I have worked as a family law attorney for almost 20 years. I have learned that children are resilient, and divorce per se does not harm them. What does harm children is continued parental fighting, whether the marriage is intact, in the process of divorce or long-divorced.
If you and/or your spouse are contemplating divorce, ask yourselves, “What kind of divorce do I want?” There is a choice. A divorce does not have to mean a lengthy, expensive court battle where no one wins. My motto throughout my varied practice has come to be “Friendly divorce IS possible.”
This does not mean you have to like your soon-to-be-ex or be friends with each other following the divorce. It does mean that you treat one another respectfully during the divorce process so that you can parent your children together going forward. Do you want your children to dread all future family occasions (sporting events, graduations, weddings, grandchildren) because you and your spouse can’t be in the same room together? Ask anyone whose parents had a “messy” divorce about the problems it still causes them as adults.
What many couples fail to consider is that a divorce is not just a legal procedure. A divorce affects each member of the family emotionally and financially, as well. Would you ask your doctor for help on your taxes? No? Then why are you asking your lawyer for complicated financial advice or help with issues that are much better suited for a psychologist?
I tell my clients, “I am a very expensive therapist and I have no formal education or training in therapy or psychology.” Many clients call their attorneys in order to have the following conversation: “My ex is being a jerk. Please listen while I describe all the various ways.” These are not legal problems. Attorneys and the courts cannot solve these problems. Spend your money on a good psychologist, family therapist, child specialist, etc., that can give you practical advice to address these problems and help you move forward. Clients say, “But my ex doesn’t believe in/won’t go to a counselor.” Go on your own. You can’t force people to seek help, but the assistance you get on your own can help how you handle the other person’s behavior.
There are counselors who specialize in “divorce transition.” You can go with your spouse to learn how to deal with each other in your new roles as co-parents. This is not counseling to work on reconciliation, but to survive the divorce process in the best way possible for your family.
The same idea holds true for financial issues. I am sure there are attorneys out there specializing in family law who also have education and training in tax and finance. If your attorney does not have this background, you may find it more cost-efficient to work with a CPA trained in divorce finances. Structuring your divorce settlement a certain way can have significant long-term financial effects.
Here is what I would advise any parent thinking about divorce:
- Weigh your options before responding to a spouse’s request for a divorce. You can go to marriage (or divorce) counseling, find a mediator or hire a collaborative divorce practitioner. One of these alternatives may suit your situation better than the conventional divorce litigation process.
- Once you are sure of your decision, reach out to your children’s school counselor, pediatrician or teacher(s) before you move forward with any legal paperwork. Let them know what is going on at home so they can alert you if your child is struggling in any way.
- Don’t engage in a battle. Call a truce with your ex, even if your ex may not reciprocate. You can’t have a tug-of-war if one person drops the rope. Recognize that you both want to be good parents to your children, even if actions have shown otherwise in the past. Do not bad-mouth your ex to your children or within their hearing.
- Communication with an ex can be extremely difficult. Choose the method that offers the least opportunity for conflict (in person, telephone, text, email, etc.). If you are upset, wait until you cool down, or have a friend read and edit correspondence before it is sent. Speak/write as you would to a boss or co-worker. Anything you leave on voice mail or put in writing could later be shown to a judge. Limit the communication to information concerning the children; do not go into marital issues.
- Keep the kids out of it. Children of all ages will find the news of a divorce to be painful and confusing. Do not put them in the middle, express your frustration to them or share your marital problems with them. They will come out of it better if you do not share the details with them.
- Wait until a definite decision has been made by both parents before you tell your children. Let them know that they are not alone. Many families go through divorce. Maintain the child’s routine as much as possible. Reassure your child of your love and that the divorce is not your child’s fault. Do not blame either parent. Allow your child to love both parents freely.
- Learn as much as you can about the divorce process and its effect on children. Most courts in and around Kansas City require parents (and sometimes children) to take co-parenting classes when a divorce is filed. Take advantage of these classes; some will let you attend before a court action has begun.
Above all, do your best to be a loving, stable parent to your children.
Laura Miller McEachen is a part-time attorney and full-time mommy. She lives in Overland Park.
- Collaborative Divorce Professionals of Kansas City: CollabLawMo.com
- Collaborative Divorce by Pauline H. Tesler, M.A., J.D., and Peggy Thompson, Ph.D. (2006)
- The Good Divorce by Constance Ahrons (1998)
- Mom’s House, Dad’s House by Isolina Ricci, Ph.D.
- Putting Children First by JoAnne Pedro-Carroll (2010)
- Kansas Children’s Service League: Parent Helpline 1.800.332.67381.800.332.6738
- Parents Helping Parents Support Group 1.877.530.52751.877.530.5275