Just as many people take for granted that their marriage will stay strong regardless of how much attention they pay to their love bond, they tend to approach divorce without any thought of how they should go about it, or how that matters.
It does matter.
Because while you may be ending a physical relationship, the emotional relationship will continue to exist in your mental life. And if you have children, you are not really ending a relationship anyway, but simply transitioning into a relationship as “co-parents.”
No matter what kind of relationship you have, the best way to transition out of it is to do it cleanly.
"Keeping it clean" has two aspects:
Don’t Hide Things
The first part of keeping it clean means don’t hide things. Don’t misrepresent the truth. Don’t manipulate information. Don’t be so scared and defensive that you are only trying to look out for yourself. Hiding or distorting the truth will only come back to haunt you, and your spouse won’t feel safe to work collaboratively with you.
What to do instead? Be honest, open, and transparent. Especially regarding financial matters. When the truth is spoken, it engenders trust. When your soon-to-be-ex-spouse trusts you, this actually helps you get what you want. I know it sounds challenging, but try to relax and trust that even though your spouse is becoming your ex-spouse, he or she is not going to ruin your life, especially if you keep things clean.
Lastly, it’s important to keep in mind that if you try to hide assets, in many states the whole case can be re-opened later if it comes to light. Who wants to finalize a legal matter only to carry the shadow that you might have to go back and start over from scratch?
Make a Clean Break
The second aspect of keeping it clean is making a “clean break.” Let me outline the common scenario: a couple is coming to the end of their relationship, but they don’t really know how to do it. So they continue to manage things together. They keep calling each other by pet names. They might even continue to be intimate.
About nine months after I separated from my first wife, I was fortunate to have started working with a coach who helped me understand that I needed to end the relationship. I had already begun dating a new partner, and he pushed me to call off a visit my soon to be ex-wife was planning to make from out of town, staying over at my apartment. He told me: “You need to make a clean break. You’re building a relationship with Katie, you’re not building anything with Jessica.”
Abruptly calling off the visit was a difficult move, and my ex was angry and hurt. I had to be okay with her thinking I was a jerk. I had to let go of the fantasy that we could remain emotionally close, like family. What helped me was the faith that this move would help us both from continuing to wrap emotional tendrils around each other.
Counselors will tell you that couples who don’t make a clean break often continue to shred each other’s hearts, over and over. The scar tissue builds and builds.
For me, making a clean break with my first wife meant ceasing all communication for a time. That was relatively simple since we had no children or much joint property. Couples with significant property together can sometimes feel challenged to split cleanly, and I deal frequently with couples who feel forced to retain joint ownership of a house, for economic reasons. While sometimes ex-spouses can be excellent business partners, if at all possible, plan to not continue a joint venture or joint ownership of anything.
For those who have children together, stopping communication in all but the most extreme cases is not advisable. Rather, a "clean break" between parents has other facets, such as:
Exchanges of children are short and to the point;
Communication is limited to issues related to the children only, by email preferably;
No texting or calling except in an emergency;
Not entering each other’s residence without permission;
Neither parent seeks to get his or her emotional needs met by the other parent;
Formation of a clear and precise legal Parenting Plan (custody plan) defining the rights and obligations of each parent, and how decisions are made and disputes resolved.
Sometimes one spouse will have an unconscious urge to keep negotiating the terms of the divorce, because he or she really doesn’t want the marriage to end. If this is you or your spouse, gently emphasize to yourself or to him or her that sabotaging the finalization of the relationship isn’t going to help anything. The terms don’t have to be perfect. Letting go is the goal here. Don’t hold on to the marriage.
Paradoxically, making a clean break is the best route to forming a healthy and functional new relationship between you and your ex-spouse. For example, if you are parents, you can hold an intention to create a new relationship as a parenting team, but you aren’t building a life together. Start letting your ex-spouse stand on her own two feet. You can’t fix him. Your job is no longer to be looking out for her best interests. Let him find new love.
You can hold the vision of a friendly, warm, family-like bond between you and your ex-spouse, which might occur down the line.
But don’t let that fantasy create a murky, festering emotional swamp in the present. Keep things clean.
John Hoelle is co-founder of Conscious Family Law & Mediation LLC, offering collaborative divorce mediation, or legal representation with strength and integrity, in metro Denver/Boulder, Colorado.