Guidelines for Relating to Your Wife During Divorce
Guidelines for Relating to Your Wife During Divorce
By Sam Margulies, Ph.D., J.D.
Between the decision to divorce and the physical separation, you and your wife
are stranded between two worlds: your past life together and your future lives
apart. It is only natural during this period of limbo that emotions run high.
Even the slightest miscue can lead to an explosion that could irrevocably damage
your chances at a good divorce. The problem is that, because the relationship
has changed, it is hard to know how to act.
Managing Day-to-Day Interactions
So how do you relate to each other? Even though you and your wife are divorcing,
you are still together and still have many of the expectations of a married
couple. She may still be your primary confidant, so you may be inclined to turn
to her when something is troubling you. However, she is also the person you are
divorcing and the feelings of rejection are still palpable. She is both friend
and stranger at the same time, as are you to her.
While you are in this stage, it's likely that you and your wife may get into
discussions that begin as pleasant recollections from the past, only to see them
deteriorate into two conflicting versions of history. You may each ruminate
about the future, only to find yourselves in a fight over how much support she
seeks or whether she will agree to sell the house. Your situation is volatile,
and what begins as a simple discussion soon becomes a battle with hurt feelings.
This is all part of the process of parting, and the sooner you acquire new
expectations of each other, the better off you will be. Many couples come to me
for mediation and express hope that they can come out of the divorce still being
friends. It is very difficult to ratchet a relationship down from an intimate
one to a friendship. Friends expect to be able to turn to each other for
emotional sustenance, encouragement, and approval. Calling on each other for
help or emotional reinforcement is tricky because intimate conversation between
you triggers so many old and unresolved issues. You are the source of so much
pain to each other that the pain is simply inconsistent with a friendship. So
talk of friendship, more often than not, can just lead to further
disillusionment with each other.
So, instead of aiming for friendship, the model that I return to repeatedly in
this book is the appropriate dialogue with a business colleague. We expect
business colleagues to be friendly rather than to be friends. When you talk to a
colleague, you are careful to maintain a cordial and respectful tone. You do not
engage in bursts of anger and you do not attack each other's character. You can
agree to disagree, and you can negotiate amicable resolutions.
Because your relationship with a business colleague is limited to your common
purpose, your communication is also limited. This helps ensure the relationship
is long term; you do not stress it by demanding interaction outside of what is
necessary to achieve a common goal.
This is especially important if you have children, as you and your wife will
have to cooperate around child-related issues for a long time. You will have to
be able to share relevant information, cooperate with each other to achieve
common but limited goals, and resolve conflicts related to those goals on the
occasions when such conflicts arise.
Although it is quite difficult to shift gears suddenly and move from an intimate
relationship with complex expectations to that of business colleagues, you need
to begin consciously moving toward the transition. As mentioned before, during
the very difficult period after you have decided to divorce but before you have
separated, it is easy to do great damage. Each of you may still be testing old
agendas with each other. Each may look for approval and then feel angry when it
is not forthcoming.
That's why now is the time to learn how to steer clear of trouble. You must be
polite and cordial. Let your wife know when you are coming and going. Do your
share of work in the house and have no expectations of personal service from
her. Do your own laundry and shopping. Think of yourself as housemates, not
spouses; you need to exercise the independence of a housemate. Do not burden
your wife with your fears and do not expect to have intimate discussions. That
is what you have friends for. That is what you use a therapist for. The sooner
you and your wife achieve a respectful and cordial distance, the better off you
both will be.
I also urge that you suggest divorce counseling for the two of you. Divorce
counseling is not marital therapy and is not intended to achieve reconciliation.
Divorce counseling uses a skilled therapist to help the two of you have any
unfinished discussions about emotional issues that will help you both accept
that the marriage is over. Ideally, divorce counseling provides a safe place
where each of you can say things that you feel the need to say and ask questions
that are still unanswered. Frequently in such counseling, the noninitiator of
the divorce seeks answers about why you want a divorce and sometimes tries one
last time to get you to agree to try again. It is a useful forum, because the
therapist can interrupt to ensure that each of you are heard, can intervene to
help you frame statements to minimize injury, and can provide the opinion of an
independent third party that the marriage indeed seems to be over. It is also a
safe place to try and obtain your wife's agreement to join you in managing a
decent and gentle divorce. It gives you an opportunity to assure her that your
intentions are to be fair and gentle and to meet your responsibilities to her
and the children. A competent counselor should be able to help you do this in a
few sessions. As in the choice of any professional, check out the counselor's
credentials and experience carefully because an incompetent counselor can do
more harm than good.
Managing Your Finances
Needless battles over money derail more divorces in the early stages than any
other issue. Money is a source of power, so to be without money makes us feel
powerless. At this point in your divorce, you want to avoid any behavior that
will frighten your wife about money. Here are some simple rules.
1. Make no unilateral change in any bank or securities account. Well-meaning but
ignorant advisers and some overzealous lawyers may counsel you to raid the
accounts and move the money to new accounts in your name only. The usual
rationale is that if you don't strike first, your wife will, and then she will
have a huge advantage. And it is true that were she to sequester the money she
would enjoy a slight bargaining advantage in the war that would follow. But it
would also not be difficult to obtain a court order freezing the money so that
neither of you could get at it without the consent of the other. But that is
irrelevant because your objective here is trust, and trust cannot be achieved
without some vulnerability and risk.
2. If there is some compelling reason that you have to make a withdrawal, such
as payment of taxes, tell your wife first and secure her consent. Do not assume
that she trusts you, and control your indignation if she asks for safeguards
that she had not s
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