Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Divorce: A How To Guide

A friend of mine is in a bad marriage that makes her feel small, powerless, and angry.  She wants to get divorced, but she feels stuck: she's been a stay at home mom for years, there are elementary aged children involved, and she doesn't know how to get out.  This post is dedicated to her. 


I believe that I am having a very successful divorce.  My definition of success is this: even though my ex has not changed (he is not suddenly reliable, reasonable, etc.) in the divorce process, our interactions are more positive now than they were when we were divorced.  Our daughter is thriving.  I've pulled myself up by my bootstraps and I'm managing my finances.  Most of all - I'm happy.  So, well aware that it was difficult to get here, I'm sharing my lessons, the ones I learned the hard way, in the hope that they will help others to ease their journeys.

So - here's how I did it.  If you're stuck, like my friend, here's what I recommend you do.  It worked for me!

1.  Learn everything you can about creating a sane divorce.  My favorite book on the subject is The Good Divorce by Constance Ahrons.  Dr. Ahrons is clear that divorce is not good, but some divorces are better than others.  Her book is geared towards parents who wish to offer their children the best in a bad situation, and I think she is a calm voice in the often antagonistic world of divorce literature.  Want to learn how not to divorce?  Go to The Huffington Post's divorce section and read the comments for just about any post.  It appears that 99% of the people there are miserable about the state of humanity in general.  Listen to what they say, and decide to do the opposite of that!

2.  Get very, very, very clear about what you want.  I decided that I wanted to live in integrity and joy, and that every decision I made had to be based in those two things.  Yelling at my ex, for example, is neither full of integrity or joy.  Biting my tongue for the sake of our daughter does have integrity, and the resultant feelings it evokes in her give me joy.  You think this is easy?  Just try it - it's really, really hard.  But the rewards are worth it, and it does get easier over time.

3.  Learn how to communicate clearly, with healthy boundaries, and no attachment to your ex's response.  This means keeping your voice calm, stating your needs very clearly ("When you do not show up on time to pick up our daughter, it hurts her feelings and also inconveniences me.  Will you agree to be on time in the future?")  Do not lecture (say one sentence clearly, then stop) and do not worry about their angry response (I often hear "You never asked me!" or "Nobody told me that!" when he flakes out; this, despite the fact that I have proof in email - with his responses - that this is not the case.).  State your need clearly, then walk away.  Know that their response is about their relationship to the world - they yell because they hurt or are angry in general, not because you're a bad person.  Refuse to get sucked in to the drama.  Refuse to play the game with passive aggressive responses, withholding information, your own surly tone.  Be clear and reasonable.

4.  Live in total integrity.  Model to your ex how it is done.  Be gracious.  Make sure you reach out and inform him/her about details of your child's life.  Smile and exchange pleasantries.  Say nice things about your ex to the child/ren.  Show up on time, communicate clearly, do what you say you are going to do.  Give or receive appropriate child support, but do not ask for more than is reasonable, and don't forget to pay.  Absolutely refuse to be petty.  Do this for yourself if you can't do it for your ex.

5.  Teach your friends and family how to manage your divorce.  Refuse to ex-bash in public.  Tell your friends and family that they are welcome to keep your ex in their lives, and assure them that as the mother/father of your child, you do not want them to become outcasts.  Reach out to your inlaws and tell them that you are sorry it has come to this and that you will honor their son/daughter/brother/sister despite the marriage ending, and that you want them to be a part of your child's life.  Tell them that you will be flexible about family birthdays and such because you want your child/ren to keep in close contact with extended family.  CC: your ex on emails to teachers and doctors, and say directly "We're divorced but we like to work together for the sake of our child, so please include both of us" and smile as you say it.  Don't put others in an awkward position, and show them you can handle it.  It's good for you, trust me.

6.  Help your child/ren do nice things for your ex.  Buy birthday, Christmas, Mother's Day/Father's Day gifts or cards, or help them make gifts.  Do this with a smile on your face, and plan it in advance.  Be excited for your child/ren when they do something cool with your ex.  "Dad took you to your favorite restaurant?  Oh, that's great!  Did you get a milkshake, too?  Lucky girl, I know how much you enjoy that.  That was sure nice of Daddy."  Do this for your children because they deserve to show love for BOTH of their parents, but also do it for yourself, because it feels so good to see the relief and openness on your child's face when they realize it's still safe to love both of you.

7.  When your ex totally loses his/her cool with you, say, "I can see you are very upset.  When you want to talk calmly with me, I will welcome that conversation," and walk away.

8.  Get out there and live your joy.  You are getting divorced because your marriage made you miserable, so REFUSE TO BE MISERABLE.  This is your life, so go do something about it.  Get good sleep - it's incredible what a difference it makes.  Eat healthy food.  Get outdoors.  Move your body.  Reach out to friends.  Do some volunteer work (nothing will humble you more, and nothing will fill your soul more - this is particularly true when you feel like your own finances are in shambles and your own life is impossible - give to a cause you believe in with your time, include the kids if you like, and you will be amazed at how much you get from the experience and how it will pull you out of your icky mindset).  Go see some live music (or invite friends to create some together).  Make art, whether it's paper snowflakes or a grand sculpture.  Find a spiritual community (church, synagogue, meditation center, etc.) and get involved.  Join a sports team, a sewing circle, a bookclub, or whatever floats your boat that makes you feel alive and connected.  Notice something about my list?  Nothing on it costs money.  Stop using excuses as to why you aren't doing those things and how your life is too busy.  All of our lives are too busy, but we choose what to be busy with.  If you can't do the things that bring you joy, then ending your marriage isn't going to help you at all, it's just going to trade one set of misery for another.

9.  Take care of your physical self.  Wear the cute jeans, the t-shirt that fits well.  Get some exercise to get your blood moving.  Get a new haircut, or a pedicure, or some sexy underwear.  Step up the way you dress a bit (I've grown fond of wearing heels for the way they make me feel feminine).  A little attention - a door held open, a smile - from the opposite sex goes a long way on a bad day.  A little bounce in your step from knowing you look your best will do wonders for your mood.  Put in a bit of effort.  On days when you just can't gather the energy to put in the effort, do it anyway, because those are the days it helps the most.  Do not do this for anyone except yourself - you're not doing it to please others or to lure a new mate, you're doing it to feel good.  And you have to feel good to keep the courage up to get through this.

10.  Decide how much you are willing to give up to live your authentic life.  I have a friend who told me that the day she realized that if she had to move into her parents' basement with her kids it was still worth it was the day she realized she needed a divorce.  She is still happily living in her nice home with her kids (and she's divorced now), and never had to move, but her willingness to give it all up and to take a risk ultimately allowed her to move towards her best life.  What do you want more: the Nordstrom card or your independence?  The nice house, or a healthy life?  What's more important to you: modeling healthy behavior, or signing up your kids for ski school?  Make your decision and stick to it.  It will hurt.  But it will also pay off.

11.  Take a leap of faith.  If you know that your marriage is over, that you are utterly done, then end it.  I told my ex that our marriage was over when I hadn't worked a full time job in nine years, and we were broke, and I had no idea how to move my life forward.  I suggested living in the house (upstairs/downstairs) for 14 months, and we put a date on the calendar for him to move out.  We started telling people we were divorcing, and that I was going back to work.  It took me 10 months to figure out stable work (not without some ups and downs), and then the last 4 months I saved 100% of the income from my new job; he got half of it to move out, I got half of it to get my end of things together (buying some things to replace what he took, etc.).  I had some heart attacks along the way, I was so scared that I would never figure out my life, and I certainly imagined living in my parents' basement, or working in a minimum wage job (humbling because of my education and work history)...but it didn't come to that.  And having a date on the calendar sure lit a fire under me...I knew I *had* to figure it out, and so I did.  A little dose of fear is a big motivator!

12.  Remember that it gets better.  If your marriage is ugly, as mine was, then you're already living in a form of hell.  To get out, you have to trade one version of hell (the bad marriage) for another (the fear and uncertainty of change, financially and for the children)....but the difference is, this new version is temporary, and offers hope on the other side.  Divorce IS hard.  Sometimes it feels impossibly hard, actually.  There were days, weeks, and months when I thought I'd never make it, and from what I hear, that's pretty normal.  But the truth is that people make it all the time, that divorce is NOT the end of the world, and that you can come out on the other side filled with joie de vivre and hope, and that your children can thrive.  If you think that the change is hard, you're right....but staying in an unhealthy relationship is harder, if you ask me.

My finances are okay.  My daughter is well.  I love my job.  I have hope for the future, and the present is pretty damned good too.  If I was married, I don't think I'd be okay at all.  So, you tell me, which is harder?  I am so glad that I took that leap of faith, that I let my hope be bigger than my fear, and made the changes necessary to my happiness.  It's not perfect, there is still much work to be done....but I'm well on my way.

If you are struggling with the decision of how to leave, what questions do you have?

If you are divorced, what advice do you have to give to someone who is fearful of leaving even though the marriage is truly over?

I'd love to hear your responses.  Thanks for reading!


  1. Pollyanna, There are many good suggestions here. I'm not trying to rain on your parade, but frankly, in many respects you got lucky. So far.

    Nowhere on your list is lining up family and or friends, figuring out your financial worst case scenario (and assuming it will happen), imagining what losing your home will be like for you and for your children (not a given, but frequently a fact - if not in Year 1 after divorce, by Year 3 or 4).

    Factor in age, factor in the state (absolutely critical, as family law differs so much from state to state).

    And do not assume.

    Don't assume your ex will actually pay the child support. Don't assume your ex will actually improve in your relationship rather than worsen or disappear or simply be around enough to interfere.

    Factor in whether or not your ex (or planned ex) is thinking of moving out of state (collecting any monies due, legal actions, and custody / visitation can become a nightmare).

    And more than one child is a whole other ballgame from one child.

    I know the comments on Huff Post you speak of. I know them all too well; I'm often on the receiving end of those remarks and what I understand most is their origin in pain.

    I don't consider myself "miserable;" on the contrary.

    But some of us get lucky and some of us don't. If one party is out to be vindictive, unless you have a "friendly" state and plenty of support systems, you're in trouble - and potentially for the long haul.

    Children are impacted. And not only in Year 1 or Year 2 but in the years that follow as they see us becoming happier (yes, that's excellent!) or they see us alone and struggling and sometimes feel in some way responsible.

    My suggestion for your friend would be to identify what isn't working (if she hasn't already), and I don't mean that to be simplistic, and from there, to do her homework. REALLY do her homework.

    And factor in some of what I've mentioned above.

  2. BLW, you raise some important points.

    You said, "Nowhere on your list is lining up family and or friends, figuring out your financial worst case scenario (and assuming it will happen), imagining what losing your home will be like for you and for your children (not a given, but frequently a fact - if not in Year 1 after divorce, by Year 3 or 4)."

    I think I did allude to that although in nowhere enough detail. For me, when I realized that I might lose the house, that my parents' basement WAS an option, that was my financial worst case scenerio. Though I haven't hit my worst case scenerio, I still have Plan A, Plan B, Plan C all the way down to my parents' basement. I also recognize how lucky I am that I already have an incredible support system; I will never live on the street because there are a dozen people who would take me in.

    But I don't think I'm "lucky" in my divorce, except that there is no abuse. He is often angry, unresponsive, and unreliable; he has our daughter very little of the time. I fully expect child support to go away (my ex is unemployed again), and I worry it will be very soon (and I continue to have Budget A: he pays support and Budget B: I never get another dime from him). I am lucky to be employable and employed, lucky to have a great support system. But my plan for life success doesn't hinge on him: as long as he doesn't take my daughter away from me, I am bound and determined to make this life of mine beautiful.

    And yes, children are impacted, deeply, and that is the crux of it, or none of the rest would truly matter. I continue to believe that my actions can limit the negativity of that impact, and that my "joy and integrity" approach helps, but the truth is our daughter is deeply hurt by our bad marriage and subsequent divorce, and there is no way around that.

  3. I’ve seen how some people let their divorces define who they are for many months, even years, after the divorce was made final. There is life after divorce, and your tips are a great way to start making that life for any man or woman going through the ordeal. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I guess this blog is perfectly incomparable.
    Denver Divorce

  5. I agree with some of BigLittleWolf's points, but I still have to say that you are awesome, Pollyanna. The results of divorce and life after it are really entirely circumstantial. I also think that it hugely depends on the maturity of the parties involved. People will always talk, you'll definitely have financial problems and the legal issues, like child support, will always be there; however, it’s always the way you treat the situation and how you handle it that makes the difference.
    Christine Bradley