If you are dealing with an acrimonious split, you are going to have to call on all your inner calm to separate emotion from logistics. The key here is to keep personal issues out of all interaction. Not easy. Less so when money and kids are involved. Try this reflective approach:
Listen to the rage – but don’t allow it in. Allow them to rant, cry, scream and threaten. Let them vent.
Practise noble silence. Just shut up. You are not trying to make them feel better. Nothing you say will make any difference. Hear them out.
Connect to your core. Never allow a blow-up in front of the kids. If you are being ambushed when they are around, make it very clear that you will not discuss it with the kids present. Walk away.
Find detachment. You need to be vigilant to keep intimacy out of the communication. Both of you will try to push each other’s buttons, as it’s how you manipulated each other over the last few years of your marriage. Don’t allow yourself to enter that space during a row. Hold a neutral position.
Treat everyone with respect. The key to handling an angry, irrational partner during a split is to treat your interaction like a formal business relationship. Think of it as a really hair-raising meeting. Respond formally and respect all issues.
Be clear and focused. Just deal with the logistics raised during the row. If you lose your way, get back to the issue at hand.
Getting legal: The devil’s in the detail
The law applies a single-minded ideal in all matters that affect children during a divorce: it always rules in favour of the best interests of the child. It specifically states that the children’s wishes must be taken into account in all decisions affecting their living space and relations with their parents. While the letter of the law is clear, its interpretation is often through the eyes of adults, most of whom have vested interests and emotional ties. The law is all about interpretation, and each family and child’s situation is different. In spite of this, almost all custody rulings are made in favour of the mother as the ‘primary caregiver’.
What if we aren’t married?
The position of unmarried fathers improved in 2007, when the Children’s Act came into effect. Prior to that, the mother would almost automatically have custody over the child, with the father being given reasonable access rights. The new Act made some marked changes to the plight of fathers. One change is that the mother may not give up the child for adop-tion without the consent of the father, even if the couple aren’t married. As long as certain conditions are met, an unmarried father now has rights similar to those of a divorced father. However, most advocates will tell you that the prior situation is still the most common one. Mothers are seen as primary caregivers and fathers are given contact (access) rights, but rarely enjoy full custody. They are given the legal right to go to court to petition for custody or guardianship of their children. But because this is a high-court application, many fathers cannot afford to do so. Again, the interests of the children are seen as most important in deciding on custody or access to children, and in most cases first prize is for the children to form a relationship with both parents.
You get married in a special dress in front of a million friends, followed by champagne and a full-on party. Then, years later, you end it all in a dank courtroom that smells of pee. It’s not enough. Pay attention to this ending. It may have been rough getting it all finalised; you may feel bitter and twisted, but you have to let everything go at some point, so that you can get on with your life.
Traditional Jewish partings have a ritual called a Get, which brings a spiritual conclusion to a relationship instead of just a legal one. It ends with each party exchanging a piece of paper that releases the other from their bond, wishes them well, and gives them permission to love and marry again. The event is ceremonial and both parties can bring their close friends or relatives. During this ritual, the rabbi will ask both the man and the woman to explain why they are getting divorced. He will ask each of them repeatedly if they are divorcing of their own free will and to reflect on what they might forgive the other person for, or what they might need to forgive themselves for. The sentiments can either be shared aloud or held in prayer-like silence. In this tradition, each party is given a document formalising the event. Its final words read something like this: ‘Your doorway is no longer my doorway; I no longer have the right to comment on your actions; your well-being is now in your own hands …’
The post-divorce communication dance
To begin with, this is going to be tricky, and the tension may be there for the rest of your lives.
Here’s what actually happens:
He says: Patrick tells me you were late collecting him from school yesterday.
You say: I was late. I was stuck out on site, so I called the school and asked that they tell him I would get there half an hour late and that he should wait in the aftercare class.
He says: And you think that’s okay?
You say: I … You don’t think so?
He says: How many times have you blasted me for this? If you’re going to have primary responsibility for him, then you also have to deliver. Your work comes first. It always has.
You say: Thanks for raising that concern. I did think the aftercare was an acceptable stopgap if I was late. Are you saying that that is no longer the case?
He says: What I am saying is that it is clear that Patrick isn’t a priority to you. If you can’t get there on time, we are going to have to review whether it’s possible for you to collect him every day. And next time you fetch him from me, I don’t want you coming into my house. You can wait in the car for him and I need him at my house early. He wants to go to a party at five, so I want him by four at the latest.
Your next move? Get skilled at writing the super-pro letter. As with all business conversations, it works well to confirm what has been said in a way that removes all blame and emotion and handles the actual issues at hand. E-mail works best:
Thanks for your phone call yesterday about your concerns over aftercare. I know that you have Pat’s best interests at heart. We did agree that aftercare is acceptable as an alternative should either of us be running late. Would you like to review that decision? I am happy to discuss other options.
Regarding collection logistics:
You advised that it would work better for you if I stay in the car when collecting Pat. I am comfortable with that. I will ring the bell to inform him I am here, and then I will wait for him in the car. Would the same procedure work for you when I drop him off at yours on Saturday?
I have made plans for an outing, so an early drop-off will not be possible this weekend. I can, however, get him to the party by 5 p.m. and you can collect him there. I have the address details.
D is for divorce, not death
Q: We have been separated for two years now and we are in total limbo. The girls hate it (they are seven and nine) and just want us to get back together. Every few months, we get horribly drunk and end up having sex, even though he has a girlfriend. It’s thrilling, but then we go back to the bickering, tears and blame. It never seems to get any better, yet neither of us is ready for divorce.
A: Ready? Oh, sugar, you are living it. He has moved on, is dating someone else and getting a bit of extra loving from you on the side. It is time to get the legal world to put in motion what is actually happening here and get on with your life. Make a clean break, wrap up the finances and custody arrangements and move on with your life. If he comes back into it in a few years’ time, perhaps you can find a new way, but not while you are hanging on to the odd drunken fondle. Your kids will be fine either way, as long as they have two parents who support and love them. Time to put on a pair of red knickers, hit the gym and get back into the realm of a sassy fox.
I can’t let go
Q: My ex and I had a relatively simple divorce and it felt like an easy transition, but there is still such an emotional tie between us. I feel as if I cannot let go of that bond.
A: There is precious little about divorce that allows couples to release one another. Even if you hate the person, there are so many ties that bind you together. It may take years, even a lifetime, to untangle them. While the logistical stuff may have been handled, the heart space is left unattended. It is important to say goodbye to each other in your own way, and in a way that allows each of you to move on with your life.
Q: I want to get a divorce. We have tried therapy, counselling and mediation, but I just don’t feel our marriage will ever work. I am terrified of the impact that this will have on our three kids. Should I stay in the marriage for the sake of the kids?
A: No sugar, not for their sake. While some childrenwould rather have a bad marriage than a good divorce, there comes a time when you have to put your own needs first. Children will learn to adapt over time, and they will accept a change in status. It will be traumatic for them, but many things in life can cause hurt. What is important is how we handle it. It is vital for them to feel that they are loved, secure and that their family is still in place, even if you live in separate houses. There are many ways in which a divorce can play out (and none of them are easy), but there is no reason it cannot be resolved without bloodshed. Your attitude and that of your husband will influence their experience of it. No pressure.
Does he have to have access?
Q: Does the ex have to see the kids? I don’t want him around them while we iron out the legal issues, as I feel it is upsetting them.
A: Yes, he does. Regardless of custody, parents are entitled to see their children. Unless you get a court order to the contrary, the non-custodian parent is entitled to reasonable access. This is particularly important for the children and is universally deemed to be in the children’s best interest. If you feel there are compelling reasons he should not be left alone with the kids – and these are primarily if he is a drug user or has been convicted of child abuse – then you can petition for supervised access only.