This column often focuses on how to keep marriage hot, but the truth is not all women are in relationships that will last. This time of year—January through March—is known as “divorce season” because it’s when most couples file for dissolution of marriage in court.
For women considering divorce, here are seven things to know about the process that most women don’t. It’s not a cheerful list, but knowing what to expect and taking control of what you can are keys to navigating through a difficult experience to happier times ahead.
1. There are different ways to divorce.
Getting a divorce doesn’t mean you both have to lawyer up and go at each other in court. Litigation is expensive and combative, but there are alternatives.
Northfield attorney and divorce mediator Rachel Moore says, “For most people, the right process is mediation or collaborative [divorce], because it is cost effective, it’s private, and it’s a system created to reach settlements in a positive way as opposed to just wearing you down. It’s an emotionally healthier process than sitting in a courtroom waiting for a judge who has no idea who you are to make a two-minute decision that’s going to affect the rest of you and your child’s lives.”
2. Divorce takes longer than you think.
Divorce isn’t just about ending a relationship; you have to deal with finances, wills, family, pets, community, home and work. Every decision has a legal, financial and emotional impact. Says Moore, “I tell clients [that] divorce is a marathon, not a sprint. Even if you have no kids and no property it still isn’t as fast as you think it’s going to be. Emotionally, it takes longer than people think it will.”
3. You shouldn’t always put the kids first.
Lorraine Murphy, Executive Director of The Lilac Tree in Evanston says, “One of the biggest mistakes women make in divorce is they make a lot of decisions based on their kids as opposed to themselves. This is the moment women really need to put themselves first.”
A mother may place a high priority on keeping the family home for the children, but if she can’t afford that big house in the long run, she should let it go. Luckily, the kids will adjust. “All the studies show if the parents are okay, especially the mothers, the kids will be fine,” says Murphy. “They’re much more adaptable than we give them credit for.”
4. Get ready to communicate.
Ironically, divorce forces couples to communicate. All the little implicit agreements in a marriage—she pays the bills, he takes care of the cars—need to be redefined. Moore says, “Whether [the marriage] was going well or not, you were coexisting. Now you need a new way to coexist. That takes more communication.
“Both people have to do new things that they never did when married,” she says. “In order to make all the decisions about financial issues and kid issues you have to communicate more. Or you can pay attorneys for three years to send nasty letters to each other. But at some point the attorneys are going to be out of your life and you’re still going to have to co-parent or run in the same circles.”
5. Divorce isn’t fair.
When it comes to divorce, nobody wins.
“This is not your L.A. Law moment where the judge is going to vindicate you. If the man is having an affair, the judge doesn’t care. It’s not relevant in the divorce case,” says Murphy. “ At The Lilac Tree we say ‘it takes two to get divorced.’ You both have to be willing to lose something in order to finish the divorce. And the sooner that everyone realizes that, the quicker you’ll get divorced.”
6. Support is essential.
Divorce is traumatic on many levels. Many women—whether they initiate the divorce or not—feel a great deal of guilt and shame about ending their marriage. A strong support system is essential.
“Divorce still has a stigma; it’s still a bit of a taboo,” says Murphy. “So when a woman goes through a divorce she can become very isolated. Not only is her life changing legally and financially, it is also changing socially.” The Lilac Tree, which offers women one-on-one consultations, group workshops and support groups, is a great place to start.
7. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
A woman going through divorce should remember that it doesn’t last forever, it doesn’t define her as a woman, and things really will get better. Knowing there are brighter days ahead can make a very difficult time a little easier.