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How to Deal with Feelings of Lack of Control while Navigating Divorce Court

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I suppose it's an occupational hazard. It happens regularly. First, there's a moment of awkwardness. They recognize, but can't place me. Then it hits them: I am the judge on Divorce Court, and that's when it begins. People start telling me about their own divorce.

Of course, all of their stories star the very same trinity of evil: their jerk ex, his or her vulture attorney, and that idiot judge. I swallow hard on that last one but don't take it personally. Though each story has a life of its own, there is usually a common theme, and it is not, as one might imagine, their anger over who got what when it was over. Instead they tell me about the overwhelming sense of lack of control they felt during the process.

I can't say I blame them. At one of the most vulnerable moments in their lives, they get dumped into a legal process they know very little about. And then, in this foreign place, they are asked to disassemble their lives. They must reduce the most important aspects of their existence to a few pieces of paper that will define not only their marital status, but much of what they have, where it is they will live and how often they can see their own kids.

It often leaves the parties feeling, at best, unheard and sometimes downright abused.

Few things are more difficult than untangling lives that have been intertwined on every level for years in a manner that feels equitable to all involved. Laws can never adequately address all of the nuances of everyday life and the entire range of human behavior.

So what happens? Unfortunately, in order to achieve resolution, the law is often forced to make generalizations with respect to what is fair. Which makes most states' answer to "how do we end this?" seem somewhat arbitrary. While there's not much one can do about the inherent inadequacy of the system to deal with the emotional side of divorce, there are things you can do to lessen its impact.
  • Understand and come to terms with the limits of the system.
  • It is important to understand the law in your area and come to terms with it. Concentrating on how unfair it is will not help. Knowing when and where the judge has discretion will. Understanding the law before you wed yourself to a position will allow you to establish realistic goals. This, in turn, will help keep you from wasting emotional capital on things you cannot change and assist you in focusing more productively on those you can.
  • Remember that your friend's divorce is not your own.
  • Obviously, divorce laws differ from country to country but they also change form state to state. You cannot get a valid understanding of your Vermont divorce by talking to your newly unwed cousin in Arizona. Again, that establishes expectations that might hinder your ability to tolerate what's about to actually happen.
  • Make sure you understand all of your non-judicial alternatives.
Yes, divorce is a legal proceeding, but adversarial maneuvering is not the only way to reach that legal end. Divorcing couples should consider all of their options, including Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). It is, in its most common form, a mediation process in which a neutral third party helps the divorcing couple hammer out an agreement.

Importantly, ADR can work even when a divorce is not amicable. Divorce mediators are trained in de-escalating hostilities and dealing with angry and uncooperative spouses. Of course, if The War of the Roses has already broken out, mediation may not be the way to go. But some animosity is anticipated and is often handled well.

ADR can take several forms. Along with mediation there is collaborative divorce, a process in which both parties are represented by counsel. The point is, ADR is a viable and increasingly available option that can leave you with a greater sense of control.

In the end, remember the judicial process is really only designed to do two things: be fair in implementing the law as it exists and provide resolution to the parties.

That being said, just as the judicial system has two goals, so should you. While seeking a favorable legal outcome you should also actively pursue emotional resolution. However, sometimes in order to achieve the latter, you may have to redefine the former. Freedom and peace of mind have a value all their own. And at the end of the day, no matter what I or some other idiot judge says about what you take when you leave, the point is you really can live happily ever after -- even after this.