I had always imagined that if the worst happened, my husband and I would have an easy, amicable divorce. After all, having practised family law for over twenty years, I was well aware of the pain and expense of an acrimonious split. I had assumed, slightly smugly perhaps, that we would do it well and with the minimum of fuss.
But, when your marriage breaks down and you come to the painful realisation that your spouse no longer has your back, that your interests are no longer aligned – even if you have children together – the divorce takes on a different complexion and you become aware that you don’t always have control. My emotions were running high, preventing me from thinking clearly. I felt overwhelmed and unable to focus, even with the benefit of legal training and knowledge. Any communication concerning my divorce remained firmly stuck at the bottom of my in-tray. The thought of dealing with the legalities and finances of my own divorce felt bizarrely difficult.
Two painful sessions of mediation made me realise that this wasn’t the way to go and that I needed my own divorce lawyer. “A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client,” was quoted to me on more than one occasion. My lawyer was worth every penny.
Two years down the line, the family house, which initially I wanted to hold on to, is about to be sold and the divorce is nearly complete. Having now experienced things from both sides of the coin, these are a few of my takeaways:
- You’re probably going to need a lawyer to fight your corner. When you’re going through a breakup or divorce, you need someone objective and dispassionate on your side. Chances are that over the years, you’ve consciously or unconsciously slipped into particular ways of communicating with and relating to your partner. This means you’re not necessarily equipped to argue for what’s in your best interests or even know what is and isn’t important. You may not feel strong enough to stand up for yourself at a time of emotional upheaval. Representation by an experienced lawyer will pay for itself many times over.
- Take early legal advice. And heed it! I’m hard pressed to think of many cases where delaying seeking legal advice is a good idea. The process of unravelling the life you have built together takes longer than you think. Your lawyer will have been through the process hundreds of times, whereas this is likely to be your first. Your lawyer will have a clear idea of the strategy and end game. Listen to her, even if she tells you it may not be realistic to hang onto the family house when you really want to. Ignoring advice could be costly. An experienced family lawyer will be pragmatic and know when to settle and when to go to court.
- Let your lawyer take the strain. There is so much to do and think about when you get divorced. Children may need extra support; your domestic arrangements will alter and the emotional upheaval can leave you feeling drained and unwilling to tackle important issues. An experienced lawyer can deal with the identification and valuation of matrimonial resources and negotiate an appropriate division and settlement. She can also advise you and negotiate on your behalf concerning the arrangements for the children. This leaves you freer to focus on dealing with the emotional fallout, taking care of yourself and the children and handling practicalities.
- Get support from a therapist if you need it. Divorce is one of the most traumatic life experiences which can floor the strongest. Many therapists consider that it’s tougher to cope with than a bereavement. Getting regular counselling can help you process difficult emotions and can be of immense value in helping you see things from a different perspective, for example if you get stuck in negotiations.
- Read Turn North at Divorce by Judy Kennedy. This brilliant book by a psychologist and life coach is one that I turned to in times of need. It helped me work through my grief and anger and get to a place where I could look forward to and ultimately be excited about my new life.