03/06/2014 10:13 am ET Updated May 06, 2014

Getting Unmarried vs. Divorced: What's the Difference?

Over the years I've had many first-time clients begin a coaching session saying, "I don't want to get divorced. I just want to get unmarried.

When I ask them to explain, there is a common thread. Often they say, "I don't want a nasty, drawn out battle like my parents had. It was horrible and they still hate each other so much they can't be in the same room together." Or, "My spouse is a good person, we just aren't good together. I (we) want to be fair to each other. We don't want an ugly scene, especially since we have kids to raise. We really want to stay friends."

Each time they look at me pleadingly, as if to say, "I know this sounds crazy, but I just want to get unmarried. What do I do?"

First of all, it's not crazy. It's admirable and key to moving on in a very healthy, promising way. When I explain this, I tend to get one of two reactions. Some are relieved, others simply can't grasp the fact they, as a couple, get to determine how amicable, nasty or costly the divorce will be -- even when I tell them there is no magic to a good divorce, just determination and mutual respect.

Divorce is rarely easy, and often divorcing couples are overcome by a sense of failure. This leads to feeling stigma and pain, which in turn translates to into anger, depression, shame and, sadly, ugly battles over dividing property, time with kids, and more.

Taming emotions under such circumstances often requires heroic efforts but it's worth it because if you can let go without needing to punish, you get a real chance at a fresh start... and bridges can be mended.

This past weekend, I was at a family's celebration for their dad's 95th birthday. Several of the children had been through divorce, each handling it very differently.

One son told me he'd had a nasty divorce, and was consumed by revenge until he read the book Dance of Anger by Harriet Lerner. The book helped him realize his toxic approach was getting him nowhere. Admirably, he chose to change course and negotiate a fair settlement, respecting his ex and son's needs. However, as he talked, it was clear he was still stuck in anger over a divorce that happened years ago. And, neither his son or ex were at the party.

A daughter had gotten unmarried very amicably. Although her divorce occurred many years ago, and there were no children, her ex was at the party too -- and he was clearly a valued member of the family. Another son, who'd managed an amicable divorce, works with his ex to respectfully co-parent (even spending holidays as a family for the kids' sake). His daughters were there with him and his ex is still friends with the family.

So, thanks to my clients, I've become aware of the difference between getting divorced and getting unmarried. Divorce conjures up an angry, ugly legal battle often with a lose/lose ending. One that keeps you stuck in unhappily-ever-after. Getting unmarried, on the other hand, is a split acknowledging a once loving relationship that no longer works. It means being courageous enough to accept change, however painful it may be, and move on respectfully.

Understanding the difference is important. It lets you trade old baggage for a new beginning ... while maintaining valued relationships. That's success.