Yesterday, an acquaintance who is an accountant with three kids and an upside down mortgage, called me with some questions about her pending divorce. She started the conversation saying "I have never done this before. I'm feeling so totally confused and overwhelmed." She explained that her divorce-virgin status left her feeling like she'd fallen into a giant sink hole before she had a chance to learn tactics for getting out of the mud. Recognizing she was missing critical pieces of information, this otherwise savvy and well-educated woman apologized for her lack of divorce knowledge. "No need to apologize," I told her. "I'm glad this is your first (and hopefully only) trip into the divorce maze. We can all agree that one divorce is enough for any sane person."
The outcome of her trip through the muddle of divorce hinges upon her ability to manage her expectations. In fact, expectation management may be the key to ensuring that she doesn't become one of the walking wounded whose clouded divorce reality keeps them from getting on with their lives. Here is what she (and you) can expect during your divorce:
1. Expect the courts to move in strange ways. Court TV shows are for entertainment and do not portray the realities, slow-pace and complexities of the system. The family courts rarely provide revenge. And, winning in the courtroom often means losing in the court of life. A high conflict divorce can be emotionally and financially devastating and make you unattractive to a healthier potential mate.
2. Expect that divorce will take you into uncharted waters where you will need extra support. Typically, our friends and relatives want to provide protection so they focus on the immediate pay-off, rather than the long-term big picture. Ultimately, their emotionally charged efforts, short-sightedness and lack of legal know-how may just fuel the fire, instead of helping you successfully move on. So accept their love and temper their well-meaning input by adding a divorce professional (coach, attorney, mediator) to your team.
3. Expect to enter a bizarre time warp. It's rare that partners reach a mutual decision to divorce. Typically, one partner makes this decision and the second spouse gets dragged along. (Let's call them the "dumper" and the "dumpee.") In any event, in most states, when one spouse says it's over, it is. There may be hoops to jump through but if someone wants out of a marriage (and tells the court that the marriage is irretrievably broken) the court will eventually dissolve the marriage. Of course, before a couple can be divorced parenting and financial decisions have to be made and paperwork must be prepared and filed with the court. To the dumper, this whole thing may feel like it's happening in slow motion. And, for the dumpee, it moves at the speed of light.
4. Expect to feel like you are at a disadvantage. Ironically, both spouses often feel like they are at a disadvantage. The spouse who is driving the divorce often feels like s/he is being held hostage as the courts crawl along and the spouse who wants the marriage to continue employs various stalling tactics. This becomes more and more frustrating and in the end the dumper may become ready to give anything just to get out. On the other hand, the dumpee often feels caught off guard and in need of catch up time. From the dumpee's perspective, the dumper has had time to plan and gather information while the dumpee is still trying to get over the initial shock.
5. Expect change and expect more of the same. Your social network and your standard of living are going to change. However, if you have children and an on-going connection to your ex, it is unlikely that divorce will end the negativity and issues that were present in your marriage.
6. Expect that dislike for your soon-to-be-ex will be difficult to conceal. However, while it may not be easy, it is important that you avoid sharing this dislike with your children. Even if you have no children you probably want to limit the processing of your resentment to your therapy sessions rather than hang out at the intersection of bitter and angry.
7. Expect a sense of failure (as to the failed relationship and the "wasted" years) and a sense of loss (of clarity, identity, connection and self-control). This roller coaster of emotions may provoke a knee-jerk-reaction that puts your children in the middle -- where they are used as weapons. Use meditation, exercise and healthy social outlets to avoid negative acting out.
8. Expect that your children will be impacted by your divorce. Divorce impacts children of all ages. Keep in mind that the impact your divorce has on your children will be related to the degree and duration of conflict and negativity -- before, during and after the divorce.
9. Expect that you'll make mistakes -- especially parenting and dating mistakes. Parenting alone may feel overwhelming and dating may push you back into a confusing second adolescence. Don't beat yourself up over your mistakes. Instead, learn from them so that you emerge from this divorce better, stronger and more aware.
Now you know what to expect.
Please feel free to send me your divorce questions.