Divorce is obviously a difficult time in most people’s lives, but we wanted to find out if there were strategies for making it easier for divorcing couples (and their kids).
To get the answer, we talked to New Jersey divorce lawyer Megan S. Murray to find out the good, the bad, and the ugly about what makes a divorce a disaster or not. What we found out is that there are real, repeatable strategies to making a divorce work for all parties involved.
Q: So you’ve been doing this for a long time. You’ve seen a lot of different divorces over the years. Is there any common thread about why or when people get divorced?
Megan: Obviously, every case is unique, but over my 14 years of practice some common themes are apparent. Number one, I see that many times people get divorced because there’s not general respect for the contributions of the other party to the marriage.
As an example, I deal with lots of cases where the status quo in the marriage is that the husband works long days and commutes into the city. He gets up every day at 5:00 am and doesn’t get home until 8:00 p.m. And then you have the wife, who might be a traditional homemaker, or works more locally and bears most or all of the household duties, child care and activity responsibilities, groceries, errands, and on and on.
You see a breakdown where both parties are really tired at the end of the day or the workweek and either want some time for themselves to relax, but there’s another thing to do and obligation to meet. Both parties get pulled in multiple directions and can’t provide that relief valve for the other. There’s a resentment that grows.
It’s certainly difficult and unfortunate. It’s even harder when children are involved. I truly believe that if people could have respect for what the other party is contributing to the marriage and understand that everybody has different roles, but every role was important in making the marriage work, marriages would last a lot longer.
Of course, I’ve seen plenty of cases too where one party or the other truly does bear a disproportionate amount of the couple’s responsibilities. There it’s less a matter of the parties’ perception as it is actually contributing equally.
Another common pitfall I see often is the idea that they can change their spouse. When people are in a dating relationship, sometimes there is a fundamental thing that the partner really doesn’t like. Or perhaps it’s something about their spouse that’s very different from them. It doesn’t work. And they believe, “Well, you know, there’s enough good stuff and I will change that.”
Generally, the fundamental traits of people very rarely change. There are always exceptions to the rule. But, if you’re dating someone who spends recklessly on their credit card, without a dime in the bank, you can’t expect that when you get married that they’re all of the sudden going to find fiscal responsibility. I see this type of thing all the time, where people think somebody’s suddenly going to be a saver, or someone who really is a homebody is suddenly going to become a party animal. And it drives them apart during the marriage, even though it was a fact that existed prior to the marriage even being there.
So, I think people need to understand that the fundamental traits in people generally don’t change.
Q: So how do trust and honesty fit into that scenario?
Megan: I think communication is one of the most fundamentally important parts of a relationship. And when people are unable to communicate with each other, trust breaks down. People close off, and practically live separate lives. That, in almost every case, is a death knell to a marriage.
I’ve seen marriage counseling work because it fosters a re-establishment of communication, which is the first step in repairing breaches of trust. It’s important that people strive as much as possible to be open and honest with each other. I think the more people communicate and recognize each other as a person–and again, going back to what I said before about the respect for the other person–the less likely they are to act in ways that would erode trust.
When people become closed off, the questions start to build. And then when you get closed off from your spouse, you may be more likely to stray in the marriage or to exclude them from your life to the standpoint that you don’t have that marital bond or relationship that you had in the past.
- So at the end of the day, the couple or the spouses have decided that the marriage can no longer continue, what makes a divorce good or bad from a legal or even just like a post-divorce life standpoint?
Megan: A divorce is worse if the two parties are contentious, and especially if there are children. I know it’s easy to say but very difficult to execute upon. There are relationships where spouses recognize that the marriage needs to come to an end, and maybe they’ve tried to save it and it just can’t continue. And if the people involved can be adults, and understand that at some point in time they loved each other, and that this is a human being, they can work out the result of their post-judgment life in a way that’s fair and equitable to both of them. That doesn’t mean they necessarily don’t need attorneys. And in fact, a lot of cases, you will need attorneys because maybe one person doesn’t really understand the finances, and both parties generally don’t know the law.
But if parties can have a respect for each other, go out and say, “Look, let’s get attorneys, let’s play fairly, let’s have a cooperative exchange of information. Let’s communicate with each other in terms of a fair parent-time schedule for the children based on their best interest,” they are less likely to have the disastrous divorce you hear horror stories about where they’re spending tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in counsel fee, putting their children in the middle of the litigation, and generally perpetuating strife and hardship.
Children are very perceptive. They understand when their parents are not happy with each other and their parents aren’t communicating, and it can be very damaging for children, and economically devastating for the parties, leading into their post-divorce life. They could have implications forever. Because if you’re taking whatever you acquired in the marital state and using that to pay attorneys because you can agree between, you know, what’s black and white, it’s going to be disastrous for both parties, likely the children and can have serious ramifications for the rest of the party’s life.
Q: So is there an early sign that a divorce is going to be a good or bad one, as a divorce lawyer?
Megan: There are key signs. You know, from a lawyer’s standpoint, I know that there are certain practitioners who like to engender acrimony. Unfortunately, we are already in a situation where the parties may be acrimonious. And the worst thing you can do, as an attorney for a client, engenders that acrimony. So I know right off the bat, if a client’s spouse has retained certain attorneys, that it’s going to probably be a contentious case, regardless of what we do on our end.
You see sometimes where a party suddenly turns a molehill into a mountain regarding habits of the soon-to-be ex-spouse.
For instance, say with custody, mom, every night of the marriage, had a glass of wine with dinner and suddenly, my client, the husband, is telling me mom’s an alcoholic, she shouldn’t be with the children, even though mom is taking care of the children every single day and has been a good mom throughout the marriage.
I think it’s important that attorneys get control of their clients right at the onset of a case to make sure that they’re not taking unreasonable positions. I believe a divorce attorney can do no better service for their client than preventing them from taking unreasonable positions. Keeping a client within the bounds of reason is invaluable in preserving a client’s wealth and sanity. The problem is when you hear unreasonable positions coming from the other side. There are real concerns there because if an attorney is not going to ground their clients in facts and reality, you’re probably going to have a really contentious case.
Q: Is there a way to make sure that you’re hiring a lawyer that won’t stoke the fires if you will?
Megan: Hire me. Seriously though, it can be tough to identify right off the bat for a divorcing spouse. A lot depends on the client’s perspective going in. The client may not realize how over-the-top their approach or expectations may be coming in. And that’s understandable as it’s almost always the first time a client has had to venture into the situation. They have no frame of reference. That’s why it’s really important for a person who is dealing with these issues for the first time to do a lot of research, talk to friends and family who may have relevant experience, and interview with more than one attorney.
I do look at a client interview as a two-way street. If a potential client is clearly bent on stoking the fire, and I’m telling them, “Well, it’s not going to be that way,” they’re likely not going to retain me and they’re going to retain one of the attorneys that I’m telling you about who’s going to stoke the fires anyway. If they’re a client who’s trying to resolve it, they might come and say something unreasonable to me, but they just don’t know that, and so I tell them. If they’re a client who wants to do it the right way, they’re going to say, “Oh, this attorney is telling me this is how to do it, and I’m going to want this attorney because she isn’t trying to make it more acrimonious.” So generally, it’s the client’s mindset in terms of what they really want to accomplish and the tone they want the case to take. And I do find that the clients that I have, ultimately, we’re on the same page because we have the same philosophy about how a case should be resolved.
And of course, none of that is to say that there aren’t times where you find yourself in a position to have to dig in and draw a hard line with your adversary. That’s another advantage of taking reasonable positions; you keep a reserve of legitimacy for when the times in which it is necessary to hold strong on a position.
Q: So, in situations where you’ve seen a couple of divorce well, what’s the key to making that work?
Megan: The best thing a separating couple can do is keep emotion away from the litigation process. I know it can be an extremely difficult thing to do. By their very nature, divorces are a very emotional thing. But in terms of reaching an efficient and effective conclusion to the dissolution of a marriage, it helps so much to let reason, instead of resentment, be the driver of the decision-making process.
Respect and communication are very helpful as well. Of course, in most divorce situations that is well eroded by the time the process commences. A problem is that all these things, to some extent have to be a two-way street. That has come from both sides. And that is usually a rarity, again by the very nature of the situation. That is why it is so important to have the experience, earnest legal representation. Someone who can bring an outside perspective with expertise in the field. Someone you can trust not to create litigation for their own benefit, but also have the experience, knowledge, and confidence to be resolution in a position, when it is the correct one.
Q: So what happens if one of the spouses, in particular, is being difficult? Is there a way to get things back on track?
Megan: Yes, but it depends on how difficult that spouse is. I like to stay out of court as much as possible, because unfortunately, the court system’s day is very clogged and the process can be excruciatingly slow. And it’s not something where you can just go to a judge one day and say, “Hey, look, somebody’s not cooperating,” and they’ll give you relief. Through the court system, it can take a very long time to receive conclusive decisions. It’s primarily a function of how overworked the courts are. With a large number of cases, and small number of judges, it is difficult to get through.
So generally, if someone isn’t cooperating, I will first communicate with their attorney and make clear that there is non-cooperation. And if they have a good attorney, that attorney, in many cases, is able to get control of their client and tell the client, “Hey, if you’re not going to cooperate and play fairly in the sandbox, you’re going to wind up embroiled in expensive litigation.”
Unfortunately, if your spouse has an attorney that is not doing their job to get things back on track, then filing an application with the court could be unavoidable.
If there are issues that can’t be agreed upon, it usually makes sense to explore the possibility of alternative dispute resolution. Whether it be arbitration, mediation or some other avenue outside of the court system, those options can usually provide resolutions more quickly and economically. Of course, if one side is just completely resistant to being reasonable or doing what they should be doing, going to court and getting a judicial decree may be your only option.
Q: Have you ever seen a divorce move from being acrimonious to a more, what you would define as a collaborative one?
Megan: Yes, I’ve seen them go in both directions. I’ve seen cases where the parties say it’s going to be the worst divorce in the history of time and you resolve the divorce within a matter of months. Because both parties, even though they might have a complete distaste for each other, want to get the divorce done, so they provide the information they need. They might hate each other with a passion. But if they provide the information, cooperate with their attorneys, and keep those feelings out of the litigation process, you can get it done. Many people, rightly so, are more concerned with moving forward with their lives to get away from the acrimony. So even though they’re acrimonious with each other, they cooperate in getting things done to move along. And other times, sort of, emotions just die down during the divorce process and they see that the other party isn’t really trying to hurt them.
You know, sometimes maybe somebody’s been cheated on or something, has been betrayed by their spouse in some way. So they’re very angry at the time. And with time, they realize, you know, they’re ready for a new life, they’re ready to move on. They come to acceptance with regard to the fact that they can’t change the past, and it becomes a more cooperative, less acrimonious process. Again, I’ve seen the reverse where people think it’s going to be very cooperative, and for one reason or another, it becomes the complete opposite of that.
Q: Let’s see. So, I guess, any advice on how divorcing couples can work together to make things easier on their kids?
Megan: Yes. Parents should do their very best to insulate their kids from whatever acrimony they have toward their ex-spouse. Even though a couple might no longer be together, they will still be the mom and dad to their children forever. Again, I know it can be extremely difficult to not to have those bad feelings bubble up, but to mute those feelings as much as possible from the kids will make it so much easier emotionally and psychologically for the kids.
Obviously, the parents should never use their kids a bargaining chip or campaign to the children against their ex-spouse. A frequent dynamic is that, even with good intentions, parents have disagreements about parenting time just because both of them want to see the children all the time. The test by which determinations should be made is what’s best for the children. And generally, that means coming up with something where both parents are involved in their lives and there is a schedule and consistency for the benefit of the children where they feel safe and secure and like both of their parents love them.
Q: So, it sounds like when it comes to kids, schedule is usually the single biggest issue when dealing with children.
Megan: Schedule can become a very, very big issue because, logistically, it can become difficult when parents are not living in the same household, has to pick up and drop off going to work. If both parties work long hours, how is that going to work? How is it going to affect the children’s extracurricular activity schedules? How are the parents going to be able to get to certain events for the children, if one party moves out of the county, let alone if one party wants to move out of state, then you have all the holidays, you have vacation time? So the schedule, the little nuances with scheduling can be a significant issue. The decision-making, generally, is not as big of an issue because absent cases where one parent really is just going to use communicating with the other spouse as a means to get under their skin, usually, you have joint legal custody such that both parties are conferring and discussing with each other the major decisions regarding the children.
Q: Gotcha. So once a divorce is complete, any advice for divorcing couples on post-judgment life and how to be happier?
Megan: Yeah, you know, I think… Again, going back to respect your spouse. Respect your spouse, especially if they’re a parent to your children, respect them if they are a parent to your child. You might have valid reasons, negative thoughts about your spouse, and you might not agree with the way they treated you or did things. But after your divorce, it’s time to move on. No one wants to hear the person who was divorced and that’s all they do. They, like, live in the swamp of the divorce and they’re a Debbie Downer and you’re sitting there like you’re trying to have a drink with them and all they’re talking about is how terrible their ex-spouse was.
I say to my clients, “You know what? If your spouse hurt you, you should be upset with that. But actually the best revenge you can get is to be happy and to take care of yourself and be your best you.” Because, if anything, your spouse is going to then look and say, “Hey, look what I’ve lost,” as opposed to, if you’re bitter and not taking care of yourself and just wallowing in your own self-pity, you’re not gonna be a pleasure for your children, you’re not gonna be a pleasure to the children around you. Most of all, you’re not gonna be happy in yourself. You’re letting that other person take advantage of you and actually have the victory.
Move on. If you have children together, you’re gonna have attend weddings, you’re gonna go to school functions together, you’re gonna have graduations and great life events. And you shouldn’t let the fact that you might not have liked what your spouse did during the marriage, treat the fact that you can move on with your life and having different types of relationships with your spouse post-divorce.
Q: It sounds like it’s a little bit of just accepting the new reality and letting go of the past.
Megan: Exactly. Yes. I know it’s easy to say and difficult to do, especially when you’ve invested so much, literally your life, into another person, and now you see that going away. But I’ve seen so many of my clients after the divorce is complete, concentrate on themselves, make a concerted effort, and execute on, maintaining a positive attitude and focus on the future and they are doing great now. Truly, some clients have told me their most rewarding and happiest phase of life has been post-divorce.
Q: So what about…? All right, so let’s flip the script a little bit. What about couples who don’t think they will ever get divorced? Is there anything people can do in their marriages today, either to prevent divorce or to make it easier when the time comes?
Megan: I think if you’re talking a bit earlier, it’s so important. Number one, I fundamentally think it’s so important to remind yourself every day of what your spouse does for you in the relationship. We overlook so many times… I think about the many things in my own marriage that I overlook that my husband does for me day to day, whether it’s, you know, taking out the trash, whether it’s sweeping off the patio or just the taking the dog on a walk, small little things that we take for granted, that thing…when my husband is gone for business at work, and I think about all the things that, “Oh, gosh, I have to do this now because he’s not here.” We don’t appreciate that at all so many times as spouses on a day-to-day basis because we’re all caught up in all the stuff that we have to do on our end, and we’re looking at it from our end. Look at what I have to do, I’ve had to do this and this and this and this and this.
Well, in most cases, your spouse isn’t just sitting on the couch eating bonbons, they’re contributing to the marriage, too. So appreciate it, tell them, let yourself know that you appreciate them. Whether it’s like a little gift out of the blue, don’t wait till Valentine’s day to be, you know, the person who’s, like, grabbing flowers at the last minute. Put a little…you know, send a little note on the refrigerator just saying, “Just want to let you know I love you.” Small, little things to let your spouse know that you respect and appreciate them, I think, are so, so important. And communicating. If there’s something that’s bothering you, that will seed that kernel that you don’t say, it just builds and builds and builds, and suddenly, it becomes explosive and irreparable in certain cases. So, make sure that you’re communicating with your spouse if there’s a problem and you think there’s something that needs to be addressed in the marriage.
And, you know, if you get to the point where you really think that, “Wow, we’re just…you know, something is broken down here and we don’t want to move forward with the divorce, but there’s just something that we can’t ourselves fix,” marriage counseling with a good marriage counselor can be a very effective way to nip problems in the bud and keep couples on track. Having a neutral, independent, experienced third party to assess from the outside lend insight and advice can be invaluable.
Q: As a woman, is there advice that you would give to men considering or undertaking a divorce that they need because they aren’t thinking through things as a woman might?
Megan: I try to resist assigning what might be considered traditional gender roles to marriages. Obviously, sometimes what would be considered traditional roles are very applicable. But each situation is unique. I know some attorneys are innately pro-husband or pro-wife. I do my best to completely reserve judgment on any situation until I am familiar with the facts on the ground. And even then, it can be difficult to truly understand the emotional, psychological, and physical dynamics between a couple. That being said, good, experienced, confident and competent attorneys don’t try to wage wars of the sexes. It’s about giving the client sound legal advice as to how to reach an efficient and effective resolution so that they can move on with their lives from the best starting point possible.