Handling the Difficult Spouse

Let’s start with the understanding that nearly every person going through divorce believes his or her spouse is a difficult spouse. You are not alone. But the fact remains that there are some cases where you would like for your divorce to stay civilized, and your spouse is determined to go to war.

You can’t change your spouse. Don’t try.

What you can do, though, is to pursue a “dual track” strategy. First, you must take the necessary steps to protect your interests. That may mean you have to go ahead and hire that gladiator lawyer who demands a $2,500 retainer and has a reputation for meanness and courtroom bravado.

You need to be prepared to meet your spouse motion for motion, letter for letter, and interrogatory for interrogatory. Yes, this is adversarial divorce, and we’re talking about a frightful amount of money. And yes, we’re talking about giving up at least some of the control of your divorce to that gladiator. But if your spouse is going to war, you can’t just wait around at the peace table. You need to protect yourself.

I’m a big believer in journaling. What I mean by that is keeping a careful record of everything that happens between you and your spouse. You need to be able to remember exactly what you said, exactly what your spouse said, exactly where on your wrist your spouse grabbed you, where you were standing when she threw the flowerpot at you, and what time of day he tried to hit you while he was holding on to the baby.

This is not so much to show to others as it is to help you remember exactly what happened. The more detail you can recall, the more credibility you will have.

Even as you protect yourself, though, you need to keep the door open. You need to make sure your spouse knows that whenever he or she is ready to call a truce and work this out, you’re ready too. And the most important point:

You must not get sucked into the fight emotionally.

Choose an ally, someone whom you can help to help you. Print this sheet and give it to them. Tell them they have one job and one job alone for the duration of your divorce.

  • Their job is to remind you continually that this is the end of a marriage, not a war.
  • Their job is to remind you continually that you must think strategically.
  • Their job is to remind you continually that you will probably have to negotiate with this person after your divorce is finished, so the sooner you are able to negotiate with them the better.

I also recommend that you communicate your plan to your spouse. I suggest you talk to your spouse or write him or her a note. You need to tell them something to this effect: “Because of these things I’m seeing (you fill in the blanks), I’m having to hire (fill in name of nasty lawyer). I’m having to get ready to go to war with you. I want you to know that this is not what I want, and I don’t even think it’s what you want. If at any point you want to find a way to do this more calmly, I want you to know that I will be ready and willing.”

That way, there’s the lingering awareness in your spouse that if he or she ever comes around and wants to get this done the easy way, you’re ready to work.

If your spouse refuses to talk to you, you can’t keep trying to talk. Give him or her the space they demand. Just make it clear that you’re ready to talk whenever they are, and then wait. You may be surprised how quickly you get a chance to show your willingness to talk directly.