During your divorce is not a good time to be a man (or a woman, or a non-binary person, for that matter). It is, at best, going to be one of the most difficult times in your life, if only because the loss of most adults’ most significant romantic relationship is incredibly traumatic, not to mention the impact on any children from the marriage and the potential financial consequences associated with turning one household into two.
That doesn’t mean that you can’t be a “good man” in the midst of what might be the worst time in your life.
Depending on the reasons for the end of your marriage and the dynamic with which both you and your spouse have been living for the last weeks, months or years of your marriage, wanting to have a “good” divorce or be a “good man” in the midst of the turmoil may not only seem unlikely but impossible. “She cheated on me,” you say, “I should make her pay.” Yet, while that is a perfectly reasonable emotional response, it is best shared with a good mental health professional, friends and family, and kept as far away from your divorce as possible, unless you like spending your marital estate on litigation rather than on yourself.
Guilt and avoidance are just as dangerous, though. You may think, “I cheated on her, I deserve whatever she dishes out. I’ll just agree to whatever she wants.” Or you may decide, “She’s being so crazy, I’m going to just go along to get along and hope she doesn’t get worse.” Believe it or not, boundaries are a kindness to the other people in our lives, even the other people with whom we currently have conflict, like a divorcing spouse. Furthermore, again, unless you like spending your wealth on lawyers or repeatedly traumatizing your children with endemic parental conflict, giving in to unsustainable outcomes just to avoid conflict or assuage your guilt is a short term strategy that causes significant long-term pain not only for you but for your ex and your kids.
At its core, being a good man in your divorce means doing as little harm, not only to yourself, but to the rest of your family—and yes that means your ex-wife or ex-husband—as humanly possible. Here are six of the most important steps to minimize the harm of your divorce and be a “good man” throughout the divorce process:
1. PUT YOUR CHILDREN FIRST.
This one is in all capital letters for a reason.
If you have kids, this whole getting divorced thing gets a lot harder. Most states (divorce law is state-by-state specific, not unified federally, although there are some important similarities across many states) have some variety of a shared parenting paradigm. What that means is that most states expect divorcing parents to continue to both raise their children, ideally as co-parents.
It is not your kids’ fault that you married this person and chose to be parents. It is not your kids’ fault that you and your soon-to-be-ex are blowing up your marriage. It is not your kids fault that he cheated on you, or that she is a crazy nightmare, or that she can’t stop running up tens of thousands of dollars on the American Express card, or whatever factually happened to turn your intact family into a divorce. It is also not your kids’ fault that your parents’ errors set you up for toxic relationship dynamics leading to… this very divorce.
So why would you return the favor by setting them up for toxic relationship dynamics by demonstrating that you can’t even put your own children first over whatever emotional reaction you are having at any given moment to the end of your marriage (and you are likely to have various, vacillating emotional reactions from moment to moment)?
Research shows over and over again that exposing kids to parental high conflict also increases their risks for other negative long-term outcomes, like clinical depression, negative self-esteem, and their own issues in adult relationships. A good man does not do this to his kids. Period. It is also often confusing to children to meet their parents’ significant others too soon, or before a relationship is serious and committed. A good rule of thumb is to wait to introduce the kids to a new partner for at least six months, and to wait at least six to 12 months after the divorce before introducing the first new partner to the children.
Also, what better way to deescalate things with your spouse, and to demonstrate good faith going forward, than to focus on the kids (and not parade a new significant other around). It is awfully hard (absent major dysfunction at least) for another parent to remain angry or perpetuate extra drama with a parent who is focused on the children’s best interests consistently.
What if I don’t have kids, you say? Then put the dog first, or the cats, or the bird, or whatever. But really, in all seriousness, the global lesson here is that other people should not be caught in the crossfire of divorcing spouses.
2. Get Good Help.
There are times during your divorce that you will not be rational. That’s OK. In fact, if it were anything other, you might be a robot (which is a much bigger problem for relationships with humans). There are times when the emotions of it, the uncertainty of the process, and the financial consequences of this major life change become completely overwhelming. And to add to all of that, you may be losing your primary source of adult emotional support at the same time.
The first component of getting good help is to rally your support system. Find a therapist. Call your parents and tell them what’s going on. Rally your old friends from high school and college. Share the news with trusted colleagues or a mentor. Look, don’t abandon all sense of discretion (see below) and bleat every detail of your divorce and how it makes you feel to anybody who will listen (it’s rude to trap the waitress with your tale of woe, she literally can’t leave without being chastised by her boss). Similarly, just because it says “call your parents” doesn’t mean “call your parents who abused you as a child and will shame you for getting divorced.” It means reach out to the people—or find new people—to support you through the bad times and celebrate the wins, as well as to be a sounding board and distraction before you turn all that emotional volatility and frustration on your divorcing spouse and make matters significantly worse. And do it in a professional, respectful fashion.
The other component of getting good help is to get a good lawyer, or at least good legal advice. While it is true that many people can do an amicable “kitchen table divorce,” if at all in doubt, or unsure what is fair or expected under the law in your state, talk to a professional. However, as much as I (a divorce lawyer) hate to admit it, not all lawyers are created equal. Surviving law school and squeaking through the bar does not a brilliant family law attorney make. Just because your cousin’s fraternity brother from Arkansas’s sister’s friend is a brilliant corporate lawyer in New York does not mean she has any business giving you advice about a Florida divorce.
Furthermore, while there are certainly many excellent divorce lawyers that radically undercharge for their services, and/or provide free consultations, the old adage that “you get what you pay for” does have some truth to it, in the sense that you should not just pick the cheapest lawyer or cheapest consultation option. Instead, ask around, get referrals, read reviews on the internet and check out some websites, and assess for yourself how well you connect with this lawyer and whether they seem to understand you, be on your side, and also are willing to stand up to you if that’s what it means to give you good legal advice (good legal advice does not equal telling you what you want to hear).
Which brings me to…:
3. Set (and maintain) appropriate boundaries.
You want your advisors and support system to tell you the truth.
Yes, even when it hurts.
Yes, even when it’s not what you want to hear.
Yes, even when the truth is “No, I won’t give you what you want.”
Good men strive for good emotional health, whether they happen to be in the middle of a divorce or not. Being a good man in your divorce means having pretty darn good emotional hygiene because this is going to be hard. You are going to want to lose your cool (however that looks for you) a lot. The system, your ex, your lawyer, your parents, your kids, and everything in between, down to the receptionist at work who smiles knowingly as you slink out early yet again for another co-parenting class, are going to frustrate you to no end.
Your marriage is ending. You bear some responsibility for that. On the other hand, your ex’s marriage is also ending and she or he bears some responsibility for that too. Here’s the thing: you can only control one-half of this equation, your part. You can only be accountable for one part, and the only person from whom you can expect responsibility is you too. You need to figure out how to take responsibility for your part in this situation (which may include relinquishing some things too) and how to stop taking responsibility for your former spouse’s part (which may include saying “no” in a respectful and thoughtful fashion).
Communicate your boundaries clearly, consistently and kindly.
That’s boundaries in a nutshell. The rest is just details.
4. Play fairly.
Seriously. Play fair. You’re a grown adult man that has managed to get married and maybe even have some children. You know what playing fair means.
Now, to be fair, your self-awareness and ability to assess what is fair versus what is demanding too much versus what is being a pushover is probably compromised during your divorce.
Think about it this way. You need to be fair to yourself and to your ex.
Being fair to your ex does not mean making them happy or giving them their way. It means honesty, full disclosure of all assets, liabilities, income and expenses, transparency, and kindness. It means coming to the table less focused on what you deserve or your rights (or on punishing and hurting your ex) and more focused on finding a solution that is rational and reasonable within the bounds of the law in your state.
Being fair to yourself does not mean standing your ground at all costs or insisting that you always get your way without compromise. It means holding your ex accountable to the same transparency that you owe them, and it means having the courage to ask for what you need and advocate for yourself in a reasoned manner.
If you have any questions about whether you are walking this fairness line appropriately, see #2 above. Also, while a collaborative process is not right for many families, even many that can amicably divorce, the concepts and strategies of collaborative divorce are a good resource for fair play.
5. Don’t be a jerk.
A few pro tips though:
- Keep gender and sexual preference out of it. Not only women are stay-at-home partners, and not only men are primary breadwinners, and non-binary people have marital relationships too. Divorce is bad enough without additional shame and mudslinging driven by outdated social stigmas.
- Do not falsify abuse allegations. Do not falsify substance use allegations. Do not falsify serious mental health concerns. And by falsify, I also mean exaggerate.
- Similarly, no mental health shaming. It is not a problem that you or your spouse is in therapy during a divorce; in fact, it’s a good thing. There is no shame in taking an SSRI, or having a little bit of anxiety during a divorce. Divorce is going to put you under a microscope if you don’t allow for both yourself and your ex to be a little bit human.
- Do not cut your spouse off financially (but do set reasonable boundaries). Don’t try to starve her out, and don’t make threats to leave him with anything if he doesn’t go along with what you want.
- Keep your private business private, and particularly do not smear your spouse all over the kids’ schools, doctors, friends’ parents, etc.
- Don’t parade your new relationship in front of your ex, and don’t spend marital funds on a new relationship.
6. Remember Where This All Started….
Once upon a time, in a land far far away, you fell in love with this person. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out, and for whatever reason, you are getting divorced. You may have had children with this person. At the same time, this person loved you back and chose to build a life with you.
You are going to like everybody more than your soon-to-be-ex-wife at various points, even your divorce lawyer. But once, you liked your ex more than anybody else. I always say, if it comes down to giving your ex another $10,000 or paying me to take it to trial, give them the money. I’m just a lawyer.
I’m not saying give away everything to “keep it in the family” rather than giving it to the lawyers. Just try to find a way to divorce that provides an independent path forward for both of you as you leave the marriage.
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