by Ann Gushurst, LLB
as printed in ColoradoBiz Magazine
Everyone knows someone whose divorce was the proverbial war of the ages. High conflict divorce is emotionally damaging, painfully expensive, and leaves both people worse for the experience and while no one goes into a divorce thinking “I want one of those”, this type of divorce happens. Frequently.
If you or someone you care about is about to go through the big “D”, there are some practical steps to take to minimize conflict in divorce and thus the chances that the experience will not be the worst (and most expensive) of your life.
First and foremost, behave yourself. Making unwarranted hand gestures to your soon-to-be-ex, or telling her just exactly how those few extra pounds have added to her attractiveness, are just not good ideas right now. A peaceful divorce requires mutual compromise, and people just don’t tend to be very compromising when they are angry.
Remember that fear and loss are the two most common emotions that drive unreasonable and positional behavior in divorces. Avoid taking steps that heighten your spouse’s sense of fear or loss. For example, closing the joint bank accounts, stopping deposits, and canceling credit cards, often signal World War III.
These types of steps are usually taken to ‘prevent’ the other spouse from hiding money or going on a spending spree. You may protect the money (in the short term, anyway) but this kind of unilateral action almost always has the predictable effect of the other spouse crying foul, retaliating in kind, and rushing out to hire the biggest giant-killer attorney they can find.
Probably the second worst way to announce a divorce is to have your spouse’s bankcard or credit card decline because their bank account/ credit card has been closed.
A much more reasonable approach is to sit down with your spouse to mutually decide how to handle bank accounts, income and credit cards, so that no one is disadvantaged. It is remarkable how such a simple act of mutual trust and respect can set you up for a reasonable approach at your divorce and, conversely, how the opposite approach can have the opposite effect.
If you truly cannot trust your spouse to be reasonable with money, a better approach to moving all the funds to your name only, is to take the amount of money you think you will need in the interim (think of moving costs, a couple of months of normal living expenses not covered by your income, and, possibly, a retainer for an attorney), leave the same amount in the joint account, and put the excess into a joint account that requires both signatures for access.
Many people find the courage to finally call it quits after they’ve found Mr./ Ms. Right. If this is you, my suggestion is to keep this new discovery to yourself for as long as possible. Do not introduce your new love to friends and family (especially not your children) unless you want to trigger the worst possible emotions and desire for revenge imaginable. Remember the phrase “hell hath no fury like that of a woman scorned” and repeat it to yourself (it applies also to men). It is an accurate observation.
The final thing you need to do is hire the right attorney. Attorneys can make a situation much better or much worse. Remember that minimizing conflict is not analogous to rolling over and giving away the farm, and most able attorneys can be effective advocates without being rude, confrontational or mean spirited. If you want an attorney who will minimize conflict, choose one who says they do that and remember you can always change attorneys if you are dissatisfied. Hint: if the attorney tells you, in your first meeting, how horrible your spouse is behaving, and how you can make them pay, you are not hiring an attorney who will minimize conflict.
Research suggests that divorce is one of the most emotionally painful events an adult goes through in a lifetime. Expect feelings of loss, anger, betrayal and fear on both sides. Take a deep breath and practice the golden rule. Tell your spouse you want a peaceful divorce and ask them to help make that possible. If they act badly, keep asking for peace, don’t take no for an answer, and don’t retaliate in kind. You only control yourself, and even if only one half the divorce is reasonable, that is a much better situation than a wholly unreasonable divorce.