I went back to school later later in life. Not Rodney Dangerfield late, but there were nineteen years between graduating with my Bachelors and obtaining my Masters. As you can imagine, my sense of pride was beaming out of my body. I remember one day when I ran into my neighbor and he asked what I was doing. “Well” I told him, “I’m a Marriage and Family Therapist.” Snicker. The man snickered! “That’s pretty ironic,” he said. Um, no not really! See, I had recently separated; my husband had moved out of our home. In the neighbor’s (smallish) mind, someone helping other people with marital issues had to be happily married. Otherwise, it was “irony.” I gave no witty retort but I didn’t punch him either, so that was good. He probably didn’t know the secret that therapists are just normal humans, with the same sort of problems that other humans have, including unhappy relationships. Fast forward a few years, to my having an established practice as a Relationship Therapist and Certified Divorce Mediator. I find myself in a similar predicament. “How can you do divorce mediation and marriage therapy? Do you break up marriages so you can mediate the divorce?” “My husband’s therapist is pro marriage. Are you?” So for the record, ethically I can either be your marriage therapist or your divorce mediator. Not both. Additionally, I tend not to label it, but I suppose I am “pro marriage” when it is a healthy one. I am also “pro divorce” when it is time to surrender and it is done well. Overall, I’m not “married” to any particular outcome with my therapy clients. My work is to support the hell out of them, and help them make a wise decision. One that they can live with, happily. In that respect, perhaps I am “pro happiness.” And when a couple comes to see me having already made the difficult decision to divorce and wants me to mediate it, I don’t try to talk them out of it. Again, I support the hell out of them and help them make good decisions. I’m a little biased, but i think it makes all of the sense in the world to have your divorce mediated by a Marriage and Family Therapist. This person has been specially trained in child development, family structure and systems, positive communication techniques, positive reframing, and a whole lot of other things that are more important to a successful divorce than law. My formal education in Marriage and Family Therapy helped me navigate my own separation and divorce. I suppose my divorce was the first one I mediated.We filed “pro se” which means we had no attorneys. This was prior to my 72 hours of training in family and divorce mediation. But my instincts were that I wanted to be happy, healthy and to have enough money to do so. I wanted the same for my ex husband and my kids. And so did he, because we were family. The bottom line is that marriage and divorce share many similarities. Here are just a few examples.
1. It is a huge and life altering decision to get both married and divorced.
Unfortunately in many cases, not enough determination and care is put into either decision. We live in a society in which it is expected that we will marry, and to some extent we glamorize marriage. We are also judgmental. When we meet a forty year old who is still single, we wonder “Whats wrong with her?” (or him.) And yet we know that statistically about 40% of first marriages will end in divorce, and the numbers go up for second, third and so on. On the flip side, it is not uncommon for couples who feel they have reached a stalemate to fold under their misery. When I meet with individuals and couples who are contemplating leaving, the first thing I ask them is to please slow down. It is not easy to live with discomfort; I do understand that. But there are alternatives, such as controlled separation in which both spouses sign an agreement that stipulates factors such as how long the separation will be for, how often and in what form communication will be, and if they will date each other and/or others. It’s like trying on a divorce to see if it fits. I’ve worked with couples that end up back together, and those who end up divorced. But it slowed down the process, enabling them to make the best possible decision.
2. Both cost money.
When I got engaged, my father offered to pay us to elope, or to have our wedding at the local firehouse or VFW. Surprisingly, neither option appealed to us. My ex-husband bravely faced the very challenging task of gently asking my father for a a proper, but affordable wedding. He agreed. Marriages can cost very little money (intimate backyard gathering) or a whole lot (think: destination wedding.) Divorces are the same. Mine cost a whopping $640.00 which was the Connecticut filing fee, court papers fee, and cost for both of us to take mandatory parenting classes. I know people who have spent close to $100,000. I have no regrets, but since hindsight is 20/20, if I could do it over again I likely would have used a mediator. It would have been nice to have a third party work with us to make sure we were on the right track. I don’t think the outcome would have been much different though. A general rule of thumb is that litigation with two attorneys,especially one in which motions are continually filed is the most taxing on your wallets, and on your children. Collaborative divorce, which can be much more civil, can also be pricey as there are two lawyers on retainer working with other professionals. Mediation is more affordable, in which you pay for mediation services, attorney review (not mandatory but always highly suggested by any competent mediator) and if you need other professionals such as an accountant or financial adviser, you bring them in. Filing on your own, as far as I know, remains about the same cost in Connecticut as it was in 2012 when I divorced, making it the least expensive option.
3. It takes two to tango (or, both can be crazy making.)
Marital bliss. Let’s face it: it fades quickly when you realize you are constantly greeted in your bathroom with your wife’s bras dangling to dry. Or when he leaves the toilet seat up for the 50,000th time. The snoring, the over-spending, the yelling, the humming while she eats, the dishes in the sink, drawing straws to see whose turn it is to change the poopy diaper. It takes a whole lot of patience, respect, and love to stay happily married, as well as compromise, communication and compassion. Getting successfully divorced is exactly the same. And before you get defensive that I used the L word in divorce, remember, you did love this person deeply at one time. And if you have children, you love them. So, yes, Love. When I work with my therapy clients, I grow to care about them deeply, and I am their number one fan. So I hope they will remember that in case they are about to read what I’m going to write next. Whether your soon-to-be ex is “crazy” or not, if you engage in that kind of nonsense, you are also making crazy. You are also at fault. I can guarantee you, your outcome is not going to be the best it can be. You are going to put your kids smack dab in the middle of your battles. Therefore, making them crazy as well. The first thing any good mediator will do when you sit down in his or her office is ask to see a picture of your kids. (in my last mediation case, they brought their infant into sessions!) This is the oh-s0 subtle reminder needed to put the best interest of your children first. So how do you find compassion and love at a time when you really want to punch your spouse or ex in the face and/or make them disappear off the planet forever? The same way you do when you’re married to them and have similar feelings. You dig deep. You breathe, and you breathe some more. You disengage. You send a clear message that you are not going to fight this fight, and you do your absolute best. You seek therapeutic support. You read the book Storms Can’t Hurt the Sky by Gabriel Cohen which addresses the deep seated anger.
4. Both can have happy endings.
Marriages take work, as we noted in #3. We all know people, including my own parents, who are married until death do them part. Marriages are up and down, have happy and sad years, challenging and easier ones. Spending your life with one person whom you trust, love and respect, and growing together, watching your children grow up together…well, that’s just good stuff! But there is such a thing as a happy or good divorce, too. The divorce in which ex-spouses continue to work together, for the benefit of their children in most cases. My own divorce is a good one. Our friends have often referred to us as “Modern Family” because of our continued commitment during divorce. My ex, after six years apart, continues to come to my home twice a week to take care of our children, separate from the every-other-weekend they spend at his house. He even puts up with an “ex-honey do list” that includes such items as please putting in and taking out the air conditioning units, or unclogging the toilet that I attempted but ended with me gagging and swearing. I am blessed enough that his girlfriend, whom he lives with and shares a life with, puts up with such nonsense. Or at least I think she does! We often sit together at our kids’ sporting events, even though I sometimes want to push him off his seat when he gets heated. We buy each other Christmas, birthday and Mothers Day/Fathers Day gifts from the kids. I send him random funny anecdotes and pictures of our kids via text. We don’t usually fight about money, or at least no more often than most semi-happily married couples. We are not perfect. Sometimes when I come home and see him sitting there, I think, “Leave. Now. My house. Go.” But I don’t, because deep in my heart I know he’s a good guy and he is a great Dad. We do fight sometimes. But it’s a good divorce, in which we both love our children, cooperate, are compassionate, compromise and communicate. Man, that’s a lot of C’s! Living separately takes a lot of the pressure off ex-spouses who struggled with years of discomfort. In that way, divorce can settle in, become comfortable, and end happily. Just like marriage. Because they are a lot alike!