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Abby Tolchinsky

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Older and Wiser

Posted: 01/ 4/2012 9:20 pm

While the world is preoccupied by the very public and briefest of celebrity marriages (think Kim and Kris) we family and divorce mediators see images of a prototypical young couple with no children, married for a short time, going through divorce -- every aspect of their lives important fodder for negotiation, right down to the wedding china. As divorce professionals, we see, time and again, that these intensely felt perspectives reverberate and shift over the life of a marriage. In other words, the length and age of the marriage may inform how a couple negotiates and prioritizes their settlement. In fact, the shifts that come with experience and decades of a shared life, often seem to result in easier and more generous divorce settlements.

While all couples contemplating divorce experience more than a measure of sadness, anger, perhaps fear and certainly disappointment, young couples, with short-term marriages, no jointly held assets and no children tend to negotiate intensely over "the stuff." The seriousness of effort to reach an agreement over personal property, while understandable, may prolong the divorce process, but simultaneously may afford a measure of closure. That said, the cost and preoccupation with the details can consume one's day-to-day life. If you are spending significant amounts of time worrying about replacing that Crate and Barrel sofa, or what it is worth to you, that's time away from career, friends and family -- time that can be much more healing.

For couples in the throes of mid-life -- kids in school, careers in full-swing, a mortgage, college savings accounts -- and divorce on the horizon, the divorce settlement is typically couched in a fusion of past and future. These families tend to be deeply motivated by their shared parenting role, the need to analyze their budgets and to provide for everyone in the most reasonable way possible, while contemplating their best hopes for the future. Keeping the kids front and center during these discussions facilitates bringing compassion into the conversation as well as a dose of realism as to what is affordable, who should live where and what each can hope to earn, afford and provide going forward.

Finally, there are the empty nest divorces -- couples who have shared a long married life and are parting ways. Often the divorce has been contemplated, by at least one spouse, for years. Time and again, we observe patterns unique to these divorces. It seems that with age and experience, the value of money, of time and of peace in the relationship are significant motivating factors in the negotiations. Older couples reflect on what provides a good life -- on the importance of quality health insurance and the value of a home. They rarely wish to spend time battling each other, opting instead to value time pursuing fulfilling activities and seeking a measure of dignity in the divorce process. And, like mid-life couples, the kids inform their behavior. In this case, having raised the kids, they often cherish the accomplishment and mutual dreams for their adult kids, wishing too for a shared grand-parenting experience.

The perspective with which these mature couples cope with the anger and disappointment also informs the dollars and cents settlement. For example, ensuring access to quality health insurance is often a top priority. So too, re-setting disparities in earnings and savings over the course of the lives, thereby creating independent retirements. Often these couples merely separate and avoid a final divorce judgment in order to preserve their spouse's access to insurance benefits. As they negotiate, the focus is often about making good choices for what remains of their future, rather than re-hashing past faults and bad choices. Compassion comes into play in an organic way. Perhaps with the children grown these adults can truly become independent of each other, seeking peace and fulfillment, and perhaps they have grown apart in a manner such that they already give each other space and accept those qualities they spent years trying to change.