First comes love, then comes marriage… and sometimes comes divorce.
I was recently reminded of this unfortunate truth when one of my favorite bloggers publicly and bravely announced that she and her husband were divorcing. They were high school sweethearts and share two young children.
I have several friends and acquaintances who are either separated or divorced from their spouses. My own parents got divorced when I was in law school and while their maturity and religious faith enabled them to be good friends who get along well (thanks, Mom and Dad!), I witnessed the more difficult parts of their post-marriage journey as it was happening and while the wound was fresh.
Divorce should be a judgment free zone, although it doesn’t usually happen that way. Nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors or truly understands the complexities of a relationship. Nobody appreciates how the intricate details of a childhood, career, and the very nature of our own idiosyncrasies play into a marriage.
These divorce issues got me wondering about the aspects of divorce that most people don’t think about before they file? Sure, everyone anticipates that it will be really hard to share custody of their children, but what are the things that happen “in the dark” that people don’t realize until they are sitting in it?
While I am an attorney, my forte is not family law. So with the help of Tampa family lawyer, Christina Anton Garcia, and two of my divorced friends, John and Rachel, I got the good, the bad, and the ugly about the things people don’t realize about divorce until long after everything is signed and sealed.
While all three of them had different insight about divorce, there was a common denominator: make the marriage work if you can. Go to counseling. Ask other people to support and pray for you. Be honest about your struggles. Do not get a divorce unless it is truly a last resort. “While it may not be ideal for business, Garcia says, I consider it a victory when a couple reconciles or if they reach an agreement that everyone is happy with and productively move on with their lives.”
Hopefully these tips from people who have seen the trenches can help others who are considering or going through a divorce. And while all divorces are different, these tips focus primarily on those where children are involved.
If You Have Kids, The Divorce is Never Really Over. Your former spouse will always be in the picture, whether it is during holidays, birthdays, weddings, custody pick-ups/ drop-offs, and even having to communicate with them if your child has a bad report card or gets in trouble at school. You will always have to contend with your former spouse, so you better make sure for you kids’ sake and for your own that you get along. Fighting with your former spouse and speaking poorly about them to others and to your children only makes the kids more stressed out and will not make you feel better. Absent something truly egregious, you should be civil with your former spouse and treat other with respect. “You have to get used to the flavor of your own tongue by “biting it” when considering an argument,” advises John. “You have to ask yourself how the argument will affect your children and if its really worth it.”
The Silence Can be Crippling. “The Sunday nights my daughter goes to her mom’s house can be lonely and quiet,” said John. “This was especially true immediately after the divorce. While the loneliness has waned over the years, without fail I always recognize the silence when I walk through the door after I drop her off. It can be tough looking at her books or toys knowing she will be living ‘her other life’ for the next week.” John deals with the silence by setting up dates, meetings with friends, and working out on Sunday nights in an effort to productively deal with the loneliness. Rachel also recommends working out. “I was in the best shape of my life right after the divorce because I worked out all the time to avoid going back to my apartment and succumbing to the loneliness. At least you will have a rocking body and it’s healthy compared to other bad habits,” she said.
Life Goes On. It is strange that weddings can involve years of planning and plenty of celebratory fanfare, but a divorce is over with the stroke of a pen. John recalled the day of his divorce, a Tuesday, went on as normal for the world around him but seemed surreal at the time for him personally. While he is happy to be divorced and knows it was ultimately the best choice, he was faced with a complex array of taxing emotions that he would not wish on anyone. Rachel described her divorce as a “permanent wound that never goes away, you just have to heal to the best of your ability. When it flares up and eats away at you, you have to put the Band-Aid back on and keep moving.”
The Dating World Has Drastically Changed Since You Were Single. Couples dating for a decade or longer likely did not have to deal with the complexities of social media, text messaging rules, or “Netflix and chill” style dates. When I met my husband in 2005, dating websites like Match.com were considered taboo. Now they are common and accepted. (Popular dating apps like Tinder and Bumble did not exist.) I didn’t have to adhere to rules about posting my husband’s picture on Facebook, whether it was too soon to be “checking-in” with him at a specific location, or worrying about how soon I should respond to a text message. John warns, “these are all very real issues in today’s dating world and you must learn the ropes.”
There Will Be Lifestyle Changes. Rachel and her former spouse were both professionals who earned six-figure incomes. However, she said it took her 6 months to a year after her divorce to learn how to budget without her spouse’s financial contribution. Even though Rachel earned a nice income, she was making poor financial decisions and spending money on unnecessary things. “I was still living as if I had a partner who could contribute to a fancy vacation or a shopping spree. Everything started adding up and I watched my savings as it dwindled,” she said. Rachel now tells those on the verge of divorce to start living like they are single and stop expecting the other spouse’s help. She advises those without high earning capacities to retain a good attorney who will help obtain adequate support and to be prudent with money. Realize that life may never be the same. You may not get to stay at the Ritz anymore. You may not get to play tennis at the country club. You may not be dining at Michelin-rated restaurants. You may have to sell your 3,000 square foot home and move into a tiny rental. While these luxuries are not the “important” things in life, they are things Rachel wishes she would have kept in mind post-divorce.
You Will Have to Find Other Ways to Fill Your Time. Life after divorce can be drastically different. Friends you and your spouse hung out with as a couple are no longer there. People can feel awkward and change around you. You will not always want to go places as the single person and be the fifth wheel. The divorce itself can be all-encompassing but once it’s over, you will have to find new ways to fill your time and there will be a void. It can be easy to fill this void with drugs, alcohol, or other people and relationships. “The last thing you want to do is jump into dysfunctional activities or relationships without giving yourself sufficient time to heal from your marriage just because it’s easy and temporarily fills the void. You will only be more damaged in the long run,” advises John. You can productively fill the void by exercising, getting involved in professional and civic organizations, and putting energy into developing your talents and hobbies.
You Can Become Engulfed in Emotions. Even in situations where the divorce is a positive thing, you can become engulfed in emotions. Rachel chose to end her marriage and while she doesn’t regret that decision, she has a difficult time remembering her painful post-divorce emotions. “After the divorce, I tried to act strong in public but sitting in my tiny apartment I was a complete and utter emotional wreck. I couldn’t look at my child without crying that I had done this to her. I would sit on the porch at my apartment at all hours of the night smoking cigarettes, crying, and staring off into space. Inside the apartment I felt a loneliness I had never felt before. I was scared of the future. I was scared of the present. I was just flat out scared and alone. Sure I had friends who came over all the time. They would listen and ask questions but they always left and the loneliness would engulf me. These feelings lasted nearly a year.”
You Will Need to Seek Professional Help. Everyone agreed that weekly therapy from a professional counselor is necessary to productively survive a divorce. Counselors specialize in helping people get through the process and you can talk to them about things you will not or cannot talk about with your friends or family. You also need to understand that you will likely get depressed or anxious. There is nothing wrong with temporarily taking medications if you need to do so. It is also acceptable to succumb to the sadness. While nobody died, the end of a marriage feels pretty close to it.
You Will Need to Focus on Creating a Safe and Loving Environment for Your Children. You will need to put your own emotions aside and work hard on creating a home environment where your children will feel safe and loved. Forget about all the “things” you no longer have like the big kitchen, large master bath, the pool, and the two-car garage. None of those things matter. What matters is that your kids feel like they are loved and like they are safe. Rachel advises, “your children will get through the divorce experience substantially better if they come out with good memories of their new living arrangements rather than remembering their parent constantly complain about how inadequate it is.”
You Will Need to Stop Being Petty. Deal with child custody arrangements first and then move onto the financial aspects. “My spouse and I had a brief war over who got what skymiles and hotel points… it’s not worth it,” warns Rachel. “Kids should come first. Stop being petty.” Further, unless you agreed to a lump-sum divorce fee, family lawyers bill by the hour. Arguing with your spouse over trivial things will cost you.
You Will Need to Be Positively Comfortable With the Custody Plan. Be sure before you sign off on a parenting plan that you think it’s the best option for you. Once the judge approves the parenting plan, it is very difficult and a very hard burden to get changed. Think about the logistics of the proposed plan before you agree to anything.
You Will Need to Be Prepared to Be Judged. Post divorce, friends, family members, and acquaintances will judge you for everything, so be emotionally ready for it. People will take sides even if they only heard one side of the story. They will judge you if you date and they will judge you if you don’t. They will judge you if you continue working and they will judge you if you take some time off. They will judge you if you take on new hobbies and they will judge you if you become a recluse. You can’t win and you won’t win. While it will hurt, you need to be prepared to shake if off. The good news is you will learn who your true friends are.
You Will Need to Be Ready to Co-Parent. Gwyneth Paltrow famously used the term “conscious uncoupling” to describe her divorce from Chris Martin. Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck famously take their kids on family vacations together. “My ex and I took our daughter to Disney for her birthday because she wanted both of us to be there. While I had anxiety leading up to it and my friends thought we were crazy, we both put on a happy face so our daughter could have her birthday wish of all of us being there together,” recalls Rachel.
You Will Need to Realize Life May Never Be the Way You Thought it Would Be. Accepting this is the final step toward recovery in a divorce.
Feel free to reach out to Christina Garcia if you have questions about divorce or need recommendations for marriage counselors.