Getting Through Your Separation in One Piece

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Practice Areas: Divorce

Maybe you are stuck in the same house together, because money is tight. Perhaps you are trying to settle your case without having to go to court. You might be looking to avoid friction with your spouse for your children’s sake, or maybe you are simply trying to keep your blood pressure down while your case works its long way through the court. Whatever your situation might be and whatever your goals, your own perspective and conduct can make a tremendous difference both to your strategic situation and to the quality of your life. Below are some suggestions that might help you to avoid making an already bad situation worse, or – better still – might turn your experience into an opportunity for personal strength and growth. One way or another, you will get through this; what you choose, and how you behave toward your spouse, will have a large impact on how you get through it.

A Divorce Lawyer Deals with Divorce

I used to joke with clients that I was the opposite of the celibate priest who gives advice to marrying couples: I was the happily married divorce lawyer. Like the doctor who fails to imagine that he will ever become ill, I thought I was different, that my own marriage had a stronger foundation than those of the people who hired me. Surprise! It turned out that my wife and I had grown in different directions over the years. She decided that she wanted to move on even though I wanted to work on renewing our marriage, but the sad truth is that rebuilding any relationship only works when both people commit to it. She agreed to wait for a time, to examine her own feelings and to explore whether things really could be improved between us. Hope rose and crashed, rose and crashed some more, and finally she pulled the plug: she wanted to move out. I believe in good marriage, and I believe in working to make marriage good; but since that was no longer possible, I decided to try for “good divorce.” I am now happier and stronger for having managed it, and what I learned from the experience is what I offer to you, below.

This is Your Life, Happening Now

Denial will get you nowhere worth going. You might be facing cruelty or – even worse in its own way – apathy. The person you once loved and trusted above all others has become a stranger to you. Accept the truth that this is your new reality. Whether it should be happening, or whether you deserve it, has nothing to do with it. It is temptingly easy to try to turn away from such a painful truth, but the path toward a better life lies ahead of you, and never behind.

The Rules Have Changed

The casual interaction and intimacy of a functioning marriage is done. Accept it. Some of the old habits may linger for a while on both sides like echoes, but this is only temporary. Even if you never wanted this, even if your view of your spouse is much the same, even if you are still very much in love, you cannot change the truth that your spouse’s view has changed. That transition need not lead automatically to hatred and conflict – let us hope not! – but it does mean that taking things for granted is a luxury you can no longer afford. It only takes one person wanting “out” to bring a marriage to an end, and whether the reason is good, bad or a complete mystery, the reality of that ending is what you now must face. If your spouse is the one who is beginning the separation, you can only make things worse by becoming trapped into thoughts of your own ruined expectations, sense of betrayal and fear for the future. If you are the one who is beginning your separation, be honest with yourself about what your spouse has to deal with, and accept the negative consequences of your choice as well as the positive ones. If you have children together, recognize that your relationship is changing and not ending, and that your behavior and choices will have a major role to play in shaping the kind of relationship it will become.

What if We Try to Get Back Together

Sometimes, the prospect of separating can be a wake-up call that redirects a marriage toward a more solid foundation and renewed intimacy. But... do not depend on this. Even the best marriages have their challenges and obstacles, but sometimes when things are not right a spouse will already have moved on emotionally, by the time the separation actually occurs. It can seem unfair, but by the time your marriage has become difficult enough that one spouse is seriously considering separation, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge. Any prospect of restoring your marriage must be based on a shared commitment to work on it over the long term, along with an open-hearted acknowledgment of the problems that put the two of you where you are. When trying to renew your marriage, you are best advised to consider that successful and fulfilling marital relationships are based not on guilt, loneliness or fear, but on mutual respect, earned trust and commitment to shared goals. It is also a good idea to accept – really accept – the prospect of failure, and to give some thought to what you will do next if things do not work out the way you hope. Things will never be the same for you again, but that does not mean that they cannot be better, with or without your spouse.

Not My Fault and Not Your Fault but Our Fault

William Shakespeare wrote, “what’s past is prologue.” How you got stuck in quicksand is less important than how you will get out of it, and finger-pointing does not serve anyone, no matter how tempting it might be. Do not expect to succeed at convincing your spouse that you are right and your spouse is wrong, especially if it is true. Once in a great while people come to recognize the destructive nature of the things they do and will try to mend their ways or apologize, but more often they take the easy path; they tell themselves stories they can hide inside, about why what they did was not merely right, but necessary and righteous. The more extreme their conduct becomes, the more defensive they are likely to be and the more aggressive they will get when forced to face the truth. Even if your spouse does admit to feeling guilty over the end of your marriage, never presume too heavily on that or push too hard; guilt can turn into resentment, and resentment can turn into anger.

Take Steps Towards Healing

Anger and loneliness are mind-altering drugs. Being “under the influence” can steer you toward dangerous situations, or even destructive ones. The more you manage to heal and strengthen yourself over time, the easier it will become to deal with your spouse. You can find much of the emotional support you will need to help you move forward with your life, even the kind of support that we have been taught to expect only from a romantic partner. Becoming involved in a community organization is one good approach whether it is through religion, a craft or hobby program, a performing arts troupe, a fraternal organization, or some such; no matter what form it may take, it offers you the opportunity to become part of something bigger than yourself, and to participate in a community brought together by a common constructive purpose. Consider reconnecting with old friends and pieces of your life that you might have closed off or pushed away during your marriage. Participate in physical activities, particularly hands-on group activities such as sports and shared exercise programs. Consider how your food choices might reinforce or reflect your different moods. Personal psychological counseling, or participation in a support group, can give you the benefit of other people’s experiences and guidance from having endured times as difficult as yours. Take a moment to reflect on the people you know who have been through divorce, and take a hard look at their approach to life and the kind of lives they lead. Whatever you your choices, whatever you do, the key is to take deliberate steps to reclaim your own life meaningfully, so that the end of your marriage may ultimately become a source of strength for you. Although that may seem as far away as the Moon right now, keep reminding yourself that although healing takes time, it will happen if you let it.

Be Careful of Your Words and Actions

Truth unheard might as well be truth unspoken. All too often, distrustful spouses are ready to see only the worst of you, no matter how good your intentions, no matter hard you try, or how correct you might be. Spend some thought on how your spouse looks at you and at the situation, and also how what you say and do is likely to be viewed by your spouse. Your frustrated gesture can become a cocked fist in the eyes of your spouse; your expression of anger can become a threat of physical harm. Step lightly; you can stay respectful and courteous, and still be as firm as you have to be to make sure that you and your children are protected. Do not allow yourself to be easily offended; if your spouse is willing to speak reasonably, be sure that you are not the one who gives in to anger and starts a fight. At all times, act as if you will have to answer for everything you do and say in front of a judge who would not know you and your spouse from Adam and Eve, and who will see things based only on their appearance in the courtroom and not on what you may have intended.

Watch Out for the "Cheerleaders"

Your family and your friends – and perhaps a new romantic partner – want to help and support you in your challenging time, and often are glad to pile on the abuse about your spouse to show you that they are firmly on your side. Many of the people you talk to will transform into lawyers and fill your ears with horror stories about what will happen if you do not load for bear and then fire away without mercy. Bless them for being there for you, but never let their unquestioning support blind you to what happens when you fight just for the sake of fighting, driven by outrage or a need for vengeance. You may hear a friend or relative tell you, “I know you can’t tell that _________ the truth without getting into trouble, but I promise you, that _________ is going to hear a thing or two from me!” Thank them, but ask them firmly to back off and let you handle things yourself. This is a two-way street, after all, and your spouse probably has the same sort of cheering squad waiting in the wings. This situation should be about the two of you and your children, and everyone will be better off if it stays that way. Never surrender your own judgment in favor of someone else’s, lest you become an avatar for those who are spoiling to see a fight. Avoid escalation.

Grow a Thicker Skin

A stranger on the street could throw insults at you, only to watch you shrug them off with a sneer and a gesture. Your spouse, though, can give you that look – and though I may not know what it is, you certainly do! – and there you are, ready to crush boulders to powder with your own teeth. If your spouse is trying to push you into a fight, taking the bait is much like putting bullets in a gun that your spouse has already aimed at you. Choose to back off and take some verbal abuse as you withdraw, rather than getting dragged into a fight planned by someone who wants to gain power at your expense. Recognize a setup when you are invited into it, and avoid the trap. Allowing your negative emotions to do the driving for you, however tempting it might be, not only reinforces your spouse’s negative opinion of you but can also get you into tremendous trouble. You have no control over your spouse’s conduct, but you must control your own, especially if children are involved and the question has been raised of who is better able to exercise responsibility and personal restraint. Blaming your own bad conduct on your spouse’s bad conduct is a good way to get yourself tarred with the same brush you are trying to use.

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