When Reid and Callie came to visit with me, it was clear that their marriage was nearly over. Bitterness and acrimony swirled around our conversation. They and their two young children were in constant turmoil. Their finances were in a state of disarray, they constantly found fault with one another and were already staking out their “territory” in anticipation of a separation. They came for advice but it was already quite evident that they were not in a mood to reconcile.
Perhaps their visit was just to “check the box” that they had tried to find an answer other than becoming divorced parents.
As I watched the process of Reid and Callie’s divorce and custody battle, it broke my heart to see two people who knew each other so well take advantage of each other’s weaknesses and consume so many resources – financial and emotional – as they battled tooth and nail over every aspect of the dissolution of their marriage and family. And, unfortunately, the children paid the price. When the process was nearly over, Reid came to visit with me again. He was a broken man – the price of the divorce was expensive financially and even more devastating emotionally. He felt that Callie and her attorney “took him to the cleaners,” getting a terrible custody arrangement and paying child support that he very nearly could not afford. He was not happy with his family law attorney and wished now that he had invested half the effort in trying to save the marriage years earlier.
Reid and Callie sound like a stereotype of the divorce process at its worst, and they probably are. But after talking with many divorced fathers, I have seen a few where the process was not as acrimonious and where the final divorce decree ended up being a lot more balanced that Reid’s. So I began asking fathers who had a better outcome what they did and what advice they got that made the process go better for all parties.
The ten tips that follow have helped these dads survive the process of divorce and keep their self-esteem, their relationship with their children and their own post-divorce life a little more manageable.
- Take down the sails. A counselor I once worked with commented that in family relationships, we often hoist our sails when the wind blows hardest and thus get blown around out of control. The fathers who made it through the process took down their sails when the wind blew harder, both at home prior to the divorce and during the process. When the angry wife would hurl bitter comments or recriminations, they took note of what was said, but they didn’t retaliate in kind. They found that when they could react rationally and not in anger, they were more careful and more thoughtful, and did not give their wife any ammunition to use against them later.
- Don’t move out of the home. These fathers who made it through successfully learned that when a father moves out of the home prior to a divorce decree, they put themselves in a bad position. The Mom has practical custody if Dad leaves, and she is in a stronger position to get the upper hand in a custody battle. You may need to move into another bedroom and avoid your spouse as much as possible to keep the discord down, but leaving the house will be a strategic disadvantage later.
- Start keeping records. Purchase a journal and keep careful records of everything that is said and done in relation to the divorce process. Record threats, insults, etc. from your spouse recording dates and times. Keep very careful records of your spending habits, money you give her and the kids, and expenses you pay for. If there is a negative incident in public, write it down and record the names of any witnesses. Print out your bank records periodically so that you can show any large withdrawals made by your spouse. Record keeping is often the great equalizer in a legal system that seems biased against men and that relies on records and facts.
- Keep your behavior clean. Limit your consumption of alcohol and drugs; in fact, stop completely if possible. Pay your bills on time. Don’t get into public spectacles that will cause anyone to question your level of responsibility. Don’t allow your spouse to egg you into a confrontation and especially do not engage in any form of physical, emotional or sexual abuse. In order to come out of a divorce process with your reputation and finances intact, you cannot ever be the aggressor. Because of the pro-mother bias of the family law system, you have a higher standard of behavior to exhibit than she does. It’s not fair, but it is the way it is.
- Find competent and sympathetic legal counsel soon. If you feel that divorce is inevitable, it is better to get yourself a good family law attorney early in the game. Check around for references; don’t just choose a family friend or relative, but find an attorney who has a good reputation in working with fathers. Other divorced fathers can give you recommendations – positive or negative – about their attorneys. You can also call your local state bar association for a recommendation. Then, be totally honest and open with your attorney and remember, he or she works for you, not the other way around.
- Keep the lines of communication open with the children. Often, the feeling the children have about their father makes or breaks a custody case. Keep communicating with them; show up to their games, recitals, and performances and praise them. Help with homework and have some fun together as well. Don’t talk negatively about their mom in their presence, no matter how she may talk with them about you. Your positive interactions with them will help with the process, and will also preserve a relationship for later when the dust settles and a new normal sets in.
- Don’t hesitate to look for emotional help. Separation and a divorce process can be a very isolating time for a father, and our male machismo often makes it harder to talk about our problems. Connect with extended family, supportive friends, clergy, life coaches and professional counselors if necessary. But be careful not to overburden your support system with the divorce process; keep a balanced outlook as you interact with others. Remember, you aren’t necessarily looking for sympathy, but for support.
- Keep yourself well. Many fathers neglect their physical health during these stressful times, and they become depressed and isolated. Keeping a healthy diet, exercising, and avoiding harmful substances is always a good strategy, and even more important in times of anxiety. You need to be at the top of your game when you deal with these emotionally difficult experiences. And don’t forget your spiritual side as well; prayer, filling your mind with positive messages and being close to your God is a real source of strength as well.
- Be prepared for twists and turns. One of my friends had a restraining order placed against him based on false accusations. Eventually, it was overturned – in large part due to his good record keeping that gave him alibis – but it was emotionally devastating to be kept from his children. Understand that it can be a bitter and difficult time and don’t be surprised if things surprise you along the way.
- Be a support for others going through the process. I am so appreciative of the dads who have shared their stories with me over the years and who have helped others keep their perspective through their own difficult divorces. You can even share your story online and help other dads find their own path through this extraordinarily difficult and emotionally devastating process.