The New Year is a time for making changes to improve our lives.
For many in unhappy marriages, one of those changes is divorce. January has long been a popular month for divorce filings.
Professional lives slow down during the holidays, and people focus on family, togetherness and traditions. But simmering below the holiday cheer is grave disappointment for some.
Spouses may not live up to expectations. Or one too many drinks at a Christmas party could lead to inappropriate gestures or remarks, which, for those who have been unhappy for a long time, could be the straw that breaks the camel's back.
Some couples have decided to keep up appearances for one last holiday season as an intact family.
"I've had a lot of people retain me and say, 'Don't file the papers until the first of the year,'" says Henry S. Gornbein, P.A., and Partner at Gornbein, Fletcher & Smith, PLLC, a family law firm in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.
Common divorce triggers
“There's every reason under the sun for people wanting a divorce,” says Gornbein.
The motives run the gamut from infidelity to simply growing apart.
And this day and age isn’t making marriage any easier.
“One thing I've seen is the Internet becoming a major reason for divorce,” says Gornbein. “It intensifies our worst behavior. We can be anonymous. With a click, you can be anyone you want and go to any site you want.”
Whether the weakness is gambling or pornography, the Internet makes access to guilty pleasures ridiculously easy. Additionally, social networks such as Facebook make it effortless to keep an eye on exes and reconnect with old flames.
“It's like the Wild West again,” says Gornbein. “People who may have been more restrained are having inappropriate behaviors amplified by the Internet.”
In other scenarios, some spouses have suffered marriages wrought with drug or alcohol addiction. Gornbein has had clients who have dealt with shopaholic spouses. Financial reasons can drive a couple to divorce court. Some may have entered a heterosexual marriage despite being gay. Domestic violence and psychological or physical abuse are other divorce triggers.
And there may be no specific reason for divorce -- just a lack of communication, connection or emotional intimacy.
“I've said over the years that people who should get divorced often stay in bad marriages, while people who should stay in a marriage and work on it will get divorced, sometimes for the flimsiest of reasons,” says Gornbein.
Legal divorce is just the beginning
According to Gornbein, there are three to four divorces in each divorce case. The first divorce is the legal one that occurs within the court system.
The second divorce is an emotional divorce. In cases where the desire for divorce is mutual, the two parties can typically work through it with very little animosity or court work. Other cases may involve one party that has moved on and checked out, while the other cannot let go. These cases tend to have tremendous acrimony and drag on.
The third divorce is the economic divorce. A glaring problem of divorce is, in the end, you have half of what you had before.
“You're dividing things,” says Gornbein. “If two people’s combined incomes were enough to keep the family together, but separated, it doesn't add up, this is where you have economic problems.”
The final divorce, in certain faiths, is a religious divorce.
9 must-dos before signing divorce papers
Divorce is a major transition that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Psychologically, it’s one of the three most traumatic experiences in life, after the loss of a child and the loss of a spouse in an intact marriage.
“It's a very grueling process,” says Gornbein. “Filing for a divorce should be the last step, not the first step.”
Here are nine steps to walk through before proceeding with divorce.
1. Try marriage counseling. The obvious reason to do this is to see if your marriage can be saved. Another reason is to learn everything you can about yourself so you don't repeat the same mistakes with the same kind of person again and again.
2. Find out as much as you can about your family finances. Have copies of your tax returns, savings accounts, checking accounts, credit card statements and investment accounts. The more you know about your finances, the better prepared you are if you do go through with a divorce.
3. If you have kids, think about custody arrangements. Keep track of how much time you and your spouse each spend with your children. Record what you do with your children. Is this a case where there should be shared or joint physical custody? Proceed with what's best for your kids, not what's best for you.
“You don't want to use your children as a weapon to try to punish your spouse,” says Gornbein.
4. Prepare a budget. Determine how much income you’d need to survive on your own. Evaluate whether you need to brush up on skills for the job market or obtain an education.
5. Talk to an attorney. Make sure your counsel is knowledgeable and experienced in family law. Discuss costs and expectations. You should be able to relate to your attorney.
“There are a lot of good attorneys,” says Gornbein. “It's important to make sure you have the right fit.”
6. If you have a home, decide what you’d do with it. Would you or your spouse keep it? Would you sell it?
7. Keep a diary. Simply keeping track of events and emotions can be surprisingly important. As you reflect, envision a plan for your future. Would a divorce free you up to reach for your goals? Or would you look back with disappointment and regret?
8. Build a support system. Consider who among your family and friends you can trust and talk to. Gornbein warns, however, that everyone will have different opinions and advice, so having presence of mind to make your own informed decisions is crucial.
9. Ask yourself if you’re sure you want a divorce. Carefully think it out and analyze what makes sense. You could regret a knee-jerk reaction later in life, especially if you want to leave your marriage for another relationship.
“I've seen so many people who leave one bad marriage for a bad relationship and end up going through another divorce,” says Gornbein.