We all approach New Year with a particular zest for renewal. After the year we have all endured in 2020, our aspirations for a better 2021 are even further energised. Eat better, exercise more, live well. Frame of mind matters. And for that reason, for many couples, this can be a good opportunity to reflect on their relationship. Perhaps this is the time to re-invest more in the two of you. If, however, you have reached the conclusion that it is time to move on from your marriage, then here are some tips to help you navigate this next life change well, amicably and with mutual respect.
As a divorce barrister and co-founder of The Divorce Surgery I see a lot of relationship breakdowns. There’s a real stigma surrounding divorce, and an assumption that it’s inevitably going to be acrimonious and horribly expensive. But it really doesn’t have to be.
‘Divorcing well’ is increasingly the key aim of couples facing separation. Celebrities such Glennon Doyle and Gwyneth Paltrow have helped to promote this. The film Marriage Story has also highlighted how the process of legal advice can drive couples further apart. But most couples want to navigate their divorce sensibly (and without breaking the bank).
Here are my five top tips for divorcing well:
1. Forget everything you think you know about Divorce
Divorce has a terrible reputation. Say the word, and I guarantee none of the associations you think of will be positive: conflict, acrimony, guilt, a long and painful process and disproportionate expense.
Now I want you to forget everything you think you know about divorce. 42% of marriages in the UK end in divorce. Research has consistently shown that high conflict relationship breakdowns cause harm to the children and adults involved. So lets stop harming ourselves. The way to divorce well is to approach divorce with the right mindset. This is a life change. It may not be one you have chosen. But it’s happening, so lets navigate it fairly and with dignity. Know that the only way to divorce well is to approach it together. If you want to avoid adversarial legal proceedings then you will need to agree to an outcome which is fair to both of you.
For many separating couples, having a mantra, or a mission statement, really helps. Yes we’re getting divorced, but we’re going to navigate it as a team. If you have children, your family remains, it’s just being re-shaped. Harry and I started The Divorce Surgery to give separating couples access to joint, impartial advice from one lawyer they both share. But as the business has grown and evolved, we realise that we do more than that. We give separating couples permission to be decent to each other, and we give them a narrative to tell their family, friends and the parents at the school gates: ‘We’re actually sharing a lawyer- it really is no drama- we’re working this out together.’
2. The first person you need to call is NOT a lawyer
Every separating couple needs legal advice, because these are huge decisions concerning your children and your finances. But don’t be fooled into thinking lawyers have all the skills you need. We don’t. A divorce is about so much more than the legal process. It’s a re-defining moment in your life. You need impartial emotional support so you can make long term decisions which are right for you and your family. Counsellors and divorce coaches can help you become ‘emotionally ready’ for a fraction of the cost of a lawyer. The only reason to rush to legal advice is if you feel your safety is at risk, or if there are serious issues about one partner hiding assets or jurisdictional complexities. But these scenarios only affect a very small minority of couples, thankfully.
Take financial advice. Empower yourselves with an understanding of your finances. What do you spend each month, how much is the mortgage, what is your house worth. This is information that many couples do not have at their fingertips, but will be helpful in building an understanding of your financial picture, which will be very relevant when it comes to getting legal advice.
When it feels right, choose a lawyer. But choose wisely. Ensure they share your values. Be wary of hourly rates, fixed fees are available. And if you and your ex want to share a lawyer and split the costs, you can.
Divorce often breeds mistrust. But that stems from a failure to talk to each other. In some ways, separation gives you the freedom to be honest, but often the emotional toll makes couples clam up. This can be exacerbated very quickly if you get into separate legal camps, speaking to your individual lawyers rather than each other. But at the end of the legal process the lawyers will go away, and you’ll be left alone to face the challenges ahead. If you have children, co-parenting is life-long. So get support early on to help you process the emotion – counsellors and life coaches can be fantastic, and use services which keep you talking, such as joint legal advice or mediation.
4. Choose the Divorce you want
Divorce may not be your choice, but the way you divorce can be. In my experience, most divorcing couples want, above all, to be fair, to themselves, their children and each other. Which is a great place to start because that’s how a Judge will look at it. Viewing divorce as a ‘battle’, in which you each pitch your case at its absolute highest in the hope one person will blink first, is out-dated, hugely stressful and disproportionately expensive.
Most couples do need legal advice as to what will be fair for them. We are all completely individual and unique, in the way we live, raise our children and manage our finances. Your neighbour’s divorce settlement will not be the right fit for you. A divorce, for most couples, is the biggest surrender of assets they make in their lifetimes. So get expert legal advice. But think about how you get it. At The Divorce Surgery, we advocate One Couple One Lawyer , where one barrister advises a couple together, impartially, about what a court would view as fair for them both, and their children, on divorce. For many couples, this is the injection of impartial legal advice they need to reach a fair deal, and at a fixed cost. There are other options too: mediation, instructing separate solicitors, using divorce coaches. And none of these are mutually exclusive- many couples hop from one to the other as and when it works for them.
5. Be hopeful
This is a fresh start. Look for joy. It’s natural to feel sad, guilty, bereft, and anxious but it’s also good to feel optimistic and free. Focus on the future and surround yourself with people and things which buoy you, and in time you will thrive.