How to have a happy divorce

I know, I know, you came to this site because I write about how to have a happy marriage and not about how to have a happy divorce. Still, not all marriages can be saved. If yours is one of the ones that can’t, I still want you to find happiness. You deserve it. You don’t deserve to be mired in anger, resentment, fear and other types of negativity. You deserve better, and you can have it.

My good friend Brette Sember is a retired attorney and mediator who writes about divorce for the Huffington Post and many other outlets. I like to think of Brette as my twin in the divorce world because she doesn’t write about how to screw your ex (figuratively). She writes about how to get along with your ex so you both can coexist peacefully. She’s the author of the No-Fight Divorce Book, which teaches couples how to dissolve a marriage without the expensive cost of divorce lawyers. What follows is a Q&A interview with Brette. Tomorrow I’ll run an excerpt from the book.

Q: Many people stay together for the kids? I’m curious to hear your take on the pros and cons of that strategy.

A: I understand this impulse and I think it works for some people. However, I firmly believe it is unhealthy for a child to grow up in a home where there is intense and ongoing fighting or violence. This kind of environment has a deep and negative impact on children. My husband grew up in a home like this and it was very difficult for him. I think it is far better for children to have two happy parents in two separate homes than to have two miserable parents under one roof. Everyone has to evaluate their own situation and determine to what extent they can make the marriage work.

Q: Is it really possible to divorce and be civil? After all, couples are already in bad straights before they call it quits. How can they really split up the kids, pets, house, and 401-K without accidentally murdering one another in the process?

A: Yes, it is very possible and actually happens quite often. Every mediation I ever did was calm and civil. The problem with traditional litigated divorce is that it specifically pits the parties against each other and encourages dissent and negative emotions. In divorce mediation the parties sit down together with a mediator who helps them make decisions themselves about how to end the marriage. The process is all about finding solutions that work for your family and are fair to everyone. The mediator lays ground rules and sets the tone for the meetings, which are cooperative, tolerant, and flexible. It’s not about winning, proving your point, or proving bad things about the other person. Instead the idea is to craft a parenting plan that is best for the child and take the pot of assets and debts and carve it up in a way that makes sense and allows everyone to move forward in as financially stable a manner as possible. Of course there are bumps in the road and the couple does not immediately agree on everything – that’s why they are working with a mediator who is trained to help them navigate those tough points and can help them work through them to find agreement.

It’s important to note that mediation is not appropriate for couples with domestic violence or for people who are completely unable to be in the same room with the other party. It is also not acceptable when one party has an untreated substance abuse problem.

Q: What’s the difference between mediation and divorce court?

A: Mediation allows the couple to make all of the decisions about how their marriage will end themselves. They are the ones who best understand their bottom line, goals, children, living situation, and financial limitations. In divorce court they sit at a table while attorneys who know them each minimally presents an argument to a judge who doesn’t know them at all. The judge then decides how their entire lives will be organized from then out on out, sometimes without ever hearing either party speak at all. It’s like the difference between going to the store and doing your grocery shopping yourself as opposed to telling someone else you need groceries and having to live with what they buy for you. In the first case you make all the choices, understand completely what you chose and how you will use. In the second case you’re handed a bag filled with what someone else thinks you should use and you have to find a way to use it that probably does not meet your needs at all. Mediation gives you control on the outcome. Couples who mediate are much less likely to return to court, their children have better outcomes and do better in school, and they have a much more positive view about divorce in general.

Mediation is also much less expensive than litigated divorce where you pay two attorneys their trial rate (higher than their office rate) and end up having tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees. In mediation you pay one mediator and you can move the case along as quickly as you want to. Any delays are those you create.

Q: What are the benefits of figuring out how to communicate with each other post divorce? Especially if you are parents?

A: Mediation is important not only because it allows you to sit down and work through the issues in the divorce yourselves, but also because it teaches you negotiation and communication skills you are able to use moving forward. This is particularly crucial for parents because your parenting plan must change as your children age. What works for a four-year-old will not work for an eight-year-old. You must be able to change your plan and your schedule. You also have to be prepared to work through schedule changes due to school events, work schedules, and illness. Parents who enter the post-divorce period as combatants tend to continue to be combatants and often return again and again to court, arguing over every last schedule change. Parents who mediate and learn to make decisions in a cooperative manner are much better equipped to parent together moving forward. They learn how to solve the problems they face.

Q: What about when step parents enter the picture. How does biological mom learn how to be a good mom and civil ex in the face of step mom? Are there any special strategies?

A: Apply the same strategies you learned in mediation that you use with your ex. Listen, communicate, lay out a proposal, collaborate, and compromise. It’s often a good idea for a mom and step mom or a dad and step dad to get to know each other and realize that they both care for the child and want what’s best for him or her. This commonality of purpose unites them and allows them to move forward. It’s also important to remove the filter of the ex between them which often leads to a lot of miscommunication. Create your own relationship with the stepparent and have your own lines of communication. It is usually very useful if everyone can lay their cards on the table and say the stepparent is not going to replace the parent, because that is usually the issue the bio parent is stressing about.  If you can’t make it work, mediation can help you find a way. It’s likely that one or two mediation sessions can help everyone create a working relationship that focuses on benefiting the child.

Visit Brette’s website to learn more about the No Fight Divorce Book. You can also read her interview with me.

20 comments… add one

  • Drummer Guy September 27, 2011, 9:11 am

    Great post Alisa,

    I am living proof that a civil divorce is VERY possible. I had one when my first marriage ended & we are friends to this day. It takes two people being MATURE enough to put aside past hurts. We have to realize that for all the spouses faults we have plenty ourselves.

    Even my situation now is actually working out quite well. It was a BIG adjustment for a couple of weeks for both of us but is running pretty smooth. It wasn’t that terribly difficult because we have basically lived as roommates for years already. Though I doubt many people could pull this off.

    We never were ones to fight & argue so it was made easier for that reason. I am still here because I can’t just abandon a friend with medical needs & cant live totally independent no matter what she did & she did a lot. That would be true however whether it was my STBX or any other friend. There are also some HUGE financial advantages for this arraingement. We also cant even file for some time to come. But we have decided that when that time does come we will have everything worked out (division of assets etc) worked out before we ever file.

    So yes Alisa there is a Santa Clause… I so often see couples that have the mindset of I will make him/her pay for what they did & tragically it is usually the kids who suffer because of it. Then when step parents enter the picture it gets MUCH worse. I recently however met a woman who had a wonderful attitude toward this. She sad “How can another person loving my child be a bad thing?” What a wonderful attitude

    You ROCK Alisa
    Ron :-)

  • Alexandra September 27, 2011, 9:16 am

    So many great points in this post! That sounds like an excellent book for anyone contemplating divorce. For me, it’s too late. I got a divorce 20 years ago, in France. The point about communication afterwards was impossible with my ex because he would hang up on me if I ever called to discuss our children, who were grown up by then. (Probably there were a lot of cultural factors at work in our case.) I don’t think you get over someone you have loved but find you cannot live with. For instance, today my ex had a knee replacement. I was fortunate that my kids told me about it. I sent him an email to say I hoped the operation went well. He sent me back one word, well, two: “Thank you.” I suppose I should look upon that as a beginning towards better relations. I am very aware that his intransigence and my fear of his not being friendly still hurts our children.

  • Joanne September 27, 2011, 10:00 am

    I think the initial ending can be quite contentious and painful but with my husband I consistently took the high road and it has paid off in spades. I spent alot of years trying to fix the marriage but when I finally admitted to myself it was over all the angst left as well. Now we are very good friends, in part because he stays on his meds, but also because we truly like each other and want the best for each other. Our divorce was in the end amicable, we even used the same lawyer. He has totally accepted my new lifestyle and is even friends with my new partner. Because he has psychological issues he will always be somewhat a part of my life so I know where you come from Ron, I took my vows seriously too but we are happier and healthier this way.

  • Claudine M Jalajas September 27, 2011, 11:43 am

    My parents had a very civil divorce. It was a bit confusing for me when I was young because I didn’t know why they were divorced. They get along great–why can’t we be together? We actually had my father and stepmother over for dinner many times. But my parents had their reasons and it was nice not to have parents screaming at each other all the time. I’ve seen other couples and it’s downright brutal. When I see it, and what it does to their kids, I cannot imagine why they can’t get OVER themselves and act like adults.

  • sheryl September 27, 2011, 12:06 pm

    This is a must- have book for everyone going through a divorce. I’ve seen circumstances where it turns so, so ugly. How unnecessary that seems when there are sensible solutions Brette so aptly describes.

  • ruth pennebaker September 27, 2011, 4:03 pm

    This is such excellent, reasonable advice. Divorce happens — and it’s so much better to be civil about it.

  • Living Large in our Little House September 27, 2011, 7:54 pm

    I really didn’t know how well mediation worked for some people until I read some of Brette’s writing on the subject. Good interview!

  • StephanieB September 27, 2011, 10:28 pm

    This sounds similar to my husbands parents. I was always stunned by their relationship post divorce. They are friends and seems to communicate and work things out really well. It definitely changed my viewpoint of what a post divorce relationship could look like.

  • Jeanine Barone September 29, 2011, 9:43 pm

    Just the other day I was having a discussion with someone who I know is staying with his wife because of the kids. And I firmly believe that, as Brette stated, that kids are happier in a happy home, whether it’s with one parent or two. I had parents that fought for all the time I lived in the house and I had always wanted my dad to divorce my mom. He didn’t because he thought it was better for us to have two parents.

  • Rollercoasterider September 30, 2011, 9:31 am

    People often do not stay together for the kids, citing “kids will be happier in a happy home.” As a generalization that is false. It is better for the kids if the parents stay together if the marriage is low-conflict and they are better off if the parents split if the marriag is high-conflict. Now how the subjective division from low to high is, I don’t know.

    But my question is how does mediation work–or can it–when there is a spouse who not only did not want a divorce but does not want a divorce and is Standing for the marriage? 80% of divorces are unilateral–one person did nto want a divorce. But of those, most probably do not become Stadners either because thye cange their mind, they don’t want to be disagreeable, they think it’s hopeless or pointless, they don’t know they can or they don’t know how.

    Standers in particular do not want to be contentious since their hope is for reconciliation. But the dilemma they fal into is that mediation works against their main goal. How do they balance that tightrope of opposition?

  • Kristen September 30, 2011, 1:19 pm

    I’m wondering how the social media part of a civil divorce figures in to all of this. I know it’s been tough for my friends who’ve divorced to know when to change their ‘status’ on Facebook and some use it to communicate with their ex-spouse but not always privately. So many complex concerns.

  • Kimberly Decker October 13, 2011, 9:15 am

    This is an excellent post! I would like to use this information (with proper credit and reference to the publication) as a resource on my mediation website. Would you permit this use?

  • Alisha October 16, 2011, 6:07 pm

    I believe mediation is fantastic. As a teacher, I find that parents are often so worried that the child (or children) will suffer more in two homes, but this is so rarely the case. Children thrive when BOTH parents are happy, and if that needs to happen in two different house, so be it. Staying together for the children is the #1 mistake when reconsidering separation.

  • Amy October 16, 2011, 6:15 pm

    Good job on taking the high road! I think admitting that it’s over is the hardest part, but HOLDING ONTO it for the wrong reasons can be even harder. People grow apart and people shouldn’t punish themselves by staying for whtever reasons they think are good ones. I don’t believe there really are good ones, because hope just isn’t enough.

  • Graham October 31, 2011, 9:46 pm

    Divorce blows….but it happens. Stay strong to who you are and who you want to be! It’s too easy to get lost in the mayhem of disputes. Before you know it, you could be yelling about pots and pans. If you can’t trust yourself to remain calm, hire a third party to aid in your sanity. You’ll be grateful you did.

    FYI, there are always new pots and pans….I had to buy some :-)

  • Sunny April 13, 2012, 4:31 pm

    I am in the middle of a speration that will lead to divorce when the six months are up, Everyones post have helped me so much, I do not have chilldren so that will not be an issue but its hard to imagin after having some one in my life for ten years and then not at all, my husbend and I have decided to try and remain friends we do love each other but we want compleatly differnt things and after two years of trying to change for one another we find our selfs just not happy any more. I have chosen to move to another state to be with my family so I am hoping the seperation will help, only because We have seperated twice before and I always came back to what i know and what is comfortable with me, even if you are not happy the unknown can be mortifying so I feel people will stay in an unahppy inviorment because they are use to it, I know that was the case with me Till God woke me up one day and said he had big plans for me. sorry about the rant but its nice to talk to people who know what your going through, so heres to happy divorces!

  • family law August 4, 2014, 11:15 am

    Excellent job on acquiring the higher highway! I believe acknowledging in which it’s over is the most difficult portion, however KEEPING the item for the completely wrong motives may be possibly harder. Persons develop apart and the wonderful shouldn’t penalize them selves simply by keeping with regard to whtever motives they will think are usually beneficial versions. When i don’t think there are beneficial versions, simply because trust simply isn’t enough.
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  • Tee November 14, 2014, 6:36 pm

    It feels so good and refreshing to hear all these wonderful comments. I am a 35 year old woman with two beautiful kids. My husband of 7 years told me one morning that the marriage was over. Although i have known 5 years into the marriage that something was missing. He traveled very often overseas on countless business trips and never spends any quality time with me or his kids even the few days in the year that he is home.
    I kept trying to talk to him about the importance of couples spending time together but he was never interested. I began to find out on numerous occasions when he travels he pretends to be a single man without a wife and kids he takes off his wedding ring to further perpetuate his escapades. It was very hurtful and each time i tried to calmly discuss all these with him he always has excuses to give.
    Eventually he packed up and left the marriage saying he was too young to be tied down to a family and he had a lot to accomplish and feels he will do so only if he is single. I know he has moved on with another woman and has probably being living a double life for a while now. I tried to be civil with him because of the kids he is yet to respond in a civil manner.I have decide to take the high road as regards his attitude and make something good for myself and my kids. I moved home to be with my family who have been extremely supportive, helping me get back on my feet. I am back in school trying to achieve all my dreams i put on hold for him. It is tough but i refuse to let the end of my marriage affect and define me.

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  • Gorospe March 27, 2016, 3:27 pm

    My parents had a civil divorce and they were both, for the most part, well behaved. When dad remarried however, the second divorce was pure hell due to the stepmother being quite the psychopath… It can go both ways. It is important to make the effort to be calm and cool to get through the process without all the added trauma. Thanks for sharing!
    Gorospe´s last blog post ..Coping with Divorce


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