Life's Big Questions

How Can I Get a Good Divorce?

By Jennifer Huget
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Getting divorced isn't anyone's idea of a good time. But doing it right can set the stage for a happier life for you, your ex and your kids. Here are tips from five divorce experts -- three men, two women, four of them divorced themselves (two of them twice) -- for getting through it.

1. Face facts . . . : We're in peak divorce season, says Richard Mikesell, a clinical psychologist in the District and editor of "Integrating Family Therapy" (APA). "People put it off till after the holidays," he says. And sometimes "the holidays make it clear that 'this isn't working.' "

2. . . . But get a second opinion: Mikesell advises couples to first seek counsel with a "highly qualified clinical psychologist or family therapist."

"If you start with a divorce lawyer or divorce mediator, you're going to get a divorce. Before you amputate, go get an opinion from somebody who is not a surgeon." This may not save the marriage, he says, "but there might be a chance."

3. Set the tone: Belinda Rachman, a lawyer in Carlsbad, Calif., and principal of Divorce in a Day Mediation, says the parties should try to "keep the drama down, be rational and get through this as peacefully as possible." She suggests starting with a conversation like this: "Our marriage isn't working; I'm sorry, and it's sad. But we have kids and a job to do together for the next 10 or so years, and we have to make it comfortable for the children."

4. Take your time: Giving each other time to come to grips with the idea of divorce is crucial, advises Robert Emery, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and author of "The Truth About Children and Divorce" (Viking Adult). "If you're the one wanting out, you need to be patient," he says. "You've been thinking about this for a while. It will take time for your ex to get to that place."

Constance Ahrons, a professor emerita of sociology at the University of Southern California, agrees. "People often make bad decisions during times of high stress," says Ahrons, author of "We're Still Family: What Grown Children Have to Say About Their Parents' Divorce" (HarperCollins). Seeing a marriage counselor together, she suggests, can help couples figure out what has gone wrong and what might be salvaged.

Note: Recommendations for patience don't apply to cases involving domestic abuse. In such cases, "get out," says Ed Sherman, a California family law attorney and author of the forthcoming "Make Any Divorce Better.""Go away. Hide. Get a restraining order. Go to a place that specializes in domestic abuse counseling."

5. Opt out of court: All five experts generally agree that a professional mediator is a better choice for resolving your differences than a litigation-oriented lawyer -- with certain caveats, Mikesell adds, such as when there's a "huge power imbalance" between husband and wife. "The court system creates stress and drama by its very nature," Rachman says.

She suggests that couples visit a lawyer together for a one-hour consultation, "just to learn the rules, get the child-support guidelines, what the general property-division laws are in that state." Rachman advises working out child-custody and visitation arrangements with a mediator or a family therapist.

Sherman agrees: "Realize that the legal system is a place of fighting. You want to avoid fighting."

6. Keep kids out of it:"Children should not be set up as prizes," Rachman says. "Unless one parent is a terrible alcoholic or a pedophile, kids need to see both parents as much as possible." Rachman also cautions against using children to pass messages between parents. "Communicate through e-mails," she suggests, "not on the phone or in person when kids can overhear."

Emery says a parent's first job is to provide "a stable emotional environment" for kids. Most of all, he says, let kids be kids. "I tell kids all the time, 'Your job through all this is to be a kid, to do all the things a kid does.' "

Sherman says: "You have to show [kids] that problem-solving works. . . . So what if you're living in an apartment and not a mansion? You can be happy there."

7. Don't assume that, because there are no kids, this will be easy: Easier, maybe. Easy, no.

"There is absolutely no research on divorce in people with no kids," Ahrons says. "People don't take it as seriously when you're divorcing without children, so you may not get the same attention from friends or acknowledgment of the losses you're going through."

8. Confide with care:"Try not to bad-mouth your spouse to common friends or family," Ahrons says. "It puts them in the middle, and you're likely to regret things you said." If you need to vent, Ahrons advises, "save that for somebody who's not a mutual friend." On the flip side, Sherman suggests, "Do not take advice from friends and relatives. They don't know what they're talking about."

9. Get a grip: Emery says that divorce dredges up all kinds of emotions, from pain and grief to loneliness and fear, that easily morph into anger. It's important, he says, to "recognize your feelings and separate them from what you've got to do on a day-to-day basis." And although you're not likely, at first, to be friends with your ex, "work to have a businesslike relationship," Sherman says. "Make an agreement that you're not going to discuss personal stuff while discussing the business of divorce," he suggests, and set up a separate time to hash out the personal matters.

10. Be well: As your divorce proceeds, "take care of yourself in whatever ways you can," Ahrons suggests. "Be with close friends when you can. Find a safe haven where you can talk. Go to sleep earlier. Plan special treats: Get a massage or go to the movies. Watch your drinking and eating behavior." Finally, Ahrons says, "If you can't get out of feeling very depressed, lonely or angry, get professional help." Sherman adds: "The thing your child needs most is for you to be okay, to be well. You can't fool them." ¿

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