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.

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