The 10 Most Common Ways to Sabotage Your Divorce

How can you assure that you have a healthy, positive divorce? That both partners can move forward as quickly as possible into their new and productive lives?  The answer lies in your own self restraint and not doing the things that convince your spouse that you are going to play dirty — because if you are going to do it, then so is your spouse.   The ten worst (and most common) ways to damage your divorce are related to this.  

Trust is precarious when couples begin divorces, and it is imperative that you refrain from behavior that convinces your spouse that you cannot be trusted.  Like the following:

1.  Withdrawing all the money from the joint accounts.

Many people rush to withdraw all the money from the accounts, and many lawyers even counsel clients to do this. Motivation for this can vary. Some people fear that their spouse will grab the money so want to get there first. Others do it as a power play, to gain control by controlling the money. It begins the divorce on an act that destroys trust and sets up the conditions for wars of attrition.

2.  Using Threats as a Bargaining Tactic

Threaten a custody fight to gain an economic advantage. This is typically done by men who think they can terrify their wives and secure economic concessions. It begins the divorce by tying access to the kids to money and more often than not backfires on the man by convincing the wife that fairness has no role in the divorce. Moreover, it scares the wife into the arms of the lawyer as protector and assures her she cannot deal directly with her husband or expect good faith. Generally, threats are poor negotiating tactics that accomplish nothing but growing mistrust.

3.  Hiring the “toughest” lawyer in town.

When you seek out the most aggressive lawyer you can find you guarantee a miserable divorce. There is no evidence that hiring lawyers with an aggressive reputation gets you any better result. But the lawyer with that reputation assures that your spouse looks for the same type of lawyer. These are lawyers with the least inclination to cooperate which results in a long preparation for a trial that probably won’t happen anyway and just means that you have to wait two or three years for the same settlement you could have had with two reasonable lawyers.

4. Recruiting the kids to help you fight.

The psychological safety of children in divorce depends on how well the two parents show the kids that their parents can cooperate for the benefit of the kids. When you pull your child in as an ally against the other parent (Daddy is leaving us) you turn the child into an adversary of the other parent. At a minimum the kids lose a parent. Or worse, the children think it is their responsibility to rescue you from the other parent. That means that instead of you taking care of them, they have to be the parent taking care of you. So now you have alienated them from the other parent and denied your role of parent. Now you have succeeded in making your children psychological orphans.

5.  Listening to the horror stories your friends want to tell you.

For some strange reason friends and relatives want you and your spouse to fight and the bloodier the better. Perhaps they’re bored and need their own personal soap opera to watch. Or, more likely, they are just ignorant and believe what they read in trash magazines about celebrity divorce. They think divorce must be intensely fought and encourage you to fight hard and dirty. Generally, whatever amateurs tell you is wrong.

6. Starting the divorce by filing a complaint in court.

Decent divorces are settled before anything is filed in court. You do not have to file anything in the court to negotiate a settlement agreement. Usually, if your lawyer is eager to file at the beginning it is because he/she wants to guaranty a prolonged case and bigger fee. When you file a complaint in court before you have negotiated a settlement the case goes on the court’s contested list and that means your spouse must hire a lawyer and join the fight. It just costs you lots of money you can’t afford and forces you both into a lot of unnecessary pain. Negotiate first. Then file for an uncontested divorce.

7. Telling your spouse that the divorce is their fault.

Today every state has some version of no fault divorce. That means that with few exceptions fault will play no role in a judge’s decisions even if you are crazy enough to go to trial. Most of us are conditioned to react to accusations and verbal attack with counter attack and denial. And few people have the self understanding to accurately assess their own role in the long process of marital decline. Marriages don’t break: they erode a little at a time by a thousand acts of omission and commission. Unless you are a rare saint you contributed your part in the failure of the marriage. So treat it as a joint production. In thousands of divorces I have never seen a couple that can agree on history. You can’t either so forget about fault finding and get on with figuring out a workable settlement so you can all get on with your lives.

8. Telling the kids that your spouse caused the divorce and is leaving you and them.

Children need to be told that the decision to divorce has been made by both parents after much thinking and is irrevocable. So when you tell them that the other parent is at fault they turn their anger on that parent in an attempt to get him/her to relent. This often positions them at odds with the other parent and sets them up to become your protector. So at the very moment that they most need the emotional support of both parents they feel at odds with one and responsible for the other. They are now, effectively, emotional orphans.

9.  Fighting hard to have the children spend all or most of their time with you and the least time with the other parent.

Children need robust relationships with both parents in order to thrive after divorce. And to have that time the parenting schedule has to give both parents ample time with the kids. In fact, joint custody is rapidly becoming the norm. Why? Because unless you are quite rich ( upper 2%) you will both need to be employed full time if you are going to maintain an adequate standard of living. If you are employed full time and are responsible for the children full time, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the work. Unless your soon to be ex is clearly a very bad parent (and very few fit this description) you need the full involvement of that parent just so you can have time to yourself. By minimizing the time the kids spend with their other parent; you injure them, the other parent and yourself. Not a good move.

10.  Assuming the role of victim so you gather the sympathy and pity  of those around you.

For a little while you may bask in the chorus of “poor baby’s” and the agreement of your friends that you have, indeed, been treated poorly. But before long they will tire of it and of you. All of them have their own problems and after a while they wonder why you can’t stand up like everyone else and face your challenges. Divorce is about change: economic change, social change and emotional change. Those who embrace it and cope manage to rebuild good lives in time. Those who assume a fetal position and forever complain end up isolated and discontent. Be assured that the pleasures that come to the “victim” are short lived and ultimately come at a very high price, that of bad divorce.


Divorcing people have a choice — between good and bad divorce — and sadly, most people are unaware that they can choose the kind of divorce they will have. Good and bad divorce refers to two things. First, is the outcome.

Good divorce leaves divorcing people able to communicate on issues involving their children. It also leaves both partners feeling that considering the realities, the settlement is just. Each partner is emotionally done with the other and has let go of the strong feelings that mark the beginning of a divorce. So each is able to seek new relationships without forever dragging their unresolved issues behind.  In a good divorce, each partner is able to wish the other well.

But a bad divorce is characterized by lasting bitterness and feelings that justice was denied. The partners have difficulty cooperating on child related issues.  Good divorce means that a settlement agreement is negotiated quickly and efficiently without requiring the intervention of the court and without the expenditure of large sums on legal fees.   The attorneys do not seem to want a quick resolution and the divorce is a protracted process of adversarial litigation, organized around the myth that the couple is going to court where a judge will decide everything.  To prepare for a trial can mean years of hearings, motions and depositions all of which can add up to a six figure fee in little time. The actions of the lawyers frequently impose humiliation on the parties and focus on fear more than interests. By the time the case settles the couple is exhausted and frequently broke because they have squandered their financial and emotional resources on the fight rather than on rebuilding their lives. These are the divorces that leave children traumatized and parents too worn out to be of much help to their kids.

It’s your divorce — and it doesn’t have to be this way.

Sam Margulies, North Carolina Divorce Consultation & Mediation

I am one of the most experienced mediators in the United States. Since 1980, I have mediated hundreds of civil disputes and approximately four thousand divorces including many complex multi-million dollar matters.

Check out the books on divorce that I’ve written, and contact me with your questions about your divorce.


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