The breakdown of a relationship is an emotional journey like no other, and a common fear many of us share when deciding to divorce is the damage this can have on children. On this season of Happy Mum Happy Baby: Parenting SOS, Gi speaks to Samantha Woodham a family law barrister and co-founder of The Divorce Surgery, a multi award winning service which enables couples, for the first time, to share a lawyer on divorce.
Following our podcast epsiode, we’ve asked Samantha to share her top tips for starting a divorce in the best way possible.
Starting as you mean to finish is vital when it comes to divorce. Remember that at the end of the day there are two outcomes: either you both agree on the arrangements for your children and division of your finances, or, if you can’t agree, a judge will impose an outcome on you both. So as much as we are all programmed to view divorce as an adversarial process, in fact you’re much more likely to reach agreement if you work together rather than against each other. View it as a shared problem (because it is) and not a battle (because it doesn’t have to be).
Ditch the stigma
As a society we have such a negative view of divorce. But it’s just a life change. And research consistently shows that divorce itself isn’t bad for children. What causes children (and adults) emotional harm is exposure to entrenched parental conflict. That can happen in a bad divorce, but also in a deeply unhappy marriage. So free yourself from guilt: if this relationship which once bought you joy is now no longer meeting both of your needs, that’s ok. What matters from you and your children is getting the support you need to manage the process of divorce in a fair, kind and dignified way.
This can be really hard. Just at the point when one or both of you have realised that this relationship isn’t meeting your needs, and communication is probably at an all-time low, we are asking you to communicate about divorce. But if communication breaks down, you’ll end up second guessing each other. Now more than ever you need to reassure each other about your motivations. If talking is hard, and for nearly every couple at this point it really is, don’t be afraid to get some support. Separation counsellors can be brilliant in giving couples strategies to work together in the early stages, so they can both focus on the important decisions about their children and finances.
Big picture goals
Spoiler alert: you are not going to agree on everything. Of course you aren’t! You’re both going to be leading separate lives and will have different views about how these should look. But don’t assume that because you can’t agree on one issue: for example the division of your children’s care, sharing a pension, or selling the family home, that you are destined for a long drawn out court battle. You aren’t. You just need some focussed legal advice on those issues, so you know what a judge would regard as fair. If you focus on the big picture, you’ll probably find you are very aligned: such as reaching a deal which is fair for you both, and shielding your children from adult disagreements. Remind yourselves of these regularly, so you don’t fall into one disagreement about a relatively minor issue and convince yourselves you are incapable of agreement.
Don’t rush to a lawyer
In most cases a lawyer is not the first person you should call. Attend to your emotional needs first, so you are in the right headspace for legal advice when it comes. Of course if you or your children’s safety is at risk or there is another emergency situation (such as your partner attempting to hide assets from you) then please do not delay speaking to a solicitor. But for the majority of couples, happily this is not the case. So wait until you are both emotionally ready to take legal advice and engage with long-term decision making. And, if you can, consider sharing a lawyer. It will save cost but also ensure you keep working to your joint agenda.
Engage with your finances
For many couples, it really helps to sit down with a financial advisor together so they are both fully up to speed with their financial situation, their budget and any tax implications of transferring assets. What are your mortgage capacities? How much do you each need as a budget each month? The starting point for any lawyer is to take you through a financial disclosure exercise, and work out what the financial resources are, and how these can be used to meet your respective income and housing needs, and those of your children. So get ahead. Inform yourself about your financial position, as often this is the best start to realistic discussions around what is financially achievable for you both.
This is the start of a new adventure. Divorce may not be your choice, but the way you divorce can be. Be open to the idea that a relationship can be hugely successful and have a shelf life. That’s OK. You’re free to explore new adventures, and who knows what’s waiting for you around the next corner. Go grab it.
You can listen to the full episode on all your favourite podcast listening places here.