Seeing Through the Fog: Five Tips for Setting Appropriate Expectations for Your Divorce

It is rare for a potential client to come through my door without first having spent at least a year (or more) toiling over whether or not there is still hope for their marriage.

This period of purgatory can be exhausting, confusing, and painful while clients, anxious to speed through a divorce, seek counsel not from professionals, but from family, friends, and co-workers.

Below are five tips I wish I could have conveyed to those potential divorcees long before they sought my counsel, not only help to them set appropriate expectations but to exercise self-care while navigating through a divorce.

1. The Process Can Take Months or Years

Many are stunned to hear this when the subject of timing arises. The reality is that Maryland courts are presently overburdened with family law cases, which leads to delays in the adjudication of cases.

If you cannot resolve your case cooperatively, the timing of your divorce is dictated by the court’s busy trial calendar. It is common for a divorce to take more than 18 months from initiation to completion, if not resolved sooner by agreement. Plan accordingly. Closure on child-related and financial issues may be far off, thereby postponing your individual future life planning, which can be very frustrating.

2. You Should Not Expect the Court to Micro-Manage Custodial Rights or Financial Affairs

During the course of the divorce process, temporary and final orders will be entered addressing custody, support, and other financial matters. However, it can take months from the date the suit is filed to obtain the first temporary order. Prior to that, rights concerning children are equal and undifferentiated between spouses (meaning neither party has superior rights to physical custody), and access to funds and financial resources are governed solely by whose name is on the account.

It is during this “lawless” period when many of the most egregious violations of dignity and fairness occur between spouses (e.g., withholding access to funds and access to children) and when exercising self-help to level the proverbial playing field can be tempting. However, the Court will take into account your conduct during this phase of the process when making decisions concerning long-term child-related and financial matters. Therefore, thinking and acting with a view toward the long-term is imperative during this period.

Also, once an order has been entered, it is not uncommon for those orders not to be followed scrupulously by one or both sides. Should that occur, there is no hotline or expedited court process for addressing non-compliance and the resulting emotional and financial damage. Patience and restraint are needed while those matters are resolved in the ordinary course, which often takes months if not by agreement.

3. The Divorce Process Is Not a Forum for Validating Your Hurt

At the conclusion of the divorce process, the Court does not declare winners or losers or issue rulings that validate or invalidate the pain one experienced during the marriage. They decide issues of custody, support, and marital property rights. Within those issues, the Court may be called upon to make findings about what contributed to the estrangement of the marriage. But, it is not the Court’s charge to wade into issues of moral fault or responsibility. Emotional closure is best found elsewhere.

4. Be Honest With Yourself and Your Attorney

This is vital because establishing credibility is key. We’ve all made embarrassing mistakes we regret, and then face the temptation to leave those items out of our “story” to avoid judgment. However, doing so can make one appear misleading or deceptive to a Court, which can have profound consequences. For example, complaining about your spouse’s irresponsible behavior, while omitting that you’ve run over your neighbor’s mailbox several times while driving intoxicated, will not serve you well.

5. Children Can Tell If Something Is Not Right

Maybe you and your spouse are living in separate bedrooms. Maybe you’re not affectionate with one another. Maybe you rarely speak to one another with warmth. Maybe you rarely take the children to events together. It could be large or it could be small, but if something is off between you and your spouse, your children can likely sense it. And they may question why their parents don’t act like their friend’s parents.

Navigating these issues with children can be counter-intuitive. Considering counseling as an option to help them address their feelings in an appropriate forum, whether via counseling for the children or coaching for the parents on how to discuss issues of divorce with the children.

Erik Arena is a divorce attorney who practices in Maryland and the District of Columbia. For more on setting expectations and preparing for divorce, contact him at 301-657-0725 or [email protected]