For the family lawyer, there are two main spikes in the year when they receive calls from people in unhappy marriages: January and September. Or, in other words, after periods of unavoidable family time. With exam results dates looming over the course of the summer, this article looks at how to manage a failing marriage until the time is right to start divorce proceedings, through the lens of a someone who works on the front line of breakups.
As well as the conversations that start “I just can’t manage another Christmas with them”, “It was only a kiss at the office party” and “I wanted to throw them in the pool and catch the next flight home”, there are also the more hesitant conversations with clients that start “I don’t want to upset the children before Christmas”, “I have to keep the family stable until after the exam results are out” or “we can’t cancel Florida, do you have any idea how much Disneyland costs for a family of 4?”. These conversations develop into “How do I manage this marriage until the time is right for me to end it?”, and that is what this article is about.
You’d be hard pressed to find a family lawyer who advocates staying in an unhappy relationship. It is not healthy for either of the spouses or the children. There is a view that children are better with two happy parents who love them but who live apart, rather than two desperately unhappy parents who love them but stay in a hateful marriage purely for their sake.
Without doubt, where there is domestic violence, abuse (emotional, physical or sexual) or harassment, then you should never wait. Take immediate advice because you might need to ask the court for an injunction to protect you. And if you are in doubt about whether your situation is serious, because normalising the abuse is not uncommon, then speak to a family solicitor and get their thoughts.
But sometimes you need to manage the exit of a relationship and for a range of personal reasons, you might feel that you want to hang on for a while before starting the divorce conversation. What can you do in the meantime?
- First and foremost, start, rekindle or cement your existing support network. Confide in close friends; you are going to need them in the rocky times ahead. Your friends may not know that you are want their help or may not know what sort of help you need. Tell them. You don’t have to do this alone.
- Clear out the spare room, the attic, the garage, the wardrobes, the shed. It may sound silly but decluttering actually helps you think with clarity and not only can you vent your frustration about your spouse on the task in hand but you will have something positive to show for it afterwards.
- Find a counsellor and unburden yourself. There will come a time when your support network is not around or you feel you have leant on them enough (was that an eye roll from your oldest friend? Were you imagining it?) For many, having a counsellor can be like seeing a good friend but one that you don’t have to listen to their worries; they just listen to yours. Invaluable.
- Read up about how to break the news to your children. Speak to your counsellor if you have one. Children of different ages will absorb information differently and within your family you may need to understand alternative ways to portray the same information. If the divorce has a negative impact, it is helpful if you know the signs to watch for. Most children cope just fine but that is because of how their parents manage the transition from one big family unit to living under two roofs.
- Have a look at properties in your area or where you might move to. But be careful of your search history showing if you use the family iPad or computer.
- Use the time to make sure you know the passwords to all of your accounts. But beware, do not indulge in “self-help disclosure” by rummaging around your spouse’s financial papers or online accounts. No, no, no.
- Contact your IFA and see what your assets are worth. Begin to understand your financial position before you begin to think about a division of assets.
- And most importantly, take the advice of a specialist family solicitor. I can discuss the whole range of options with you from marriage counselling, mediation, separation and ultimately divorce. A few hours with a solicitor early on, educating you on your options, the costs, the time frame and a possible outcome can take away a huge mental strain. Fear of starting anything new comes from a lack of understanding, but with knowledge and support, you can make the right decisions. Building a rapport with your divorce solicitor is vital; there will be times when I have to phrase unpalatable advice to clients, but if I can have a rounded, holistic understanding of what makes that client tick, I can make sure the advice is taken in the best possible way.
So if you are biding your time before A-Level results, the start of term, that big presentation at work, the milestone birthday or “just the right time”, then use the days wisely by getting your ducks in a row. Make the time work in your favour and take control.