We view divorce as an event. As if one day you announce, “I’m getting a divorce,” and the next day your marriage is over. The truth is, it’s a journey. It’s a process. It’s a method by which you transition out of your marriage and re-prioritize your relationships, especially your relationship with yourself. Sometimes there is still love. Sometimes the love that once was has long been extinguished. As renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel says, “Ending a marriage goes beyond the signing of divorce papers. And divorce is not the end of a family; it’s a reorganization.”
In my 13+ years of guiding people out of relationships, while still holding heartful integrity, I’ve become keenly aware of the paradox of divorce: at a time when so much is at stake and you need to be “on your game,” you are likely struggling with hundreds of different emotions that are distracting you from the real and practical considerations that may have profound consequences for your future. So, I’ve set out in this article to give you the steps you need to take to get your divorce strategy “on point.” You don’t have to know or do everything — you just need to have the right information, support, and resources. I’m here to help.
By developing a strategy at the start of your divorce, you will feel a whole heck of a lot more comfortable living in transition and facing the unknown. You will have a much higher likelihood of turning this chapter of your life into a new one with a better, stronger, and healthier version of yourself. It doesn’t mean your strategy won’t change throughout the course of your divorce. It might. And that’s OK. But let’s get you started on the right foot.
Establish ground rules
Many separating couples (successfully) choose to meet together or with a third party such as a wellness coach or therapist to discuss the “ground rules” they will follow while navigating their breakup and transitioning into divorced life. If you can make this happen, do it. Work together to answer questions like, when, how, and where will you discuss divorce-related topics. Will the end game be an agreement that you both can live with? What types of professionals will you hire to help you through (see below)? How and when will you tell the kids? Separating couples who start with these basics before moving on to the more complicated stuff often fare much better.
Learn the basics
We can usually start to imagine life after divorce, but that transitionary step between marriage and divorce causes a lot of stress. Many of our fears around divorce involve not knowing what to expect. If you live in California, my web platform, Hello Divorce, will give you a really good sense of what the process of divorce looks like from a legal perspective. It’s not a linear path, sorry to say, so you may be working through the steps sideways in our Divorce Navigator, but whatever stage of the process you are in — you can find clear guidance about the paperwork and analysis that you’ll face. We also offer a wealth of information, tools, and curated resources on legal rights and responsibilities, self-care, financial guidance, and co-parenting. Don’t limit yourself to lawyers; most lawyers view law in a vacuum and that’s not going to best serve your complex life. Get answers from reliable sources. Get comfortable with the “maybes” because there are a lot of them. And get educated because, as you already know, knowledge is power.
Determine your approach
There are several ways to resolve the issues that come up in divorce and commit them to paper — to an “enforceable” judgment that finalizes (the vast majority) of your legal action. That’s right. Divorce is legal; it’s the dissolution of what likely is (for many) the most complex financial and personal contract you will ever enter into during your life. So, my two cents: Don’t go at it without thinking through your method. There are several ways to divorce and I’ll briefly touch on a few of the most common here.
- Mediation: This approach is generally one of the most cost-effective options for divorce, as hiring lawyers and other experts can often run someone $25,000 or more in legal fees. Mediation generally happens with a trained mediator/lawyer but not always. Sometimes people choose a co-parenting counselor to resolve issues related to their kids or a certified divorce financial analyst (CDFA) to help with financial issues. Mediation works when it’s done right. You work with your mediator together or separately to come to an agreement on all divorce-related issues. It can be a great way to reduce animosity, finalize your divorce quickly and efficiently, keep many of your private details and personal life more confidential, and resolve conflict. It only works though if there’s no power imbalance, both parties agree to be transparent with finances, and each spouse has a serious desire for settlement. But, if you do choose to mediate, get a lawyer in your corner before and/or during the mediation such as a mediation coach (aka legal coach, divorce coach, divorce lawyer trained in collaborative law). Most of the clients doing mediation coaching through Levine Family Law Group end up booking three to eight hours. Exploring creative options for resolving complicated issues, LFLG reviews the eventual agreement to ensure it says what it’s supposed to say and advises on best/worst case scenarios, etc. If you and your spouse choose mediation, be sure to read my blog post, 6 Steps to Take Before You Begin Divorce Mediation.
- Collaborative divorce: Expensive but not as expensive as a highly contested divorce in which both parties have their own lawyers and experts and battle it out in court. It’s also a hell of a lot less painful and disruptive than a litigated divorce. A collaborative divorce is a legal process enabling the (former) couple to avoid the uncertainty of court and to achieve a settlement that meets (some of) the needs of both parties and their children. Each party has a lawyer and there are usually several other professionals involved as well. It’s a voluntary process (like mediation) so if your ex is a jerk and says no — this is not an option for you. Additionally, if negotiation breaks down and no agreement is reached, you’ll have to start over with a new lawyer (think: $$) because your collaborative lawyer is precluded from litigating with you.
- Lawyer up: With this strategy, each party retains an attorney. Your lawyer prepares the necessary paperwork and works with your ex’s lawyer toward an agreement. To the extent issues cannot be resolved, you usually end up battling them out in front of a judge. Many lawyers are litigation centric. They run to court on every little issue or are not proactive enough early in the process that things end up having to be litigated because they weren’t addressed in a timely fashion. Think school choice for example. If that’s a contested issue between you and your ex and your lawyer doesn’t address it early on, you can end up fighting it out in front of a judge because there’s no more time to work through it with a licensed mental health professional (co-parenting counselor) or special master (parenting coordinator) when the issues are hotly contested. This was all a long way of saying don’t choose the first lawyer you meet unless your instincts tell you that she or he is the right one. Choosing a lawyer is an intensely personal decision. Find referrals, research their credentials, and read what they’ve written, etc.
- Work it out on your own (with some help along the way): Hello Divorce is not the only “virtual” platform popping up these days to help guide you through divorce. What makes HD different is that several options are offered allowing users to choose what works best for them. We offer a range of assistance including a best-in-tech DIY Divorce, documents and processing handled by divorce experts and/or access to lawyers and mediators who can help you to develop a strategy, prepare and/or review paperwork and coach you through the process. In my experience, most people need some form of legal advice at least once during the divorce process. It’s nice to have access to a lawyer when you need one for limited scope help at flat rates. For uncontested or moderately contested divorce, Hello Divorce or another similar option might work perfectly for you. However, if you’re divorcing a “narcissist” or someone who is ready to do battle (or you’re just having a particularly hard emotional time), you’ll likely want to hire an attorney for full representation to take some of the pressure off of you and to respond if things get out of hand.
Divorce is an aggravating process, the result of which is that many of my clients try to rush through their divorce as quickly as they can. All they want is for the fighting to stop and to get on with their life.
And it may not just be you – well-intentioned people in your circle might try to push you to move too quickly, too. Leah Morris, a life and relationship transition coach, shared some wise words with me recently on this front: “Everyone will try to rush you out of your feelings, because – let’s be honest – ‘feeling’ is sometimes really hard to do. However, running from negative gut feelings like anger, sadness, loneliness and pain is only prolonging the lesson that must be learned. Difficult emotions are usually there as a catalyst to transform us. So, take your time.”
Believe me when I tell you that rushing through your divorce is the worst strategy to have. Your plan should instead be to consider the impact of the decisions you are making thoroughly. Once you sign your divorce agreement, it is difficult and expensive (and sometimes impossible) to amend it.
This is a lot of information, I know. But I truly want you to have it. Lawyers are notoriously the “keepers of information” and quite frankly, I think that’s starting to become a thing of the past. If you have this information in your hip pocket, you can pay a lawyer for what lawyers should and can actually do — help you resolve the issues that are most important to you. The bottom line is this: I know (from years of experience) that you can and will come out of your divorce — likely in a better place than you ever have been. It takes a lot of self-work but with the right strategy, support, and some serious self-love, this experience will catapult you into the next stage of your beautiful life.