Introduction to Divorce Preparation

Divorce has been called "death without a body." After the loss of a spouse through death, divorce ranks second as one of life’s most stressful events. Usually one spouse wants out and the other does not, so the divorce creates a leaver and a person left. While one spouse may take the other by surprise with an announcement that the marriage is over, usually the leaver goes through a long emotional separation before acting. The emotional separation, often unseen and unnoticed by the other spouse, often takes years. The announcement often blindsides the spouse who is left.

Sometimes, for a variety of reasons (often economic), the emotional separation goes no farther than a private divorce - a breakdown that leaves the couple going separate ways emotionally, leading separate lives, and often being married only in name. Sometimes separate bedrooms signal the end of efforts to make the marriage work. The private divorce just happens and few, if any spouses, really prepare for it. Sometimes, couples call this marital breakdown "an accommodation."

Today, however, when marriages die, most spouses end in form what has died in fact. They move on to the public divorce, and preparation for this entails facing the legal end of the legal marriage.

The private divorce is free and costs nothing; the public divorce, however, may cost a great deal. In it, the spouses decide the terms and conditions of dividing the marital estate, child custody and visitation, and spousal and child support.

Very often, even at its best, the public divorce becomes an ordeal - an uphill climb on a rutted road. Because "[d]ivorce evokes a whirlwind of emotions ... rage, betrayal, guilt, fear, shame, bitterness - an unbearable sadness," as one writer puts, both spouses find themselves struggling to make rational decisions under great emotional distress. Thus, they must negotiate the emotional ruts in the uphill climb and the road may twist and turn. Because divorce deranges many normal routines that stabilize everyday life, each needs a roadmap because the familiar signposts are not there anymore.

While the legal divorce happens as rapidly as 60 to 90 days after filing in many jurisdictions, couples very often face a long separation during which they must continue with mundane "daily activities, caring for children, going to work, doing the laundry, worrying about making ends meet and making decisions that will profoundly affect the future." In other words, divorcing people must struggle to be normal when the idea of normality seems a distant memory.

The public divorce dismantles an economic unit. Many divorcing couples do not understand that when a judge concerns himself with "conduct during the marriage," he usually means economic conduct, that is, honesty in disclosure of marital assets. Depending upon the jurisdiction and filing, bad behavior by one spouse, including adultery, may not enter into the consideration of the court at all.

Every divorce ends in a divorce decree, but the route to that point varies greatly depending upon the circumstances. For example, ending a "high conflict" marriage - one where one spouse fears domestic violence - requires very different steps than ending a "low conflict" marriage - one where unhappiness drives one or both spouses toward dissolution. Most divorces end low-conflict marriages, which means that the spouses can negotiate with each other, however painfully, so the preparation to end this marriages moves along a different route.

Probably many, if not most, spouses who start that uphill climb do not prepare for the trek, and a surprising number of couples come to the public divorce without any preparation. One spouse privately divorces the other, leaving emotionally without the other spouse even noticing, until one day he or she comes out with it: "I want a divorce." For example, many years ago one Pennsylvania woman launched her divorce at a marriage counseling session when her husband, a very reluctant and half hearted participant in efforts to save their marriage, announced with a straight face: "We don’t have any problems." It seems self evident that in marriage when one spouse believes there are problems, then there are problems, but her husband was so immersed in himself that this fact escaped him. That remark proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, but the wife announced her plans for divorce with no other preparation.

For some, divorce preparation begins when one spouse leaves (or moves out at the request of the other). For others, a long separation precedes any steps by either spouse to end the marriage. Probably, some people, moving from ambivalence to certainty, resist preparation out of the fear that doing so may make the divorce a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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