Divorce is one of life’s most stressful experiences. In bad divorces acute stress can last for years and follow long the official divorce is over. It has serious implications for both mental health and all stress related illnesses and the stress can extend beyond the divorcing couple to injure their children as well. So it is reasonable to ask whether all this stress is necessary and whether there are steps that divorcing people can take that can reduce the stress associated with their divorces. The answer is an unqualified YES. Divorcing people can dramatically reduce divorce related stress by choosing the way they divorce with care and forethought.
The Unavoidable Stress
Divorce involves significant change which is inherently stressful. Families must often move to new homes. They must reorganize parenting patterns and frequently adapt to serious belt tightening. Some full time mothers find it necessary to begin careers, some late in life. And most divorcing people have to wrestle with the complications of dating and starting new lives. Many often have to spend a lot of time helping children cope with the dislocations of divorce.
Divorce also involves strong and painful feelings. The spouse that initiates the divorce may suffer guilt about the children and condemnation by friends and relatives. The n on initiating spouse often has powerful feelings of abandonment, betrayal, rejection, loss and fear. Early on, divorcing couples are confused, worried and apprehensive. None of this is avoidable; people must simply live through it. And most manage to do so as a majority of divorced people report that they’re happier five years later.
Divorce is always difficult but sometimes it is hideous. Generally, the more contact the couple has with lawyers, judges and courts the worse will be the divorce and the greater will be the stress. Litigation poisons relationships. Legal fees can wipe out the families’ savings while the legal process can leave couples so embittered they are unable to cooperate as parents. Because courts are backlogged and lawyers busy, it can take years to complete the divorce. The long period of limbo leaves people emotionally depleted and delays the beginning of healing and rebuilding. In the worst cases the trial, when it finally occurs, settles nothing and the fight goes on and on. The stress of the divorce is also a major distraction at work with divorcing people often operating at half their capacity.
So there is an important difference in the stress level of divorce when couples choose a litigious divorce. One must make a distinction between stress cased by the decision to divorce—the unavoidable stress—and the stress caused by the way people choose to divorce. In my experience the anger and stress generated by the legal divorce process is often much greater than that wrought by the end of the marriage. For that reason I regard the decisions made at the beginning of the divorce to be critically important. There are amicable and non-destructive ways to get a divorce and there are very destructive ways to divorce. Tragically, many people are unaware that they have a choice. But there is a clear choice between good divorce and bad divorce.
The Good Divorce refers both to the way people divorce and their relationship after the divorce. The process of a good divorce involves minimal reliance of courts and lawyers, the use of mediation or some form of “collaborative” law to resolve the child related and economic issues and a focus on the couple playing the major role in deciding their post-divorce arrangements. The process is quick, usually two months or less, and does not cost more than a few thousand dollars start to finish. The process does not contribute materially to the stress of divorce and avoids the financial and emotional depletion associated with conventional adversary divorce. The result is a relationship characterized by:
- Emotional closure for both partners.
- Mutual sense of economic justice.
- Basic trust between the former spouses.
- Communication is possible.
- Both wish each other well out of a sense of mutual good will.
- They have a conflict resolution system in place if they need it.
The Bad Divorce is essentially the opposite of the good divorce. Couples delegate their decision making and negotiation to two lawyers who may or may not be competent, may or may not know how to negotiate, may or may not like each other and may or may not know anything about family psychology. They commit to a process in which the more contentious the divorce the more money earned by the lawyers. It is a lengthy and exhausting process that generates acute stress and disorganization. The consequent relationships are characterized by:
- No emotional closure because couples stay connected through continuing conflict
- They are slow to build new lives because the divorce still dominates.
- Each feels poorly treated and cheated by the other. These feelings are transmitted to the children.
- Lack of trust destroys possibility of cooperation for children and the ability to communicate.
- No capacity for conflict resolution causes chronic litigation.
The Power of Mythology
In the past thirty years divorce mediation has developed from a small reform effort with a handful of practitioners to a major movement with thousands of mediators. Many thousands of divorcing couples have discovered mediation and used it to achieve peaceful divorces. In my experience with thousands of couples I find that about eighty five percent of couples who come for mediation succeed. They spend less than two thousand dollars over a period of four to eight weeks and emerge with a workable settlement that leaves then able to start new lives. I regard mediation as a viable option for most couples and certainly worth a try for anyone contemplating divorce. The difference between the experience and results of a mediated divorce and a conventional litigated divorce are so dramatic that it amazes me how few people take this route.
As I have struggled to explain this anomaly over the past thirty years I have been struck by the power of certain popular myths about American divorce. Most people continue to believe that divorce must be a battle, if not a war, that you can “win” if you get the toughest lawyer and that you must assume an aggressive posture if you are to avoid being “taken to the cleaners.” All of these myths are untrue but have proved startling resilient. So many TV shows, bad movies and popular media have fed American appetites for flagrant, lewd, rude and outrageous conduct in the divorces of celebrities that few people seem able to discern fact from fiction. Popular media has generally ignored divorce mediation because there is much more interest and drama in conflict than in peace. So divorcing couples are treated to all sorts of advice from well-meaning but woefully ignorant friends and relatives who invariably counsel fighting rather than cooperative negotiation. Lawyers are unlikely to refer clients to divorce mediation because they are uncomfortable with the concept and will earn much lower fees if they do. Most referrals come from mental health practitioners who have long been aware of the advantages of mediation.
From a public health perspective there remains much to do. There can be little question that the stress levels of people who are embroiled in conventional divorce are unnecessarily high. And it is reasonable to assume that this stress is as physically harmful as any other. But until we do a better job of educating the public hundreds of thousands of people will continue to subject themselves and their children to the avoidable stress of adversary divorce.
Sam Margulies, Ph.D., J.D.
Before he was a divorce mediator, he was a divorce attorney. Sam Margulies, Ph.D., J.D., is one of the most experienced mediators in the United States. Since 1980, he has mediated hundreds of civil disputes and approximately four thousand divorces including many complex multi-million dollar matters.
Author of several books on divorce, Sam Margulies is an empathetic and knowledgeable guide through the difficult journey of divorce. Contact Sam with your questions and to talk about your divorce.
- An Open Letter to Therapists of Divorcing Couples (sammargulies.com)