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The D word
Divorce is like a death, in a sense.
The death of your — however misguided — picture-book fantasy, the death of living under one roof — always — with your intact family, the death of “’til death do us part.”
When you’re a parent, the grieving process is open-ended. You can’t walk away. You can’t say goodbye.
You and your former spouse will be making plans for winter break, sitting in proximity at soccer games and picking open wounds left and right until you learn how to steel yourself and how to scar. And that’s just the tip of the massive emotional iceberg.
Divorce brings about logistical complications and adjustments as well. Financial restructuring, quasi-single parenthood, scheduling conflicts and new significant others are just a few of the hurdles on the horizon.
Oh, and you’ll be colliding with those obstacles while helping your children cope.
Divorce with kids — no matter how mindful, friendly, consciously uncoupling the parents are — is not for the faint of heart.
Parting ways as a couple
Yes, divorce is unfathomably difficult. But that’s not a good enough reason to stay together.
Though, of course, parents should try and try again to make the marriage work — staying together just for the sake of the children isn’t always the best bet. Because while kids do thrive in a stable, whole environment, they thrive best with happy parents. They learn about love from watching others and from feeling it in the home. Though divorce isn’t ideal, it can be superior to excessive fighting, resentment, disrespect, distance and disappointment.
And — incidentally — being the reason for two miserable parents to stay together is an incredibly heavy burden for a child to bear.
It’s really over. Now what?
Perhaps one of the greatest misconceptions about a couple going through a divorce is that “they didn’t try hard enough.”
On the contrary — a couple that’s faced so much adversity that there’s literally no other way but out has likely tried harder than the proverbial Joneses down the street. And then they made what was likely the most terrifying and painful decision of their lives.
Though the writing is usually on the wall for some time — years even — the ultimate decision to split brings a sudden chaos and panic.
How do we do this? Who stays? Who goes? What can we afford?
Jennifer McBride McNamara, a Burnsville mother of three, mental-health practitioner, divorce survivor and author of books about divorce, said parents should be skeptical of the advice that will inevitably come their way.
“By that, I mean that there are a lot of people who have a stake in your divorce besides just you, your partner and your kids. Some extended family members have a vested emotional interest. Those in the divorce industry certainly have a financial interest,” McBride McNamara said. “That isn’t to say that all motives are bad or greedy; it’s just that it’s helpful to always ask ‘why’ before taking advice.”
In other words — keep your eyes open, know your options and take your time — as long as time isn’t ticking away endless billable hours for your attorney or mediator.
How does it work?
Reeling emotionally, financially strained and scared of facing what, for many, is a worst nightmare, people often stumble into the process of divorce hastily, without exploring the options.
There are four basic ways to get a divorce. It’s recommended that you thoroughly research these options and weigh the pros and cons of each:
DIY: You literally sit down at the kitchen table and hash it out, filling out extensive legal paperwork on your own — not often recommended for people with children or significant assets. Though it will save you a bundle in legal fees, there’s a lot of opportunity for error and, perhaps, regrets. Sites such as divorceonline.com, divorcenet.com and completecase.com offer advice, state-specific legal forms and downloadable divorce kits.
MEDIATION: A neutral party, usually a lawyer or a financial advisor specializing in divorce, helps both parties come to an agreement. This can be done with or without lawyers representing the two sides.
It’s important to remember that the mediator’s goal is agreement — any agreement at all.
Mediators don’t offer legal advice.
COLLABORATIVE:This 25-year-old Minnesota-born method of divorce (now practiced by attorneys in all 50 states and overseas) is supposed to be driven by clients, not attorneys.
The goal is an outcome that’s best for the entire family and involves legal professionals, financial analysts and family therapists who are trained in the collaborative process.
All parties sign an agreement to resolve the divorce outside of court. (Learn more at collaborativelaw.org.)
LITIGATION: This means going to court to let a judge decide the terms of your divorce. It’s taxing on the family and notoriously expensive.
Both parties, plus family and friends, may end up testifying.
Most experts recommend mediation before trial to, at the very least, get as much ironed out as possible outside of court. (Learn more at mncourts.gov.)
What will it cost?
Divorce doesn’t produce any “winners.”
Separating one household into two virtually doubles all household expenses and can greatly reduce disposable income for all parties, regardless of the settlement.
And that’s not to mention the legal costs: The average cost of a contentious divorce in the U.S. ranges from $15,000 to $30,000, according to one Forbes article, which puts the costs of less contentious — mediated or collaborative divorces — at $5,000 to $6,000.
According to a nationwide divorce survey by Nolo, a legal-advice website, attorney fees average $250 per hour.
The more contentious a divorce is, the more the divorce will cost and the longer it will take to complete. (Most divorces, according to Nolo, take about 10 months.)
What matters most?
Going into divorce knowing your most important issues is a good idea.
“I think it is helpful for people to identify ‘hot spots,’” said Rachel Osband, an attorney at Southtown Law in Bloomington. “This allows us to better assess what process may be most beneficial and expeditious.”
There are a million decisions — and points of negotiation or conflict — child support, spousal support (alimony), parenting schedules and the division of assets and household goods.
But, ultimately, the most important thing is the emotional wellbeing of the children. Osband emphasized the following three points:
Put your kids first: Make sure they feel safe and secure and don’t make your fight their fight.
Work together: Explain the divorce. Focus on language that reinforces the love you have for them. Remind them that you are still family, always.
Respect your ex: As hard as this may be at times, kids will pick up on your attitude toward your ex.
You have to be the grown-ups. Making encouraging comments about your ex to your children will do wonders for their sense of confidence and security.
Love yourself, forgive yourself and forgive one another.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done. In emotional discord, you will say the wrong things to the kids now and then.
You will accidentally set off a fight with your ex. You will cry on the shoulder of the kindergarten teacher on your day to volunteer.
It’s OK. It’s all OK. You’re human. Be human. Be messy. Forgive yourself.
True forgiveness of your ex may take a lifetime, but bending in that direction is a goal with the result of a better emotional outcome for you and your kids.
In the meantime, just be easy on yourself. Practice self-care to an absurd degree. Find someone — anyone — who’s gone through a divorce.
There’s much to be learned from the stories of others and a level of understanding you can’t possibly reach with those who — frankly — just don’t know what it’s like.
Finally, hold your head high. Know yourself.
The D word can at first feel like a dirty little secret, a failure, expulsion from the club.
But the truth is, it happens. It happens to the best of us.
Jen Wittes is a freelance writer and mother of two who lives in St. Paul. Learn more about her work at jenwittes.com. Send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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