Remember the day you got engaged? What was your focus?
The wash of love? Visions of your happy future? Excitement about planning the wedding?
Whatever it was, I'm willing to bet it wasn't the paperwork.
Yet when it comes to divorce, couples consistently try to skip straight to the paperwork. We do our best to ignore the complex emotions swirling around our split in favor of just "filing divorce papers." The problem with this approach is divorce -- just like marriage -- is not about the paperwork, it's about a significant life transition.
Think about it. You've spent years together, sharing a home and heartaches, creating and raising children and intermingling finances, friends and dreams of a future together. Relatively speaking, the paperwork will probably be the easy part.
Obviously, there are many legal issues that must be dealt with in a divorce. But just as your marriage did not begin with attorneys or legal papers, neither should your divorce.
This is the one thing your marriage and your divorce should share: the legal paperwork should be your last concern.
Instead, put people first. How is this transition going to impact your kids now -- and for the next 20 years? How are you and your spouse going to maintain a high quality of life when you divide assets and double expenses? How are you going to keep relationships with "couple friends" and extended family?
The law can't, in any meaningful way, help with any of this.
After more than a decade of helping families through divorce, including most recently as founder of an in-office and online divorce service, I can say unequivocally that divorce is not a legal problem. In fact, when you treat divorce like a legal problem you magnify the likelihood of fighting, expensive legal bills, and months or years of your life wasted limping through the court system.
A typical divorce starts with one spouse hiring an attorney to initiate a lawsuit. (Yes, even an uncontested divorce is a lawsuit. Ridiculous.) This attorney drafts a small mountain of paperwork, and then hires a process server to announce to the other spouse "you've been served." The spouse who was served -- the defendant -- typically has about 20 days to respond. Usually this means hiring a lawyer for themselves. Cha-ching. Can't afford to pay? In most states, if you want to file your own divorce, it will require completing more than a dozen different documents, many of them several pages long. The process is painful, time-consuming and absolutely ignores the real issues surrounding divorce.
This system is archaic, barbaric and destroys families. Imagine if we started our marriages this way...
Thankfully, a handful of states and counties are trying to simplify the divorce filing process. But these changes are primarily a reaction to having too great of a caseload and not enough budget. Even these simplified processes fail to substantively address the emotional and financial costs of divorce. In some ways, they enable us to sweep the emotional impacts of divorce under the rug, only to be cleaned up later by counselors, teachers and parents.
I'll say it again: divorce is not a legal problem. Divorce is an emotional and financial problem, it just has legal implications.
Yes, if you were legally married and enjoyed the benefits and protections of marriage under the law, you must be legally divorced. Still, I hope we can agree that divorce, like marriage, is primarily about emotions and finances. And if that is true, then perhaps we can also agree that we should untie the knot with as much respect and dignity as we initially used to tie it.