Yvonne married her husband, twelve years her senior, when she was in her mid-20s and they separated after twenty four years of marriage with three children either at or just emerging from university. Each had a demanding career in medicine but there was uncertainty as to future earnings.
Reaching the decision to divorce:
Time. It’s not about how many weeks before you go to Court or get your Decree Nisi. It’s about how you figure out how to end this phase of your life. The decision to initiate the divorce proceedings took several years in my case from the first time I went to see my lawyer to discuss action (Spring 2005) to the time I instructed him to proceed (February 2008). It was also multilayered. Not something I had expected. The lawyer does not know how long it will take you to reach the divorce. All he can tell you is how many weeks each step of the divorce proceedings will at least take. The lawyer does not know what stage of the decision process you are at. Possibly you don’t know either. So don’t expect to dance swiftly to the end date. It might take longer.
To proceed with the divorce you will need help not just from a lawyer. Therapy can be very valuable:
The first time I went to see my lawyer I was very angry at what was happening to me, knew instinctively and emotionally I wanted a divorce, but had not worked it out rationally in my head, and had not resolved all the guilt feelings that come from taking the decision to end or change the life of a family.
After the initial meeting with my lawyer I went through a process of trying harder at saving my marriage, but gradually realised I was the only one in the couple making the effort, and so ended up realising I had to go through with the divorce to get on with my life and end the pain associated with that marriage. But I could not do it yet.
I needed therapy to a) eliminate the feeling of guilt and b) find a way to deal with the fear of ‘what would happen’ when I told my husband I wanted a divorce. The therapy was excellent at dealing with these two issues and enabled me to initiate the divorce proceedings. Interestingly I had never previously thought I would need therapy, nor that therapy might be beneficial in dealing with some of my problems. I continued with the therapy throughout the divorce. In the end it made the journey easier than it would have otherwise been, and most importantly it made me a stronger person, giving me important tools that I continue using in my everyday life.
And no, talking to a friend is not the same. Your friend is biased, can’t control his or her feelings, and will judge your behaviour or you will feel judged. The therapist is a professional, does not judge, and is not biased. Also you can’t burden your friend with your problems all the time, most likely you will upset the relationship with your friend by using him/her as a therapist. You, on the other hand, are not a burden for your therapist. You are his/her paying client.
Don’t worry if you change your mind. It’s your life, no one can judge your decisions:
As I mentioned earlier, after the initial meeting with my lawyer in 2005 I decided to have another go at making my marriage work. This made me feel very awkward and I could not really communicate to the lawyer what I was trying to do because of ‘quasi shame’. I had let him see me in tears, in a very bad shape, I had revealed to him the worst bits of my marriage, told him I wanted out and now there I was considering that all that hell I had described to him did not exist and that I was pretending that I could have a happy life again with my husband. Somehow that first meeting had sealed an image, a snapshot of my life which was ‘the reality’. I had let the lawyer see it. But I had this dream of winning the reality and making my marriage work. Deep inside me I knew this attempt would fail, that it was an illusion and I felt stupid, a cheat when I thought of communicating with the lawyer again to tell him that I had put my divorce intention on hold. So I did a bit of an ostrich act, and only had the guts to see him again after I had initiated therapy and solved some of the issues that could have made me falter again. In retrospect that was a silly preoccupation as no one has a right to judge what you decide to do with your life, but nevertheless this preoccupation came at a time when I could have done without it.
Follow your lawyer’s advice. He is an experienced negotiator, you are not:
There are broadly two types of clients for a divorce lawyer. Client type 1 who wants to get as much as possible (in my case my husband who felt entitled to it all). Client type 2 who feels bad even asking for what the law stipulates, because she hates fighting, or because she thinks she could live with less, or because she feels that morally she shouldn’t….. Don’t be type 1, you most likely will be spending a lot of money in lawyers fees and will not get a penny more than what the law stipulates. Don’t be type 2, you will start your negotiations from a low point, your opponent will realise this and bring the final equilibrium to an even lower point. You will end up with less than what you generously were prepared to accept. Lawyers know this. They will push you to ask for more for the sake of negotiation. Also, follow all instructions about how to behave, how to communicate, etc. you are paying for this very good advice. Don’t waste it.
Choose a very experienced lawyer. Take time to describe your opponent to the lawyer:
My lawyer was excellent. I initially thought all he would be interested in would be the financial aspect of the divorce and I went to see him holding a bunch of bank statements, payslips, etc. He thanked me but did not look very interested and asked me to talk about why I wanted a divorce, and a bit about my husband. He then helped me to understand how to deal with the man who had so far been my husband and who had just become my opponent. He gave me very important and useful advice which helped me face my opponent during the divorce. This lawyer was very experienced. His advice was spot on. By identifying my husband’s character he gave me the tools to face even the toughest challenges.
The low point comes afterwards. You might have achieved your objectives in terms of the divorce, but your opponent will reappear in your life especially if you have children:
The divorce is only the beginning. Not the end of the story, especially if you have children. Your husband becomes your opponent, then your ex-husband, but will always be the father of your children. You will both have happy occasions to attend: university degree celebrations, weddings, maybe grandchildren. There will be times when you are both needed for sad reasons, illnesses, accidents, emergencies. In an ideal world you want to keep a friendly relationship to continue to be good parents. In my case sadly all communication broke down, because my opponent was angry at what the law entitled me to on a financial level, and he ‘punished me’ by no longer speaking to me. He actually punished our children. Photos at university degrees had to be taken separately, creating an ugly feeling for the child on what should have been his happy day. Illnesses of children were not dealt with appropriately. There were even times when trying to spite me he put his child’s health at risk. Ok, maybe it’s an extreme case, but there are degrees of conflict that can affect your life and that of your children even after you obtain a divorce. So, keep in mind that life after the divorce exists, and not necessarily in the shape of an American TV movie.
I did the right thing for myself:
This is easy to say. The value I give to the absence of pain, humiliation, derision, cheating, loneliness etc is enormous. I am now in charge of my life, and I don’t have to put up with the unhappiness deriving from an unhappy marriage. It’s very simple. Even if the divorce results in a less financially rich life, it gives you back non-financial assets which you had been deprived of by living in an unhappy relationship. There might be people who fear a divorce because they think the end of the couple might equate solitude. But solitude is easier to live with than the loneliness in the unhappy couple.
What would I do differently?
Nothing really. I think I did the best I could within the legal and social norms. Yes, there were times when I fantasised to end the pain from the bad relationship in a different way. But they were fantasies. I never screamed, broke a plate, slammed a door. So, no, I did it well, I was lucky I had an excellent lawyer and a fantastic therapist, they helped me do it right in a composed and dignified way. They were particularly useful in making me manage the relationship with the children during the divorce in a way that although hard an emotionally illogical at the time (the ‘don’t fight your battles through the children’ thing) proved itself a winning strategy in the long term, for both me and the children. They also helped me grow stronger through the stress and hardship of that period of my life. Without them I wouldn’t be where I am, who I am today.