The other day at lunch a client was telling me that he couldn’t figure out what he did wrong: “I never cheated. I never drank. I never hit her,” he lamented. “What happened? Why is she so angry?”
I see it all the time: male clients completely surprised when their wives ask for a divorce. More importantly, when the case turns nasty — often involving family offense allegations or arrest — male clients might lose advantages that they had going into a case. Bad divorces can cost you time with the kids and extra money in support and legal fees.
Here are my top tips for men to help avoid the price-tag of a contentious divorce and strive to find an amicable solution:
1. The most important thing: just listen. When she says she’s fed up, she is. If she says she wants a divorce, she does. And if she serves you with divorce papers or accuses you of a crime? Forget about reconciling. In most cases, by the time you are being served with a divorce summons, your wife has very well explored her feelings and decided that she would be happier without you. Continuing to call her over and over again will only result in claims that you harassed or even threatened her. Now is the time to explore your own feelings and resolve that your future can still be bright and full despite the divorce. Whether or not you have been served with divorce papers, this means not only listening to your wife, but also listening to your own inner feelings too.
2. Don’t fall into the role-playing game. Many times the “male provider – female homemaker” dynamic in a marriage can create problems that lead to a dramatic divorce. For example, I see couples struggle with this circle of domestic strife frequently: when the kids came, she wanted to be valued for her childcare abilities and chided you for “doing it wrong.” But that just undermined your confidence with the kids, forcing her to do more of the childcare, even when she wanted your help. Meanwhile, you feel like she plays with the kids all day while you slave away at the office. You are less inclined to give her a break with the housework and the kids, which undermines your marriage because she becomes bitter at the lack of help at home. Tackle this problem head-on, because if divorce is on the horizon you want to be an equal participant with your kids and preserve your time with them. You’ll also be better positioned financially if she has a job and isn’t relying only on you for support.
Tip: Avoid these stereotypes by acknowledging each other as full people, no matter what role you play.
3. Make the effort to connect. She’s hurt when you plop in front of the television to unwind and don’t discuss your day. You’ve been haggling with opponents and chatting with coworkers, while she’s been negotiating with a terrorist three-year-old and subjected to endless Barney sing-a-longs. Finally, after long, unappreciated hours with no intellectual stimulation and hardly any personal time, both of you are fed up. The fighting escalates; maybe you think she’s over-reacting when she says she wants a divorce. She feels the need to get your attention with a dramatic message and a nasty divorce fight may be possible. If you are already stuck in a rut in your marriage you must make an effort to connect and talk about it. Look for ways that you can help her with the domestic and mental loads and encourage her to find meaningful work outside the home. See a therapist together to discuss this dynamic and work on this before the marriage suffers. You won’t always be able to save your marriage, but not every divorce must be acrimonious.
Enter my client, who sits across from me at lunch lamenting his fate. The surprise of a contentious divorce can sometimes lead to settlements that comprise less-than-ideal access to the kids, and more-than equitable financial support.
Were you caught off-guard by your divorce? Discuss in the comments.