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Divorce is terrible. No matter how many jokes you hear about it, or how many people celebrate once it’s final, it’s a big deal for most of us.
First, the necessary disclaimer: I’m not an attorney, a therapist, or any other kind of professional. Take what applies (if any), leave the rest. I’m simply a screw-up who made about a million mistakes leading up to filing for divorce, and continued the pattern after I’d filed. We were a mess of a couple while we were married, and that only became more obvious in divorce. High conflict divorce is no joke, and I had no idea what I was about to get into. Hindsight being 20/20, there are a few things I wish I’d known.
There’s a reason you’re getting a divorce.
More than likely, healthy communication and respecting boundaries isn’t your strong suit as a couple.
A lot of the below is based on my experience with the divorce from hell. It was high conflict, high drama, and highly painful for both of us. That isn’t the case for many, but I’m tired of reading all of the well-meaning advice out there that assumes we’re dealing with emotionally stable individuals.
People tried to tell me all of this, by the way. I was a stubborn, selfish idiot. There’s no sugarcoating that. I was also reeling from trauma, abuse, and my own screw-ups.
I’m fully aware that even with me writing this list out, you may still need to make your own mistakes before you learn. That was me, and learning from our own mistakes is an unfortunate but necessary part of life. However, if just one of these speaks to you enough to help, it’ll be worth my time.
All of the below pieces of advice apply no matter how high conflict or friendly you think your particular situation will be.
1. Yes, They Could Screw You Over. Document Everything.
“They would never _________!” should be written on the tombstone of every failed marriage. Yes, they would! So would you. Maybe they wouldn’t, but prepare for it. People do really, really shitty things when they’re going through one of the worst times in their lives, especially when they don’t have any reason to consider your feelings anymore.
I don’t care how smoothly you think your divorce is going to go. You’re probably wrong, but that’s not the point. Document everything. Record everything. Always, always be recording. If you’re still living together and/or married, store this information somewhere safe that they can’t access. Even if you’re not “going after” anything, you need to protect yourself against bogus accusations as well. Don’t set them up or create situations simply to record, just keep your phone ready to go.
Check into your local laws on privacy and recording, and do not use it as blackmail or an excuse to harass. Recording is to protect yourself (and possibly your children), not to harm them. If it’s a particularly high conflict situation, limit communication as much as possible to email and text only. You’ll have better records, and it’s easier to separate yourself from your emotions that way.
I know somebody who did this, and his divorce went smoothly because he had evidence. It actually kept from getting ugly, because he protected himself. Documentation doesn’t have to be spiteful, it’s protection.
2. Your “Vices” Can Be Your Downfall.
I’m primarily talking about substance abuse and alcohol here, but it can apply to a lot of other areas. If you drink, trust me – dial it back, or cut it out altogether. I wish I had, oh my do I wish I had. I wasn’t honest about the drinking, and I wasn’t ready to face it. If I had quit drinking prior to divorce, I would have avoided an insane amount of heartache (he would have, too).
Instead, I was obstinate and angry. “Screw you, I’m finally free from you and I’ll do what I want,” was my attitude. Oh man, did I pay for that. Eventually I quit drinking, but the damage was done.
It should go without saying that if illegal drugs are an issue, that should stop immediately. If prescription drugs are an issue, be honest with your doctor and be very careful. I’m not a doctor, so this is very bullet-pointed, but you get the idea.
If this turns out to be harder than you expected, reach out for help. You’ll probably want to use the divorce or relationship issues as an excuse to continue, but don’t. Even if it’s just temporary, get through your divorce sober and clean. There is no situation that a drink or a drug can’t make even worse.
Don’t talk to your ex about this without talking to your attorney first. Get yourself cleaned up, with help, without looking for approval or validation from your ex.
I’m assuming that the divorce is imminent, and they could be recording everything. Get clean for you, not to get them back. You have to be clean and sober to face the situation, and handle it better than you would otherwise.
3. It’s Rarely All One Person’s Fault.
Documenting important evidence didn’t come to my mind, because I believed the lie that the entire divorce was my fault. To be sure, I ended the marriage in a terribly hurtful, damaging way. There’s no getting around that. I was not the sole reason the entire marriage was a bust, though. That took years of codependency, alcoholism, narcissism, and debauchery on both our parts.
I didn’t look at the situation as an outsider, and I was used to making excuses for him and covering for him. That continued into our divorce. I took the full blame for our failed marriage, even though it really was a two-way street. As a result, I didn’t document much until it was too late. Since it was all my fault, why document anything? All I had to do was walk to the chopping block. I believed that lie, and it cost me until I woke up.
By the way, that goes both ways. It’s highly unlikely that your ex is 100% at fault either, so resist the blame game. Unless you’re actually going to stay together and work through it, determining any kind of blame is a waste of time and energy (honestly, it is a waste regardless). What’s done is done, all you can do now is move forward.
4. Expect Your Plans To Get Thrown Out the Window.
In the beginning of my divorce, I thought things were going to go much better than they did. He told me he was going to do a lot of things that he didn’t end up doing, and he promised that he would never do certain things that he did end up doing. I probably did the same.
Plans are a joke when you’re going through a divorce. You can only make your own plans, not anybody else’s. It’s going to be a hell of a storm, emotionally or otherwise, no matter what you plan.
Remember that they may not care to work with you anymore, even if you have kids. It’s harsh, but it’s true. In a perfect world, we’re all mature adults who put the kids first. In reality, we’re trying to separate ourselves from a likely toxic relationship, and that gets messy.
5. Kids Don’t Care How Much You Dislike The Other Parent.
Their relationship with their parent is separate from yours. Unless they are in actual danger (that you can prove reasonably enough – remember the recording?), step back. Let their relationship with that parent be their own.
Kids only care about how the whole situation will affect them. I had to continually reiterate to my three children, who were 2, 5, and 7 at the time, that they were safe, loved, and not at fault for any of this. That’s all they really needed to know.
6. Don’t Expect Your Attorney To Do All the Work.
Gathering evidence and presenting your case is a lot of work. Even if you end up with a no-fault divorce, you’ll want to keep all of your documentation somewhere easy to access. You never know when things could go crazy.
Keep a binder somewhere, either digitally (ready to print) or actual hard-copies. Print or file everything, even if it’s just by the month or category.
Imagine that you are going to be giving a presentation to the court, but without any kind of technology. That’s exactly what you could end up doing, and it is useless to have a pile of evidence if you don’t have the time to really explain it. Print out blank calendars, and highlight or otherwise notate everything you can in a visual way.
I printed blank calendars, and then took different colored highlighters to show harassment, missed visitation, missed payments, and other situations (using texts and emails as references). My binder was full of post-it note bookmarks for different categories, dates, and events. A good friend of mine helped put it together with me, and it made a huge difference.
7. The Judge Has Seen This All Before.
You are not a special snowflake. The judge isn’t going to sit and read through your book of texts or emails. They want bullet points, and quick. This is why a visual representation is so important. The book of evidence is necessary to back up the bullet points, but the odds of them being read cover to cover are slim to none. You need them, but you can’t rely on them to make your case for you.
You are not the first couple divorcing in his or her courtroom. They’ve seen infidelity, drug use, alcoholism, abuse, and more. They’ve likely seen it all, and you are not going to be the one unique case that stands out for special treatment. The law and children are the most important if you have children. That will be their priority, not your feelings.
8. You Have to Set Firm Boundaries and Move On.
The most important advice I can give is to emotionally separate yourself from that person. Set some reasonable yet firm boundaries, and stick to them. Let other people know your boundaries, so they can keep you accountable.
If you are a codependent, this will be hard. You will need some serious support to learn how to separate your emotions, responsibilities, and overall identity from your ex. I didn’t realize I was a codependent, or what that even meant, so I continued enabling behaviors long after I should have separated.
Regardless if you struggle with that or not, you’ve probably lived with this person for a long time. Reach out to friends who aren’t mutual. If you’re comfortable, have a trusted friend – somebody who can stay calm – read your texts and emails (this was a huge help for me to keep me from going off on him all the time). Move on with your life, wishing the best for them, but not enabling or harming them.
Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.
Would you add anything to this list?
This is based on my experience, and my observations from watching others go through pretty bad divorces. I don’t speak for all divorcees. Your situation could be roses and sunshine and singing kum-bah-ya together around the campfire, and if so that is amazing. If you have advice to add to this that would help somebody out, please share in the comments!
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Hi! I'm Ashley, and my sobriety date is May 6, 2015. I write to share my experience, strength, and hope in recovery. On any given day, you can find me developing websites, writing, or chauffeuring kids around. Read my story...
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