I want a divorce. By the time you say those words to your spouse or silently to yourself—or hear them from your spouse—you’ve probably gone through much deliberation, soul-searching, discussion with your spouse, and effort to mend the relationship. Rarely is the decision to end a marriage or domestic partnership made suddenly, easily, and arbitrarily. Nor should it be.
The nine stages of ending a marriage or domestic partnership are:
You may not be able to fully answer all of the following questions now, and that’s okay. The purpose of this exercise is to get you thinking about some of the decisions and situations that often arise when a couple splits.
- Do you want to stay in the family home after the separation or divorce is finalized? If so, do you think your spouse will agree to that? Will you be able to afford the home on your own?
- Might you need protective orders to prevent your spouse from harming you, your family, your finances, your livelihood, or your reputation?
- Do you expect your spouse to petition for sole custody of your child (or children)? If so, what reasons might he claim for requesting sole custody? Might you need to defend your parental fitness?
- If you have a minor child or children, do you want sole or joint custody? If sole custody, why do you not want to share custody with your spouse or partner?
- Will you need—or might you be asked to pay—child support?
- Will you need—or might you be asked to pay—spousal support?
- If you have a prenuptial or post-nuptial agreement, did you sign it willingly and with full knowledge of your and your spouse’s net worth? Is the agreement fair and equitable?
- Are you aware of all marital and personal (yours and your spouse’s) assets and debts?
- Which assets do you want to keep? Which assets will your spouse likely want to keep? Are there any items you or your spouse might both want?
- Have you consulted with a divorce attorney? How will you pay your legal fees?
To help you accurately assess what ending your marriage will entail and how it might affect you and your family, let’s separate the truths from the myths of some common beliefs about divorce. Here are the myths:
- Being the first to file for divorce gives you an advantage. It’s not filing first that gives you an advantage; it’s preparing before you file or respond to your spouse’s petition to separate, divorce, or uncouple. Being prepared enables you to make good decisions and take appropriate actions—to be proactive rather than reactive. Being ill-prepared puts you at a disadvantage, even if you’re the first to file, because it hinders your ability to make informed decisions and smart moves.
- Your spouse’s bad behavior in the marriage will benefit you in the divorce. Your spouse’s infidelity, detachment, or absence may have given you reason to end the marriage, but it does not entitle you to compensation. One of the biggest differences between divorce in days past and today is that it used to be a blame-game out of legal necessity. Today, all states have a no-fault divorce option, and only a handful offer a fault option. States take a spouse’s abusive behavior, addiction, and criminal record into account when determining child custody, as well as the need for protective orders.
- Because my spouse has a lot more financial resources than I do, he or she will likely be awarded child custody. If you and your spouse cannot agree on child custody, a judge will decide which custodial arrangement is in the “best interests” of the child. Numerous factors go into that decision, but the most important ones are typically who has been and who is best qualified to be the primary caregiver of the child.
- If you live in a community-property state, marital assets will be split 50/50. If you live in a state with equitable distribution laws, marital assets will be divided fairly. In some cases—for example, a long marriage in which one spouse earns significantly more than the other—the spouse with less earnings may receive spousal support and/or a larger share of marital assets. But no matter how the marital-asset pie is sliced up, both your net worth and your household income will probably drop, even if you’re among the increasingly small percentage of people awarded spousal support. So, unless you and/or your spouse are extremely wealthy, your standard of living will decline after divorce, at least for a while.
- Rarely does litigation—that is, a contested divorce in which the judge determines which spouse gets what in terms of child custody, child support, spousal support, assets, and debts—result in either spouse being satisfied with the outcome. Litigation also significantly increases the time, cost, and stress of divorce. Fortunately, the majority of modern couples are able to reach agreement on all matters involved in the dissolution of their marriage or partnership without going to court. A large and growing share can work out an agreement cooperatively or collaboratively, usually with the assistance of an attorney or mediator. The more amicable the divorce, the more satisfied both parties are with the settlement. About 90% of U.S. divorces are settled out of court.
- A divorce will destroy my family and ruin my life. Only if you allow it to. Divorce can be a major upheaval in the lives of everyone in the family and can cause a lot of emotional duress, especially for children (if you have them). But there are things you can do (and not do) to minimize the negative effects of separation or divorce, to recover from the hurts and set-backs of separation or divorce, and to create a new normal after separation or divorce. It may take a year or two or more, but the majority of divorced families recover from divorce and lead good, if not better, lives after divorce.
Being caught off-guard when the flag comes down on your relationship is not only hurtful and disconcerting, it can also impair your ability to make good decisions and take appropriate actions.
Here are some indications your spouse or partner may be preparing to make the break:
- Being less open, affectionate, and intimate with you
- Being more impatient, irritable, critical, and/or inconsiderate toward you
- Spending less time with you
- Spending more time than usual alone with your child (children)
- Spending more time than usual away from home
- Talking on the phone and/or texting more than usual and in private
- Making financial decisions without you and/or trying to convince you to make major financial changes
One of the most difficult parts of deciding whether to end a marriage or domestic partnership can be figuring out where you stand with the relationship. What do you think? How do you feel? What do you want? Where is your line in the sand? How far or near are you from your point of no return—or have you already reached it? Mining those personal truths can take some deep soul-searching and self-evaluation. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of focusing inward and facing what you already know.