Lonnie and Chris got married right out of college.¹ They had a lot of ups and downs, and over time, they grew apart. After 20 years, they decided to divorce. They told the kids and their families.
At first Chris started sleeping on the couch, but after about 3 months, he moved out and leased another apartment. They decided which furniture Chris would take and which Lonnie would keep. They came up with a parenting schedule for their kids, which they tweaked over time. Chris went to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving that year, instead of going to Lonnie’s family – for the first time in 20 years.
After a while, they separated their bank accounts. Eventually, they started divorce mediation. They met 5 times over 4 months, and then the mediator drafted their separation agreement. They each went over the draft with their reviewing attorneys.
Lonnie was able to buy out Chris’s interest in the home, so they had a closing and took Chris’ name off of the deed and the mortgage. Lonnie’s lawyer filed the uncontested divorce papers with the court. About 6 months later, they each received a copy of their Judgment of Divorce.
There is so much going on here! You can see that the legal process is only one part of the divorce journey. Let’s parse this out a little more. Here are what I call The Five Divorces…
- The Emotional Divorce – This phase begins when you are still acting much like a couple on the outside, but when one or both of you feels a growing emotional distance. You may be arguing a lot. Often there is a decrease in physical intimacy or you are sleeping in different rooms. You may be finding ways to avoid each other, or to spend separate time with your children, friends and family. After a while, both partners may realize that it is no longer viable to stay together. Or one person may make the decision to leave. Over time, you change your expectations of yourselves and act less as a team and more independently. This may take months – sometimes years – to evolve.
- The Social Divorce – The social separation is how you and your partner present yourselves to your friends and family, or, as my late husband used to say, “Who gets custody of the friends?” Friends and family often feel that they have to choose sides. Those relationships may feel awkward. For example, here, Chris spent Thanksgiving without Lonnie’s family for the first time in 20 years.
- The Financial Divorce – This is when couples split up their joint bank accounts, put the car title in one name, and start paying their own bills. This often cannot happen until there is an agreement about child and spousal support, which will usually begin at or around the same time. Some parts of this process may take longer than others – for instance, you can separate a joint bank account in a day, but it may take months (and will usually require a separate court order) to separate the retirement accounts. If one spouse is going to buy out the other spouse’s interest in the house, there will be a closing and perhaps refinancing.
- The Physical Divorce – this is when the couple starts to live in separate homes. There are several decisions that need to be made – who will stay in the marital home and who will move out? How far away will the moving parent live – and is the neighborhood affordable? Is it in a good school district? Can they both afford nice places? Will they sell the marital home and move to separate apartments or houses? All of these things will have to be worked out before or after the move.
- The Legal Divorce – as you can see, in some ways, the legal separation is just formalizing what is already going on in real life. The couple may start to work out the formal terms of their separation in mediation or collaborative process, which will lead to an uncontested divorce. Or, if there are contentious issues, they may have their attorneys work on it in a negotiated settlement. Or they may go to trial. At some point during the process, one person will file for divorce in court and the other will have to respond.
Notice that this is not a linear process – several of these different “divorces” can be going on at the same time. It also can take a lot of coordination and communication between you and your spouse to make the whole process happen smoothly – just at a time when working together might be difficult. This is a complicated process! It is important to take care of yourself and of your children throughout.
Acting with dignity through these many transitions will have a big and positive impact on your future. It’s not easy, but it’s doable!
¹This scenario is fictitious but grows out of experience from my practice working with hundreds of divorcing couples.