Are You Divorcing the Same Person You Married?

Unrealistic expectations of our partner in divorce can cause added stress.

It seems obvious. Of course I’m divorcing the man/woman I married. Who else would I be divorcing? But the trauma of divorce can often play tricks on us and frequently we adopt an irrational expectation that the person we have been in conflict with during the marriage will behave differently in divorce.

If you are married to someone who holds on tightly to the bank account and questions every expense, then don’t expect a generous spouse to show up asking how much more they can give. If you are married to the person who always puts their interests ahead of the children, then don’t expect the “mother or father of the year” to work with you to build a child-centric parenting plan.

Similarly, it would also be naïve to think that the bully will hire the gentle and kind lawyer who strives for equality in a settlement. It is more than likely that if you have a difficult spouse that they will hire someone to mirror their needs and wants. Don’t be surprised, or worse, devastated. 

If there are emotional stressors in the relationship, behavioral issues, hot buttons, triggers over specific issues, then expect that those will carry into the settlement discussion and that no professional will be able to fundamentally change who he/she is. It doesn’t make it OK, it doesn’t make it fair, but it absolutely confirms what you already know: This isn’t the person to whom you want to stay married. 

Sometimes spouses believe that since they put up with bad behavior during the marriage, they can now turn to the legal system to stop their spouse from getting away with it any longer. If a spouse is a bully, or a spendthrift, or too frugal with the kids, or an absentee parent, or a bit too creative with tax returns, or myriad other things, the legal system isn’t an authority figure who will step in and admonish your spouse and alter their behavior. This is the person you married, and now this is the person you are divorcing.

You lived by these terms during the marriage and you will live by them as you extract from the marriage. Then you can choose what terms to live by for the rest of your life.

The power you have is the history and intimate knowledge of this person and what is important to them. This gives you the opportunity to be smart, creative, and to structure a settlement that will be successful, even if it means leaving something on the table. Better that than to spend twice that on a futile effort to change someone when you already know who they are and how they think.

Some spouses absolutely need to know that they will receive a check every month for X years. Other spouses will refuse to give up one dollar of their earned retirement. And others will never agree to pay for children’s expenses that they deem unnecessary. While none of this may be legally defensible, right or fair, you know how they think so use this to your advantage and get creative. However, if you expect the system to fix it and reward you for living this way, it can lead to a protracted and expensive process, with no guarantee that you will get the result you want. We are lucky to have the right to legally extract ourselves from unhappy and often unhealthy situations. Don’t get caught in the illusion that this person will be different or that after living in an unfair marriage that he/she will now be fair, or worse, that the system will enforce fair.

Focus on acceptable terms and moving forward. Don’t try to use the settlement process to make-up for anything that you now realize you should never have put up with. You lived by these terms during the marriage and you will live by them as you extract from the marriage. Then you can choose what terms to live by for the rest of your life.

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