Getting a "reflexive divorce" will have negative repercussions for you and your kids for years afterward—even if you’ve contemplated it for a long time. What is a reflexive divorce? It's one where you and your spouse decide the marriage is over and you file papers to legally end the marriage.
If the marriage is over, of course you file papers, right? The marriage is over.
I know, but hear me out.
Your marriage likely didn’t start out being unhappy. It took you years of dashed expectations, thousands of frustrating misunderstandings, hundreds of inane power struggles in addition to a million hurtful words or deeds to get you to the point where you’ve “had it” and want to throw in the towel.
The average couple suffers for many years before making the difficult decision to divorce. Once the decision is made, the dissolution wheels are set in motion: Legal professionals are hired, petitions are filed and off you go into the divorce abyss.
The process can sometimes feel like it takes on a life of its own. At times, you may even feel like you're wrestling with a pig. Plowing through the finances, splitting of assets, making child custody arrangements and deciding who, if anyone, will be able to keep the house, must be done in order to get to the end goal: dissolving the marriage.
While few people feel “good” after a divorce, many experience relief (or at least they may feel less bad), than when they were feeling stuck in the requisite legal morass. Yet, when it comes to each person’s life post-divorce (including the kids’ lives), divorced families have to rebuild from ground zero. More times than not, one or both parties suffer from a greatly lowered standard of living—at least temporarily, if not longer.
The average length of time it takes couples to be granted a divorce after filing, according to Nolo.com, is 11 months.
I don’t know about you, but if I knew that my life was going to take a financial nosedive in a year (because my family life and foundation was going to be dismantled), I’d want to get a running head start and do something to increase the likelihood that I would land on my feet.
The Normal Order of Things in Divorce is The Wrong Order of Things
Normally, when a couple decides to call it quits, it goes like this:
1. Couple decides the marriage is over (or one person blows the family up so it’s over).
2. The couple hires divorce professionals (lawyers—collaborative or litigating—mediators, financial specialists, custody evaluators).
3. Couple files for divorce.
4. Couple takes months to divide up assets and create a custody plan.
5. Two individuals now try to figure out their future living on half of what they had with twice the amount of expenses. Kids bear the brunt of the split. Parents are stressed. Everything is hard for a long time.
In some cases, such as those where there is an extremely unhealthy or unsafe dynamic, an immediate exit is the only option. Staying another minute with the person who betrayed you, hurt you, or who is threatening you is simply not viable.
But, for the majority of couples on the brink of divorce, there is much more latitude to take your time and map it out.
In these cases, the course of dissolution events would look like this:
1. The couple decides marriage is over.
2. The couple maps out a five-year financial, parenting, and emotional "exit plan."
3. The couple takes steps to build reserves (a divorce savings account plus extra savings for each spouse), go back to school, sell assets, pay off debt.
4. The couple prepares children for life with parents living apart by spending time with kids separately, letting them know the nature of the relationship between Mom and Dad (or Dad & Dad/Mom & Mom) is changing but that they (the kids) will always be loved by both and that they (the family) will always be a family.
5. The couple meets all the goals set.
6. Once ready, the couple hires divorce professionals (lawyers—collaborative or litigating—mediators, financial specialists, custody evaluators.
7. The couple files for divorce.
8. The couple completes proceedings in a minimal amount of time (most states have a mandatory waiting period).
9. Two individuals land on their feet. Kids are happy. Parents are relieved and ready to move on.
Assessing Your Divorce Readiness
Take a look at these 10 questions and assess how prepared you are for divorce.
1. If your divorce were finalized next month (or in six months), would you be able to support yourself?
2. If your divorce were finalized next month (or in six months), would you be able to provide for yourself and your ex while living in two separate households?
3. If your divorce were finalized next month (or in six months), would your spouse be able to give you enough support to live on comfortably?
4. If you are currently working, are you in the job/career you want to be in?
5. If your divorce were finalized next month (or in six months), would you be in a position to make the job change you want to make, or get more education/training?
6. If you’re not currently working, could you go out and get the job of your dreams once your divorce was finalized?
7. Do you have more than $5,000 of unsecured debt?
8. Do you have sufficient savings (this amount is subjective and will vary based on where you live)?
9. Is your retirement account where you want it to be?
10. Are you emotionally prepared to be on your own as a single parent?
If you answered "no" to three or more of these questions, you are not ready to get a divorce—if you want to land on your feet, that is.
I/We Just Want to Move On
I understand that most couples will want to move on once they acknowledge that the marriage they once had is over. I understand that staying in the same home with your soon-to-be-ex may be hard or painful. I understand you will feel like your life is on hold until you are out on your own.
Yet, I've seen far too many people jump ship without a plan and suffer because they think they should be able to move on, but they can't until they rebuild. Because they have gone backward in terms of the level of functioning, the hill is a bit steeper than they anticipated.
Mapping out your future makes far more sense than blowing the family up and hoping things will fall into place.
Couples with kids can provide a soft landing for everyone by creating a plan, perhaps implementing what I call a Parenting Marriage (a way for parents to stay together and unite around the goal of keeping the kids stable), and by not letting emotions lead the way.
Far too many couples whose marriages have ended leave their well-being to fate—or worse, the legal system—rather than doing what they can to take charge of their future themselves.
Creating an exit plan is not for everyone, but it is a much better way to go for those who get along well enough, are good co-parents, and those who can delay their own gratification until they have a solid foundation underneath them.
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