When your marriage is on life support, here's what to do before and after you pull the plug.
I ripped my beating heart out of my chest and placed it on the security conveyor belt at the family courthouse along with my purse, keys, and phone. Well, at least that's how it felt. There are few things worse than a family court battle when young children are involved. A root canal without Novocaine or getting dragged behind a speeding bus would be preferable, if you ask most divorcing parents stuck in a family court battle. Would I do it all again? Yes. But would I did things differently? Absolutely.
Every divorce is different. But here are five things that are pretty universal, which would have saved me a ton of grief had I known then what I know now.
1. Make a plan
Divorce makes things murky, confusing, and disorienting. I wish I'd had a north star to follow when I decided to end my marriage. Ok, so you don't want to live with your spouse anymore. Where do you want to live? How do you plan to support yourself and your children (if kids are involved)? Do you need to set up childcare so you can look for work if you're a stay at home mom? It's also a good idea to find a therapist and support group. Surround yourself with as much support as possible. You don't have to tell anyone your plans, but make them and set yourself up to succeed when things get hazy.
2. Get your affairs in order
I know, I sound like I'm talking about a death here. But the end of a marriage is a death. Grief, uncertainty, and major life changes are involved. So getting your affairs in order to prepare for this transition is crucial. Take inventory of your finances, bank accounts, credit cards, retirement accounts, childrens' savings accounts, assets, and debts. Make copies of bank and credit card statements. It's important to have an accurate understanding of your assets and debts before you start dividing everything. Finances are a huge point of contention in divorces. Caution: Do not drain or close the bank accounts or rack up high amounts of debt to spite your ex. You will be held accountable in court for that. Divorce is already hard enough. Don't destroy your future over it.
People will spend tens of thousands of dollars on attorneys or private mediators to fight over finances, when that money could have gone to your kids or your new life. Pick your battles. It's not going to feel good or fair to either of you. Keep your eyes on your future and decide how long you want to battle this person in court or mediation. Some people get stuck in court battles that span years. Remember, your energy and mental health are priceless and worth more than any asset.
3. Pick the right time
You don't have to tell your spouse that you want to end the marriage right away. Get yourself set up with a a place to go and separate accounts if possible. Make as many arrangements as you can before you disclose your intention to divorce. This may seem deceptive, but it's not. Things can get ugly fast. While you may have been married to this person for a while, there's no telling what someone is capable of when they feel hurt and desperate. The less opportunity you give for them to control you or your situation, the better for both of you, especially if children are involved. There are support groups full of people who were set up by their exes when they tried to leave. Everything you say and do after you utter the words "I want a divorce" could be used against you in family court. When fleeing a domestic violence/abuse situation, this is the most dangerous time for the person experiencing abuse. Abusers get violent when they feel they are losing control of the situation. If your spouse is abusive, call the Domestic Violence Hotline for help and resources: 800.799.SAFE (7233).
Until the divorce is final, keep all communication in writing. It doesn't always have to be this way. But for now, it is essential to create strong boundaries and a safe space for you to deal with the divorce.
4. Use tools and resources
Apps like Our Family Wizard and Talking Parents are essential when coparenting during and after a divorce. These apps don't allow changes to be made to messages once they are sent, which cuts down on deceptive email and text practices. They also have tools like calendars and a private time and date-stamped journal for you to write down anything you need to refer back to or keep track of, such as incidents or custody violations. Look for community resources to help you through this difficult time. Boys and Girls Club offers affordable afterschool programs for working parents. Seek out support groups and community. Find a therapist that can help you navigate the challenges of this life-altering event and consider a therapist for your children. Remember to get out and see friends and family and take good care of yourself through this process.
5. Treat your relationship with your ex as a business partnership
If you have kids together, you are now in the business of coparenting with your ex. All communication should be as professional and polite as it would be with a coworker. Emotions about the past don't belong in coparenting communications. Work that out with friends or a therapist. Stay present and future focused. Follow the BIFF method: keep all messages Brief, Informative, Friendly, and Firm.
Even if your ex hurt you terribly, they are still a parent to your child. As long as they are not abusive or neglectful, you must not interfere with their parental relationship with your children. It will only harm your kids. The undeniable truth is, you can't be a good parent if you are disrespecting, abusing, or harming your child's other parent. Keep it clean in front of your kids. Don't talk negatively about the other parent in front of your child (a child sees their parents as a part of them so they will internalize it and feel that they are also bad).
Before you send or respond to a message from your coparent business partner, check in with your body. Are your hands shaking? Are you gritting your teeth? Are emotions high? Then don't press that send button. Let it simmer for a day if possible, or ask a trusted friend to read and edit your message to keep it professional. Write every message as if a judge in family court would be reading it, because in the future, they could be. Write your message in a separate document and let it sit. Come back to it after some time has passed and edit it with strict scrutiny. Delete unnecessary details, thoughts, or feelings.
For instance: If you need to make a doctor appointment for your child, instead of writing:
Last night, when we were at the movies watching Ant Man, Junior started complaining of a stomach ache. At first, I thought it was because he ate a whole box of M&Ms before I realized. But he's been vomiting and has a fever this morning. I think we should take him to the doctor.
I would appreciate it if you'd get back to me sooner than last time.
Not only has the oversharer opened themselves up for a criticism about their parenting choices, but they also muddied the message with unimportant details and a passive-aggressive statement at the end that will only heighten conflict. Instead, this message would be much more effective:
Junior vomited three times in the last 24 hours. His temperature is 101.4. I called Dr. Jones' office and they recommend seeing him right away. They have an opening today at 3:00. You are welcome to join us at the appointment. If you can't make it, I'll let you know what the doctor says.
You will not always coparent perfectly. There will be many mistakes. Learn from them and move forward. You get to decide how many extra regrets you take with you through this experience, and how hard you make it on your children. You are doing end-of-life care for your marriage. Make your plans accordingly, protect yourself, get your affairs in order, use tools and resources to make the process easier, and remember to be professional. Marriages end, but they don't have to destroy everything and everyone when they do.