Easing Your Spouse Toward a Cooperative Divorce

I could hear the fatigue in Lynn‘s voice as she and I talked over strategy for her divorce. This was her second marriage, so she had divorced once before and knew how messy it could become. She and her husband agreed they needed to divorce, but they disagreed on how.

This was his first marriage, and divorce terrified him. With the enthusiastic support of his parents and siblings, he had lined up an aggressive gladiator divorce lawyer and paid him a retainer larger than anything they could possibly fight over. “Don’t talk to me about our divorce,” he instructed her. “You can call my attorney.” She did, but the attorney hasn’t returned her calls.

“What can I do?,” she asked. “I feel so powerless.” Lynn and I discussed three strategies, which I will summarize here.

1. Be patient. People going through divorce who lay down a big retainer on a divorce lawyer are always confident they’ve made the right decision in the 2-3 months immediately following their decision. They typically view that lawyer they hired as their savior, protector, and friend. If you’re unsure why, drop the term “cognitive dissonance” into your search engine and read up. After a person has made such a large financial commitment based on an adversarial divorce, it’s quite normal to actively ignore or reject any data that would indicate it was a mistake to write that big check.

During this initial period, respond in a minimal way to provocations from your spouse and your spouse’s lawyer. The idea is to allow your spouse to grieve over the ending of the marriage and begin putting his or her gladiator’s role in perspective.

2. Get an honest appraisal of your negotiating position. Make sure the positions you are taking are reasonable and no more generous to you than what a judge would do in an adversarial divorce. It might be helpful at this stage to visit with a lawyer for the express purpose of evaluating your negotiating positions.

The idea is that you want to make it easy for your spouse to say yes to a cooperative divorce. And that means helping your spouse see a resolution that seems palatable.

2. Make it easy to communicate. Within reason, take advantage of each graceful opportunity to talk, text, or email directly with your spouse, making sure you stay calm, rational, and coherent. You want your spouse to rediscover that communicating directly with you is not unpleasant, intimidating, or overly stressful.

Over time, as the intensity of the separation subsides, you hope that you and your spouse will develop a businesslike, non-threatening style of communication that builds confidence for both of you. Eventually, you and your spouse will get around to talking about the terms of the divorce, and you can help your spouse see his or her way to a cooperative resolution.

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