The best, most justifiable divorce is hell. It goes downhill from there in a big hurry. Which is why I admire people who can negotiate that hell with honor, justice and equity.
To do that, of course, requires one thing above all else: We cannot allow our sadness to arc into vengeance. A divorce is a funeral. Not a war. The work of divorce is grief. Not poisoning wells. Not a metaphorical mafia hit. Not scorched earth. Certainly not holding children hostage.
It is the nature of grief to be easily conscripted in service to anger and revenge. Divorcing couples labor under the weight of well-researched, well-rehearsed lists of at least bitter disappointments if not keen, fresh memories of betrayals and injustices. The lists are like a lightning rod mocking our sadness, practically begging our sadness to gather, congeal, toxify and transmute into the twisted pleasures of revenge.
It will feel so right. But then, that’s the calling card of the human ego: making absurdity and destruction feel so right.
So, first, if we value honor, justice and equity, we do the work of grief. We feel our sadness. Divorce leaves a mark. It is a loss the dimensions of which are impossible to anticipate. Especially if children are involved.
If we are willing to acknowledge and sift through our sadness, then we have more choices.
Not to mention more money.
I’m serious. Why give such a huge chunk of your estate away to attorneys if you don’t have to? If both parties value honor, justice and equity, if both parties see the folly of ‘cutting off their noses to spite their respective face,’ then one oft-neglected option is The Uncontested Divorce.
Uncontested Divorce requires you to come to the table and negotiate in good faith. All items, big and small. From retirement accounts to patio furniture. But, instead of paying two lawyers to quibble, bicker and threaten on your behalf, you sit down together FOR FREE and negotiate in good faith. You assemble a shared understanding of honor, justice and equity.
Then you hand the agreement to one lawyer who charges you a one-time pittance (relative to lawyers, anyway) to type your agreement in ‘legalese’ and file it.
Variations on the Uncontested Divorce include hiring one or more trained mediators who serve to guide the negotiations and in some cases to provide expert information.
Yet another variation (more expensive, but still nothing compared to going to court with warring lawyers) is the emergence of law firms specializing in Uncontested Divorce. Each party is assigned counsel, but for the purpose of expert legal advice and mediation. Not for trial.
When I am retained to mediate an uncontested divorce, I often ‘sell’ two ideas that have great advantages.
First, child custody. On paper, file joint legal/physical custody. Define that custody agreement as alternating weeks. 7 days on, 7 days off.
Then go do whatever makes sense.
My children were 15, 13 and 4 when I found myself divorced. Their mother and I negotiated custody in one-month blocks. We alternated major holidays and three-day weekends in alternate years. We agreed upon “the right of first refusal.” Meaning, if I was the custodian and something ambushed my schedule, I didn’t secure a sitter or pack my sons off to their grandmother. I called their mother. She got ‘dibs.’ And vice versa.
This make-it-up-as-we-go-along schedule has allowed us to be sensitive to child development. For example, my youngest was 4 when we divorced. He needed his mother in some particular ways. So, back then, the schedule was weighted towards time with his mother. However, my oldest was just 15. He needed his father in some particular ways, not to mention his high school was closer to my house. He lived primarily with me.
I’m saying we literally never did the schedule we filed with the court. We filed that schedule so the judge would sign it. Then – every day, every week, every month – we did what made sense for the best interest of our children.
The other idea I sell and sell hard is The Kid’s Fund. If both divorcing parents are full-time wage earners, and, if the parent agreement is joint legal/physical custody, then to hell with child support. Instead, open a joint bank account. Each party contributes a fixed percentage of gross income, like a flat tax. (My ex and I paid 10%.) From this fund you pay all medical, all clothing, school and extra-curricular fees, plus other items as needed and negotiated as the children grow into adolescence (transportation, allowance, job training, etc.)
Then, each parent is free to manage and pay for their own household independently (groceries, water bill, thermostat settings, vacations, Christmas/ birthday presents, etc.)
The Kid’s Fund preempts and renders moot the endless opportunities to feel resentful, angry and cheated by child support, how your ex is spending the child support, and whether you disagree with the number of times he/she takes the kids out to eat.
Less anger and resentment? I love that about the Kid’s Fund.
Again, the best divorce is hell. Honor, justice and equity expedites the journey through hell. Plus, you never have to see the inside of a courtroom. Plus, it’s good for your children.
Not to mention that I like my nose. And I have no motive to spite my face.
(You may drop Steven Kalas a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. StevenKalas is a therapist, author and Episcopal priest. He is the author of the book “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing.”)