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Divorce is one of life’s most stressful experiences. In bad divorces acute stress can last for years and follow long the official divorce is over. It has serious implications for both mental health and all stress related illnesses and the stress can extend beyond the divorcing couple to injure their children as well. So it is reasonable to ask whether all this stress is necessary and whether there are steps that divorcing people can take that can reduce the stress associated with their divorces. The answer is an unqualified YES. Divorcing people can dramatically reduce divorce related stress by choosing the way they divorce with care and forethought.
Over the years, I have written several books on divorce and achieving a healthy, fair divorce for you and your spouse. My latest book is titled Negotiating the Good Divorce, How to Divorce with Grace, a Little Class, and a Lot of Common Sense, and I have decided to offer as a free download for you here on my website. For now, individual chapters are available in PDF format. Kindle and eBook versions are in the works. Continue reading
The next time you are in a restaurant look for the sad couple eating dinner in silence. They make little or no eye contact and have little or no conversation. They are completely disengaged and are simply enduring the meal until they can finish and leave. That is a couple on the verge of divorce. It may not happen soon and may not happen at all because there are couples who are held together by nothing but inertia and fear. But at least one or both of these unfortunates are thinking about divorce.
There are six signals of impending divorce.
1. No Conflict Resolution
The noted relationship and divorce researcher John Gottman has argued that it is not lack of communication that sinks a marriage but, rather, lack of effective conflict resolution. Couples who have not evolved a way to resolve differences without injury to the relationship end up avoiding disagreement and conflict. One or both has arrived at a point of despair that it is pointless to try to resolve a difference with his/her mate. It may be that one or both are simply conflict avoidant, or one or both may regard every conflict as a fight to be won by bullying the other into submission. What matters is that someone has given up. Differences are submerged resulting in a loss of respect, increasing distance and gradual withdrawal.
2. Emotional Disengagement
Emotional engagement is a minimum requirement for the development and maintenance of intimacy. Willing discussion of feelings, one’s own feelings and the other’s feelings are a part. Interest in the emotional life of the other and empathic engagement of each other’s emotional life all constitute the required elements for an intimate relationship.
Emotional disengagement is generally accompanied by the withdrawal of affection. If your wife has disengaged emotionally from you she probably doesn’t feel much love for you. Divorcing people commonly say they have fallen out of love. And depending on how sour the relationship has become one or both probably don’t like each other very much.
4. Lack of Sex
Sex both expresses and reinforces emotional connectedness. When a couple has not had sex in a long time it is usually a reliable indicator that emotional disengagement is advancing steadily. It is yet another indicator that the partners take no pleasure in each other and that the bonds are rapidly eroding if not already in a terminal state.
5. Increased Focus outside the Marriage
Empty marriages are boring. Some couples compensate by pouring themselves into their children so that child centered activity becomes the sole content of family life. Others pour themselves further into careers, working late every night so the time with the other is minimized. And as emotional satisfaction is sought exclusively outside the marriage the probability of an affair soars. The majority of affairs I see in my practice have started with a coworker who takes an interest and is fun to be with.
6. Preparation for a Single Life
I recall a couple I worked with many years ago in which the husband, as part of his planning for the coming divorce, took a second mortgage on the house to pay for a hair transplant to improve his dating prospects. Although a bit extreme, it is typical for the initiating spouse to begin preparing herself or himself by getting in shape, losing weight, attending to hair and wardrobe and other things to enhance appearance. And particularly with women who have stayed home, we often see a new interest in refreshing or acquiring a career to be less dependent on the earnings of the husband. We also often see the initiator taking up an activity such as tennis or golf without involving the other spouse and generally beginning to build a social network as a single rather than as a couple.
What to Do?
If you see yourself in this scenario your marriage is in trouble. I would not try to prognosticate about the precise tipping point beyond which a marriage is absolutely doomed, but I can say that these signals, or at least most of them, are present in almost every divorce I mediate. At a minimum it is time for a long and honest talk with your spouse. If you can’t have that talk without it deteriorating into blaming and recrimination, suggest an urgent session with a marriage counselor or family therapist. If you are heading for divorce, the sooner the two of you face the issue and plan for an amicable separation, the better your chances of achieving a good and non destructive divorce.
I am always available to answer any questions you have about North Carolina divorce law, custody issues, or separation and settlement agreements. You are under no obligation and remember: Divorce doesn’t have to be adversarial. You can achieve a good divorce. I can help.
Sam Margulies, Ph.D., J.D.
To understand the differences between good divorce and bad divorce requires a distinction between the two things: the fact of the divorce and the way of the divorce. The first refers to the losses that usually accompany the end of a marriage. There are inevitable dislocations as some or all of the family have to adapt to new homes, changed economic circumstances, new parent-child arrangements and all the feelings that come with major change, feelings of loss, anger, humiliation, failure, insecurity and fear for the future of oneself and one’s children. At its best, divorce is a painful and stressful experience for all whether done well or poorly. The second factor is the way or the how of divorce. This refers to the manner in which the couple gets divorced. Do they negotiate a settlement of child-related and financial issues that both regard as fair or is it a war of attrition to see who can bludgeon the other into submission? Do they retain the capacity for civil and cooperative communication around the children or do they forfeit this to bitterness and recrimination? Do they retain control over the negotiation process or do they give that control up to contending lawyers and the judicial system?
The fact that some couples have ugly divorces and others have decent divorces is not explained by chance alone. We know that there are steps that couples can take that dramatically reduce the level of conflict in divorce. And we know that reducing that level of conflict also reduces the impact of the divorce on both the couple and their children. For the past twenty years mental health counselors have been encouraging divorcing clients to use mediation rather than adversarial divorce as a way to negotiate settlement agreements. We know that most couples who mediate do so successfully. About 80% of those who try, succeed. We also know that those couples conclude their agreements in much less time, at far lower cost and have a much higher rate of compliance with agreements than do couples who settle their divorces through traditional methods.
In mediation the focus is on keeping the divorcing couple in control of the process. A mediator helps the couple to have discussions and negotiations that they are unable to have on their own because of the deteriorated state of their relationship. Issues related to parenting, support and division of property are all explored and resolved by the couple facilitated by the mediator. The role of lawyers is changed, in this system, from surrogates to advisors and consultants.
Contact me anytime you have any questions about North Carolina divorce law, custody issues, or separation and settlement agreements. You are under no obligation and it would be my pleasure to answer your questions.
- You can achieve a “good” divorce (sammargulies.com)
- How you manage the beginning shapes the entire divorce (sammargulies.com)
- Divorce Doesn’t Have to Mean Going Broke (sammargulies.com)
Because divorce is generally regarded as regrettable and socially undesirable, we tend to think of all divorce as bad and destructive. Certainly, most of us have known people who have had bad divorces. These are the ones in which couples do so much damage during the divorce that they are left unable to cooperate, still angry at each other and unable to adapt to post-divorce life because they are still destructively engaged with each other. For these unfortunate people the divorce has been a failure because neither is free of the other and they continue to interfere with each other’s contentment.
So is there such a thing as “good” divorce? As in any human endeavor there is a range of performance and a range of possible outcomes. Just as there is bad divorce characterized by mutual self defeat, there is also successful divorce in which a couple has successfully negotiated a post-divorce arrangement that leaves both partners as well a s their children able to adapt to their new lives. The key to understanding good or successful divorce is an understanding that almost all divorces (99%) are resolved prior to trial by a negotiated settlement agreement. The negotiation of the agreement, also called the settlement agreement or the divorce agreement, can be regarded as the final task of the marriage. A settlement agreement resolves all economic issues between the parties and describes their mutual rights and responsibilities as parents. It describes how their property is to be divided .and resolves issues of child support and spousal support. Done well, the settlement agreement becomes the economic blueprint for the family’s future. Done well, the document represents the genuine agreement of the partners so that both view it with a sense of justice and goodwill.
There are seven characteristics of a good divorce.
- Emotional closure for both partners. This means that there is no unfinished emotional business and they have both disengaged from the relationship and the conflict.
- A successful post-divorce social life. Each has achieved a place in the community, or has developed a network of friends. If they are interested in a new relationship, each has begun to date or has found a new mate.
- A sense of economic justice. Both have a sense that the settlement was fair. This does not mean that one or both does not feel strapped from time to time, but that the disparity between them is not glaring or dramatic and neither feels victimized by the other, or by the divorce process.
- Basic trust. This means that neither has demonized the other and gives the other the benefit of the doubt when disputes arise.
- Communication skills. They can communicate effectively, and their style is conducive to cooperative parenting.
- Mutual goodwill. Each can wish the other well and support the children in accepting, if not liking, the other’s new mate or lifestyle.
- Conflict resolution skills and a mediation clause. Both came out of the divorce process with a reasonable capacity to settle differences themselves, or with the occasional assistance of a mediator.
Although some may think that this notion of a good divorce is unrealistic or naïve, I think it is within reach of the majority of divorcing couples. Bitterness is not a necessary part of the process of divorce. Sadness, anger, fear of loss and loneliness are, perhaps, inevitable. But the bitterness that poisons post divorce communication is more often the product not of the decision to divorce, but of the adversarial process still used by most people to get divorced. When divorcing couples feel humiliated and terrorized by each other’s lawyers they invariably hold each other responsible for the things each other’s lawyers have said and done. That anger so poisons the relationship between the parties, that it precludes cordial communication and mutual trust.
Good divorce is more likely for those couples that keep their contact with divorce lawyers and the court system to a minimum. Couples who insist on maintaining control rather that surrendering control to an adversary system are those who have the best prognosis for successful divorce. They are the ones who manage their strong feelings and don’t allow their own acting out to sabotage their futures. They approach the tasks of the divorce with a firm resolve to treat each other respectfully and to solve problems as efficiently as possible. Some couples can do this themselves. Others will need the help of a mediator. But most couples, when informed about the alternatives, can negotiate fair and lasting settlements.
Call me anytime you have any questions about North Carolina divorce law, custody issues, or separation and settlement agreements. You are under no obligation and it would be my pleasure to answer your questions.
- Divorce Doesn’t Have to Mean Going Broke (sammargulies.com)