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What Makes Divorces Go Bad?

If you are reading this article, you have probably decided that you are moving in the direction of getting divorced. Maybe the decision is yours, maybe it is your spouse's, or maybe your reached the decision mutually. The important certainty is that you are going to divorce, and that now, you and your spouse have some very important decisions and choices to make.

The choices concern the manner and process in which you will divorce. Will it be bitter or civilized? Will you have an intense litigated adversarial divorce, or will you have a cooperative, even amicable, divorce? Will you attempt to vindicate the past or will you use your resources to build your separate futures? Will your children suffer emotionally or will you minimize the impact on them? Will your divorce be a mess or will it be a transition to new and better lives for you both? In other words, will you choose a good or a bad divorce?

Many people will argue that you do not possess such choices. It's a matter of luck or chance they will tell you. They say to you that divorce causes so much bad feelings and anger that there is no way to keep it under control. It's just something that you have to survive and if you're lucky, you will not be too hurt to badly or for too long by it. On the other hand, it could ruin your life. However, healthy divorce or unhealthy divorce is not a matter of luck. The outcome is very much subject to the choices you are about to make. People, you are in complete control.

Your divorce does not have to be a disaster. Painful as it, successful divorce can help both of you to begin new lives that offer a second chance at future successful relationships. There will be new many relationships and new opportunities ahead. You can enhance these opportunities or you can demolish them. You can use your economic and emotional resources for the benefit of yourselves and your children or you can squander them in battles in which, ultimately, you all lose. You can help your children come out of this difficult period with two whole and effective parents or you can turn them into emotional cripples.

You will make these choices as a couple. Remember, until you are successfully divorced, you are still a couple. Legal ties make you a couple. Economic and emotional ties make you a couple. Do not believe that because there is anger and distrust or sadness that you are not emotionally connected. Fighting is often a way of staying together. Some people remain connected through fighting for years after a divorce.

You are about to begin the final task of the marriage: negotiating a decent and conclusive end of your relationship as husband and wife. How well you perform this task in large part will determine how the divorce turns out.

Divorce is a process, not an event. During the process of getting unmarried you can choose to treat yourselves with derision. The important thing about these choices is that you can only make them as a couple. Couples get divorced, not individuals. One of you can choose an unhealthy divorce; but only both of you can choose a healthy divorce.

If one of you engages in war, it is very difficult for the other not to counter. In divorce, few partners turn the other cheek. One of you may want an amicable divorce but may believe that the other is too angry or too vindictive to make it feasible. This is a particularly trying time because you are separated and single on one level, but still married and together on the other. In this time of confused and mixed signals, it is easy to offend each other.

You are neither clearly together nor clearly apart. If you were capable of immeasurable participation, you would probably stay married. But you are capable of confined cooperation, and this is enough to get divorced decently. It is this residual capacity that enables you to choose, as a couple, the manner in which to end your marriage.

Seemingly, it may be strange to talk about healthy divorce. Historically, divorce has been viewed as socially deviant behavior and therefore a bad thing. It is generally regarded as an unfortunate event that leads to negative results like broken homes. Social attitudes have altered substantially in the past twenty five years. Although few feel that divorce is desirable in itself, we are witnessing a wide-range reassessment of divorce, stemming partly from its pervasiveness. Half of all marriages that occur this year will end in divorce. About 80 percent of the people who get divorced will remarry within the next 5 years, and about 60 percent of the second marriages will end in divorce. This means that about half our population experiences one divorce, and about a quarter will live through two. At this time, divorce is no longer viewed as deviant behavior, it is slowly becoming the norm.

I will not debate the pertinence of the term healthy divorce. What I am talking about, and what I believe you as a couple can choose, is a divorce that achieves legitimate and constructive goals for yourselves and your children. A healthy divorce accomplishes three distinct objectives:

  • A legal divorce that ends the marriage within a reasonable time of the decision to divorce, without huge legal fees that drain the family's finances, and with a minimum of animosity and battling.
  • An economic divorce that separated the marital partners into two distinct economic units so that assets and income are fairly distributed and economic sacrifice equally shared.
  • An emotional divorce that allows both partners to grieve the end of the marriage so that each can move on to new relationships. Appropriately completed, the emotional divorce leaves the former partners capable of cooperating as parents, behaving decently and respectfully toward each other, and embarking on new relationships without destructive baggage from the previous marriage.

A healthy divorce requires completing all three of these objectives. Naturally, all three are interrelated and each step affects the others.

To work toward a healthy divorce, it is imperative that you understand the specifics that make divorces go bad. There are two related aspects of a divorce that are unhealthy. The first is the nature of the divorce process itself, and I will identify a few of the characteristics of the legal system that when combined with the behavior of divorcing spouses, produce hostile and bitter divorces. Second are the products of a unhealthy divorce, mainly the settlement agreements that are unfair and unworkable and the feelings of bitterness and injustice that emanate from them. When you have a settlement agreement that is complete, it is important that both of you feel and believe that it is fair. If this is not the case, it will be arduous at best for you to get on with your new and separate lives. Such feelings of abiding bitterness continue to interfere with readjustment, growth, and new relationships. Flawed settlements can bring you and your ex-spouse back into court again and again so that the continuing battle contaminates and ruins your attempts at putting you new life together.

From a statistical perspective, divorce is a disaster in America. Approximately half of all fathers default entirely on their child support obligations, while only a quarter pay their full obligation. Average visitation between divorced fathers and their children is less than once a month. Divorced women with children make up the fastest growing segment of Americans living below the poverty level. The statistics point to systematic shortcomings in the American approach to divorce and should serve as a warning to any divorcing couple. There is a true but terrible series of trade offs that occurs in the process of divorce in America: The mother loses the money and gets the children. The father gets more money, but for all practical purposes loses the kids and, one might argue, a large part of himself. The children lose at least one parent, and perhaps two, because the parent who is left is frequently too tired and worried to meet their needs. This is not the exception people, it is the norm.

The divorce disaster is a product of the feelings that escort divorce, anger and vengeance, along with the legal system itself, which is based on opposition, not cooperation. There is a terrible fit between the needs of the divorcing family and the American legal system, so before you allow yourself to become drawn into it, you need to understand how if functions and why it functions the way that it does.


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