynn: Well, they can move on too, and I don't mean just romantically. You don't rush into a relationship simply to get over the one you've been in or to stay up with your ex. 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 take this class." Live deeply and well so it's only a portion of your life and not the sum total of your life. Ask yourself, "What could I do now that I'm single that I couldn't do then?" And enjoy doing that.
Erin: 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 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 am 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: