The Next Chapter

Divorce Resources for Women

Life after Divorce

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When the Fight Continues

For many of our clients, receipt of the divorce decree closes the door on an unpleasant chapter in their lives. But for many others, the disputes and disagreements continue for years to come. If there are children involved, particularly, you need to recognize that you will, of necessity, be involved in some sort of relationship with your ex for the foreseeable future. With that involvement can come the potential for prolonged conflict, or the potential for substantive personal growth and improved relationship skills. It is often said that the opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference. For many recently divorced people, the hurt and anger are so close to the surface that any interaction with their former spouse can break open old wounds. We urge all of our clients to move into this new phase in their lives ready to improve their relationship skills and learn new methods of conflict resolution.

In the immediate post-divorce period, there may be a number of business details that need to be taken care of in order to fully dissolve the financial aspects of your marriage. You may need to transfer property from one to the other, or remove one person’s name from deeds or titles. Wills and estate plans may need to be reconfigured. One or both of you may need to make insurance changes. A dependent spouse has the option, under COBRA, of paying for coverage under the supporting spouse’s health insurance plan for up to eighteen months after the marriage ends, but he or she will need to spend those eighteen months finding an alternative that will be in place and activated when the COBRA policy ends. At the same time, auto insurance, homeowners’ or renters’ policies, disability, or life insurance policies will need to be changed or rewritten to reflect the new, unmarried status of both parties.

If, as part of your divorce, you received a portion of a retirement plan that required a QDRO, make sure to stay on top of the plan administrator to ensure the division is done in a timely manner. Then, do not forget to transfer the assets to an appropriate account for your benefit. If you were not the record keeper in your marriage, you will need to (quickly) establish a system for keeping track of your financial transactions and status; this can be a huge undertaking for some people. At the same time, you may need to learn how to live on a budget, and establish your own credit history. Some of these tasks are merely daunting, but some of them are going to require interaction with your ex-spouse, and for some people, this interaction can be incredibly difficult.

There are generally three areas of potential conflict that can continue to be volatile long after the divorce is final: support (both alimony and child support), custody, and parenting. The first two are clearly issues that, for most people, have been resolved once already, in the form of a settlement agreement or a court-ordered arrangement. It is really best, for everyone involved (including your kids and yourself), that you abide by whatever guidelines were established at the time of your divorce. Failure to comply with the agreement that you signed can only cause you more problems down the road.

When it comes to child support, for instance, many noncustodial parents fail to consistently pay what it costs to provide for the well-being of their children, without really considering the impact on the kids themselves. You’ve heard of “deadbeat dads”—that’s because, as we pointed out earlier, even though most people agree to provide support for their children, many fail to follow through over the long term. This is often due to dissatisfaction with other aspects of the agreement, most frequently the visitation schedule. Nonpayment is a bad idea that could create immediate problems and affect any efforts to modify support in the future. This is the point in your adult life when you have to step back and look at the long-term impact of your actions. If you were ordered or have agreed to pay $500 per month in child support, do the right thing by your children—pay it. Be a grown-up, put aside whatever grudge you have against your ex, and meet your obligation.

There are occasions when the amount indicated by the child support agreement can be changed, and we have found that people are sometimes shocked when they suddenly start receiving a smaller amount each month. They think of the money as something that will continue forever unchanged. However, if the payer loses his or her job, becomes disabled, or dies, the child support will likely be reduced or stopped. In some states (North Carolina is one) the child support agreement can be a contract between the spouses rather than a court order. If the contract does not allow for modification without the agreement of both parties, a payer whose income drops could have assets seized.

If, however, you find yourself on the other side of a child support problem, you need to think carefully about how to address the situation without further escalating tensions. While it might be tempting to withhold visitation until the child support is paid up, you need to remember that the one is not dependent on the other—just as our relationships with our kids are not dependent on our financial circumstances. Try to set the mature example, and remember that your ex is still your child’s parent, and your child still needs him or her. If you have a real problem getting the support payments, go through the legal system. If your state’s child support enforcement agency seems too backed up or bureaucratic, hire an attorney (either the one who helped you initially, or someone new, if you prefer). In some states you may even be able to find a private child support enforcement firm that specializes in tracking down deadbeat parents and taking legal steps to enforce payment (taking out liens, garnishing wages, etc.). Whatever route you choose to follow, try to distinguish between your need for payment and your anger over the divorce—that anger is not productive, and can really damage your children.

Alimony is a slightly different issue, in that the clear ethical obligation to support is not the same when you’re talking about an adult (as opposed to a child). As a result, the legal system is not as deeply committed to enforcing payment of alimony—there are no agencies devoted exclusively to pursuing people who fail to meet their spousal support obligations. Nonetheless, it is in your best interests to treat the issue of alimony as a financial matter, not an opportunity for retribution or a way to prolong contact. You wouldn’t try to manipulate the phone company as a way to get your emotional needs met—don’t try to manipulate your alimony agreement, either. If you need to change the amount, hire an attorney. If the payments aren’t being made, again, hire an attorney. That is the best way we know of to keep the interactions civilized—get a neutral third party involved, and get your emotional baggage out of the way.

Child custody—the second post-divorce conflict area—can be an issue fraught with semantic conflict that we talked about earlier, even when the reality is ticking along quite smoothly. People often get caught up in labels like “joint custody” and “sole custody,” when what they really need to pay attention to is the calendar and the well-being of the children. What matters is the quality time you spend with your children, and the cooperative parenting you do even when you’re not with them. As children get older, particularly, they need two parents to be involved in decisions, rules, consequences, and just generally teaching them how to grow up. If your children are small when you get divorced, you’ll want to lay the groundwork early on for regular, consistent involvement in their lives. Don’t worry about what that involvement is called—just do it.

There is one issue, in particular, that sometimes threatens the stability of a custody arrangement that was agreed upon during separation: when one (or both) parents start dating again. Your spouse’s discovery of your interest in another woman or man (as the case may be) could unravel a precarious custody arrangement. The sudden or unexpected appearance of another “parent” figure in your child’s life is often experienced as a threatening disruption by the child’s other biological parent (or even your ex-spouse’s parents), and many people react to such a threat by insisting that the child be totally insulated from a new girl- or boyfriend. While this insistence may be highly unrealistic, its frequent result is to upset a couple’s custody plans. Whether your custody plans were once agreed on and are now coming apart because of a new dating partner, or whether there never were any formalized plans, your spouse could try to use the presence of a new person in your life as a “weapon” against your gaining custody of your child or against your continuing to have custody. Appellate cases in some states have rejected this sort of attack, based on the particular facts of those cases. But if your spouse could show that your dating—even unaccompanied by sexual intercourse—had led to distraction or a great preoccupation with your love life, and consequent neglect or inattention to your child, your position in a custody dispute could be greatly weakened.

Dating can present some other “sticky” issues, as well, even if your custody situation is rock-solid. You will eventually have to think through what you are going to tell your children regarding your new romantic relationship(s). As parents, we tend to want to shield our children from too much exposure to sex on television and in movies, but it can be really difficult to clarify our values when the sex/romance in question is our own. Obviously, the age of the child is going to impact how you handle this situation, but this is another area of potential disagreement with your ex that can get really ugly. It is crucial that you approach this particular conversation with your child as a parent, rather than as a wounded ex-spouse.

By the same token (the best interests of the children), it is crucial—perhaps even more so than when you were married—that you and your ex learn to function together as a parenting team. Children of divorce quickly learn how to divide and conquer their parents; when those parents don’t communicate, or communicate only by shouting at each other, the children figure out how to use the gaps to their advantage. Many kids also realize that their parents feel guilty about the disruption to their lives, and they learn to press those guilt buttons to get their own way or circumvent rules. Remember that even though you and your former spouse no longer live together, you are still co-parents, and you need to work together to ensure that your children are growing up in a safe, stable, and healthy environment.

Parenting is hard work, no matter what your marital status; for the sake of your children, try to support each other to fill in the gaps. You will have to interact with each other via the children for many years to come (visualize college graduations, weddings, grandchildren), so for everyone’s sake, you should do whatever work you need to now (therapy, behavior modification, medication, etc.) to enable yourself to have a civilized long-term relationship with your ex.

Beyond questions of parenting, there will be other sticky moments when you have no choice but to adjust your relationship with your former spouse. One or both of you will start dating again, or even remarry. No matter how much you believe you are over your marriage, the knowledge that your ex is involved with someone else is going to bring up some emotions. For many people, this is the moment when it becomes clear that they need to get professional help to move beyond this relationship.

For others, that realization doesn’t come until they have started dating again themselves. Dating after a long time in a monogamous relationship can be a grand adventure, a chance to learn from past mistakes, or just another series of failed relationships. Whether or not you take this opportunity to learn and grow and become a healthier person is up to you—you have a choice. Research shows that second marriages are far more likely to fail than first marriages. We, as a firm, strongly advise our clients to work on the issues that brought them to our office in the first place before becoming a second-marriage statistic. And yes, there have been clients that we’ve represented in more than one divorce. Serial marriage is neither a healthy nor happy way to go through life. Learn the lessons of your first divorce.

Divorce is never easy and it’s rarely pleasant. It does, however, present endless opportunities for personal growth. Some perceive the challenges of divorce as entirely negative. They see each upset, each issue, as something that wears them down. Others view every challenge as an opportunity for growth. They know that overcoming the latest obstacle will make them stronger and more capable. Divorce is difficult. Understanding the opportunity for growth is the key to a smart divorce.

 

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