As a divorce and mediation coach I am often asked “what is the most important thing to know when going through a divorce?” My answer is always the same, the person that comes to the table with the most amount of knowledge and the least amount of emotion is most likely to have a divorce outcome that builds a foundation for them to thrive in their post-divorce life.
Unfortunately, I learned the importance of this advice the hard way. In 2011 I had been married for a little over 11 years, had 3 small boys, and knew I could not spend one more day being unhappily married. So, without any preparation or understanding of the business of divorce, I told my husband our marriage was over, and I hired an attorney. That was the beginning of a lot of uneducated and emotion-based decisions that set the stage for a lot of heartache for years to come. There are still days when some of my misguided decisions come back to haunt me like the ghosts of Christmas past. I can’t change my past or the impact that my choices have had on my children, but I can work hard to try to make sure that others understand the importance of becoming your own advocate in the divorce process.
If I had it to do all over again, here is what I would tell my younger self to do:
Manage Your Emotions
The sooner you understand divorce is a business the better off you’ll be. All those divorce court dramas you’ve watched play out on the big and little screens where one spouse is vindicated when the judge calls out the bad behavior of the other spouse in open court, forget them! DO NOT look to family court to validate your feelings, particularly since only about 5% of divorce cases actually go to trial and are ruled on by a judge. Your vindication will come when you make informed decisions that allow you to have the life you want when your divorce is over.
I want to acknowledge that it is an understatement to say there are a lot of emotions surrounding divorce. There are feelings of loss, fear, anger, and uncertainty, to name a few. When was the last time you made a really good decision when you were flooded with emotion? I can honestly say I can’t think of one good decision I’ve made while in an emotionally charged state. While going through a divorce, you need to be in the right state of mind to be making intentional, knowledge-based decisions where you have considered the short- and long-term impacts of your choices. Most likely you’re also going to hire a few divorce professionals to help guide you through the process (more on that later) and when you’re paying $250 to $450 an hour to talk to your attorney, you need to be in a mental state that will allow you to take in and comprehend the information you are receiving. Using your attorney as your therapist is a tremendous waste of money and will most likely leave you feeling frustrated because they are not trained as mental health professionals, they are trained in the law.
So, what do you do with all those emotions you’re feeling? The first step is understanding the source of your emotions so you’re better able to determine the kind of support you need. Are the emotions you’re feeling related to trauma in your marriage, or your past? Are you finding you’re feeling depressed or anxious, or have an inability to move forward? If so, it is important that you seek the support of a therapist as they are trained to help people dealing with emotional issues related to their past, or individuals struggling with mental health concerns. Are your emotions related to anxiety around not knowing how to manage the divorce process and all the decisions that must be made? Do you fear your future because you don’t know what is going to happen? If these are the emotions you’re feeling, a divorce coach may be your best choice as they are trained to help you sort through emotions and find the clarity you need to be able to create a forward moving plan. A coach can help you understand the divorce process, your options, and determining the best path to take. In some situations, you may need the support of both a therapist and a coach to help support you for a period of time. Remember that emotional management is a critical component of solid decision making and your ability to create a strong post-divorce foundation, so it’s important to engage the professionals necessary to help you.
This would be the point at which my younger self would look at my older and wiser self and say, “I’m going through a divorce, I can’t afford to hire a therapist AND a coach; I really can’t afford to hire either one of them!” To which I would respond, you can’t afford not to. Which leads me to my next bit of advice.
Build a Divorce Team
In my experience there is a large percentage of divorce emotions that are driven by fear and overwhelm. The fear of the unknown and the overwhelm of the divorce process itself. The best way to combat these feelings is with knowledge, and the best way to get that knowledge is by building a divorce support team. You wouldn’t go into surgery with just a surgeon, so why would you go into divorce with just an attorney? When you have surgery there are many people in the room and each person is an expert within their field. Don’t deny yourself that same expertise and support while going through your divorce.
Too often I see people wanting to bury their head in the sand when it comes to understanding what they need to know to make decisions regarding their divorce. Some will rely on their spouse to provide the necessary information, and others will assume that their attorney or mediator will tell them what to do. I believe it is critical that people not only participate in the information gathering, but that they also understand all the information put in front of them. How can you possibly make decisions about how to divide assets and debts if you don’t understand what assets you have and their true value?
In order to get the information you need to make intentional, knowledge based decisions, I strongly encourage people to create a divorce support team. This team should be made up of professionals that can advise you on every aspect of your divorce. For instance, if you own a home you will want to talk to a realtor to get the Comparative Market Analysis (CMA) of your home or work with an appraiser. Without that, how will you really know what your home is worth? If you plan on buying your spouse out of the marital home or purchasing a new residence, you need to talk to a mortgage broker who understands the unique challenges that divorce brings to the mortgage process. Too often I see people signing Marital Settlement Agreements (MSA) where they have agreed to buy the other spouse out of the house only to find out that they don’t qualify for a mortgage.
Other important members of your team should include a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA) to help you understand how to look at your finances through the lens of divorce and assist you in creating your post-divorce financial plan. If you have children, you may want to work with a child or co-parenting specialist to guide you in creating a parenting plan that takes into account the best interests of your children. You’ll also want an attorney who can advise you on all legal questions that may arise. Many people aren’t aware of the fact that you can hire an attorney on a consulting, or limited scope basis, to review specific issues or questions. This is particularly important if you mediate your divorce as your consulting attorney can also review your MSA to make sure that it memorializes your intentions accurately and doesn’t have any legal red flags. And finally, you should have a therapist or divorce coach to help manage the emotional aspects of the divorce, for all the reasons already mentioned, as well as having an independent resource to be your thinking partner to help guide you through the process and sort through your emotions to gain clarity on what is important to you.
I believe it is critical to your success to build a divorce team. I would also tell you that you can’t afford not to hire a team. In almost every case I’ve worked on, the professionals have paid for themselves by providing advice that has either saved the client money or allowed them to gain an increased share of an asset.
Learn to Respond, Not React
The last bit of advice I will share is to not be your own worst enemy. Don’t undue all the great work you and your team has done by engaging in conflict ridden, unproductive, communication with your ex or soon to be ex. Too often I see people work out advantageous settlement or custody agreements only to have them come undone outside of the mediation room or courtroom because the couple starts flinging mud in emails and texts. Don’t let this happen to you!
Understand the difference between responding to communication vs. reacting. When you respond you are being intentional about what you are saying, taking into account your audience and your ultimate goals. When you react, you are replying based upon your emotional reaction to the communication sent to you, and we’ve already covered the fact that decisions made in an emotional state tend to not be our best choices.
So, what can you do to stop reacting to communication that comes your way? The first thing I recommend is to assess whether or not the communication requires a response. If the communication is not directly related to an issue that cannot be moved forward without a response, but rather is filled with accusations, judgements or generally anything intended to make you feel bad, it probably doesn’t require a response. If you determine that a response is required, respond to only the facts and none of the emotional noise. A great tool to use when crafting a response is called BIFF which stands for brief, informative, friendly, and firm. This communication tool was created by Bill Eddy from the High Conflict Institute, and you can learn more about it here BIFF Responses.
The bottom line is you can either bury your head in the sand and hope someone else will manage it for you, pretend your divorce isn’t happening and hope for the best, or you can become your own divorce advocate and take an active role in creating the foundation for your future.
Kelly Myers is a Divorce and Mediation Coach as well as a Divorce Mediator. Having been through a high conflict divorce in 2012 she realized there was a tremendous need to educate and provide support to people going through divorce. Kelly believes that helping people navigate the divorce process through managing their emotions, creating a divorce support team, and finding clarity on wants and needs allows people to use their divorce to build a strong foundation for their future. She is a graduate of the University of San Diego paralegal program and is a self-proclaimed training junkie with hundreds of hours of training related to offering the best support possible to her clients. You can find out more information on Kelly by visiting her website Your Divorce Advocate or following her on Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn
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