This article and my articles “Overcoming Obstacles to Agreement” and “Negotiating Agreement” are about how to deal with disagreement—from simple difference of opinion to active upset and anger—and some specific steps that will help you reach an agreement. As you will see, the things you can do yourself are far more effective than anything a lawyer can do for you.
More than 90% of all cases are settled before trial. Unfortunately, too many are settled only after the spouses have spent their emotional energies on conflict and their financial resources on lawyers. The time and effort spent battling has impaired their ability to get on with their lives and may have caused serious psychic damage to themselves and their children. The spouses could have saved themselves all that simply by agreeing to settle earlier. Why didn’t they?
Okay, here you are, heading for a divorce; your spouse is going to be involved and you want to work out an agreement. What’s so hard about that? Why don’t you just do it? Easier to say than do, isn’t it? There are good reasons why it’s hard for spouses to work out an agreement—five, to be exact:
- Emotional upset and conflict
- Insecurity and fear
- Ignorance and misinformation
- The legal system and lawyers
- Real disagreement
To get an agreement, in or out of the system, with or without an attorney, you have to overcome the five obstacles. Let’s look at them in a little more detail to see what you’re dealing with.
1. Emotional upset and conflict: This is about high levels of anger, hurt, blame, and guilt—a very normal part of divorce. If one or both spouses are upset, you can’t negotiate, have reasonable discussions or make sound decisions. Complex and volatile emotions become externalized and get attached to things or to the children. When emotions are high, reason is at its lowest ebb and will not be very effective at that time. There are various causes of upset:
- The divorce itself, stress of major change, broken dreams, fear of change, fear of an unknown future
- Different readiness to accept the idea of divorce and willingness to proceed—the hidden cause of conflict in many cases
- History of bad communication habits or conflict
- Particular events or circumstances (a new lover, a new debt)
2. Insecurity, fear, lack of confidence, unequal bargaining power: You can’t negotiate if either spouse feels incompetent, afraid, or that the other spouse has some big advantage. Divorce is tremendously undermining and tends to multiply any general lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. Also, there are often very real causes for insecurity: lack of skill and experience at dealing with business and negotiation, and lack of complete information and knowledge about the process and the marital affairs. It doesn’t matter if insecurity is real or reasonable; it is real if it feels real.
3. Ignorance and misinformation: Ignorance about the legal system and how it works can make you feel uncertain, insecure and incompetent. You feel as if you don’t know what you are doing—and you are right. Misinformation is when the things you think you know are not correct. Misinformation comes from friends, television, movies, even from lawyers who are not family law specialists. It can distort your expectations about your rights and what’s fair. It’s hard to negotiate with someone who has mistaken ideas about what the rules are. Fortunately, both conditions can be easily fixed with reliable information.
4. The legal system and lawyers: The legal system does not help you overcome obstacles to agreement but, rather it is one of the major obstacles that you have to overcome. The legal system is designed to work against you. You want to avoid the legal system as much as possible—and you can. You can beat the system.
5. Real disagreement: These are the real issues that you want to deal with rationally and negotiate with your spouse. Real disagreement is based on the fact that the spouses now have different needs and interests. After dealing with the first four obstacles, these real issues may turn out to be minor, but even if they are serious, at least they can be negotiated rationally.
The solutions are in your hands. Apart from the legal system—which you can avoid—all obstacles to your agreement are personal, between you and your spouse and between you and yourself.
Take care. Pay special attention to emotional upset and especially insecurity and fear. These are the forces that drive people into a lawyer’s office. You want to avoid doing anything that might increase the upset and fear of either spouse. The upset person is saying, “I can’t stand this, I won’t take it anymore! I’m going to get a lawyer!” The insecure person is saying, “I can’t understand all this, I can’t deal with it, I can’t deal with my spouse. I want to be safe. I need someone to help me. I’m going to get a lawyer.” And this is how cases get dragged into unnecessary legal conflict.
You need to arrange things so both spouses are comfortable about not retaining an attorney. If you think your spouse may be upset or insecure, you have to be very careful and patient. If you are feeling incapable of dealing with your own divorce, the information in my book, Make Any Divorce Better will help a lot and you will see that you can get all the help and support you need without retaining an attorney.
For more information on how to make your divorce go more smoothly and easily, see:
- What Divorce is Really About
- Divorce–Overcoming Obstacles to Agreement
- Divorce–Negotiating Agreement
- Divorce–Ten Ways to Divide Property Without a Fight
- Divorce–When the Date of Separation Matters
- Divorce–How to Protect Your Children
- Divorce–Who Can Help?
Copyright 2005 Ed Sherman
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