A divorce does not occur in a vacuum. It touches every facet of your life— financial, emotional, physical, and social. A skilled divorce attorney can help you make sense of the seemingly convoluted process of not only filing a divorce, but also finding success and stability amid separation. As you work through your divorce, keep the following considerations in mind.
Why should you bother organizing your life and prioritizing tasks during a divorce?
Life in modern times is chaotic enough. Even before you made the decision to separate, or you were faced with your spouse asking for a separation or divorce, odds are that you had your hands full with work, health issues, financial needs, and other projects clamoring for your attention. A divorce can add a whole new crush of obligations and commitments to your “to do” list... while simultaneously hamstringing you by tying up your time and resources and potentially cutting your income stream in half (or worse).
When your attention is scattered -- when you're thinking about a hundred different things and consumed by a hundred different worries -- you will likely find it harder to concentrate and make strategic decisions about your divorce and other projects in your life. As the adage goes, focus equals power. A magnifying glass can concentrate the sun's ray strong enough to start a fire.
So how can you control all your diverse commitments, worries and obligations? After all, there are only 24 hours in a day. As New York Times best selling productivity author, David Allen, teaches in his books, "Making It All Work" and "Getting Things Done," the mind is a terrible place to store information. Our short-term memories can only hold about 7 bits of information at any one time. (That’s why phone numbers have seven digits in them.) If you try to store more information in your short-term memory than it can hold, you will start forgetting things. But you forget only on a conscious level; subconsciously, your mind still thinks it needs to remember and potentially act on something. This can lead to subtle stresses that build up over time. You feel a vague sense of dis-ease that “something needs to be done,” but you don't know what to do.
Allen recommends a five-part process to get control of what he calls “open loops” -- the commitments that exist at various levels of your consciousness and focus -- so that you can make progress on them and feel more relaxed and in control. The process begins by writing down everything that’s on your mind. Write down all your projects, big and small, relating to your divorce or not. You want to compile a complete inventory of what’s on your mind. This inventory might include goals like “finalize the divorce” and “move Roger into his new school” as well as personal goals like “climb Mount Kilimanjaro” and “lose 15 pounds.” Many people find this process of writing down all of their commitment quite cathartic. Your list of "stuff" is not infinite --- for most people, it’s surprisingly manageable.
Next, you need to process, organize, and review this list. (You can learn more about Allen’s processes for doing so by watching this lecture.) The point is that by maintaining a written inventory of projects and actions you need to take regarding your projects, you won’t waste as much mental energy in non-productive thinking. You need to think about your stuff more than you're probably doing right now, but not as much as you fear. Just remember: you can only feel good about what you're doing when you know what you’ve chosen not to do at any moment.
In addition to creating a better personal organization system, what else can you do?
Recruit good people (and good businesses) to help you get through this process. No one does it alone. You've just been separated from the person who was presumably closer to you than anyone else in your life. You need to expand your network and share your burden. For instance, you might ask your parents or your sister to help with the childcare, while you organize the divorce. You might recruit a bookkeeper and/or financial planner to get your books and budget in order. You might find a therapist or support group to discuss emotional issues that have erupted. You might reconnect with old friends for social support. And you should retain a top Virginia divorce attorney to manage your legal needs. The bottom line is: get help. Do not try to “be a hero.” Your time and energy are limited, and you are under strain. Delegate your burden as much as possible.
How can you establish a vision for a saner and happier future?
Whole books have been written to try to answer this existential question, but you can make quick progress on it by completing the following exercise, as honestly and as forthrightly as possible:
First, ask yourself: what’s true in my life now? The David Allen exercises (discussed above) can help you inventory your current projects and concerns. Be honest with yourself. Don’t whitewash anything. See your life and your situation as clearly as possible.
Next, ask yourself: what do I want life to be like at time X in the future? Again, be as specific as possible. For instance, a year from now, you might want the divorce to be finalized, the custody arrangement to look like such-and-such and your bank account to have $150,000 in it. Imagine an ideal result. In a best case scenario, what would your life look like? Don't worry about how to achieve the results yet. Just try to articulate where you want to wind up.
Finally, ask yourself: how can I get from where I am now to where I want to be? Once you understand what’s true now and what you want to happen, get to work. Strategically and tactically, how can you achieve your goals, given your resources, time, budget, skills and network? Ask yourself questions like:
- "What’s the fastest way to get to what I want?"
- "What’s the easiest way to get what I want?"
- "What’s the minimum I need to reach my goals?" (Most of us way over-complicate our goals. That is, we create obstacles for ourselves that don't really exist.)
Don’t worry about doing this exercise in “perfect” fashion. Just get started with it, and then use your other resources, such as your Virginia divorce attorney, your financial planner, and your therapist or coach, to connect the dots and move things forward.
Divorce has a reputation for being a stressful, exhausting experience. What divorce-related behaviors and actions might damage your health?
Divorce can have diverse and negative health consequences. This is not a medical book, nor should anything here be considered medical advice. But you should seek to protect your health and wellbeing during the divorce process.
Divorce can provoke coping behaviors that can have dangerous consequences. For instance, the stress may lead you to consume alcohol or drugs in excess or eat sugary, processed junk food.
The divorce can also stimulate metabolic and hormonal changes that can impact health. For instance, you might secrete more hormones like adrenaline and cortisol (the "stress hormones"), which can in turn change the way you feel, change your appetite, and lead to weight gain or weight loss, depending on your physiology.
Divorce can also disrupt your exercise regimen, your sleep schedule and your social calendar.
What healthy behaviors can protect you during divorce?
More experts recommend engaging in "healthier habits," such as:
- Smoking less or quitting smoking, if you do smoke;
- Moderating your consumption of alcohol;
- Avoid taking illicit drugs or abusing prescription medications;
- Getting fresh air and a safe amount of sunlight;
- Exercising and “eating right;”
- Being around the people who make you feel good;
- De-stressing by spending time in meditation or prayer.
These generic recommendations sound good in theory, but they can be hard to follow in practice.
For instance, what exactly constitutes a “healthy diet”? According to the conventional wisdom, we’re all supposed to eat a low-fat, high carbohydrate diet with a lot of whole grains, vegetables and fruits. The diet limits meats, sugar, and fat -- especially saturated fat. However, powerful new research has emerged (see here and here and here) that has exonerated saturated fat consumption as a cause of heart disease. Other research suggests that a diet higher in natural fats and lower in carbohydrates (particularly refined carbohydrates and sugars) may actually be more healthy and better for metabolic health and weight loss.
This website, for instance, has compiled a list of all 24 studies ever done comparing the traditional low fat diet with a lower carbohydrate, higher fat diet, assessing them on measures of metabolic health and weight loss. So far, the low carb diet has won every time.
Obviously, this not to say that you should go out and eat a low carb, high fat diet or change your habits in any way. The point being made is that glib advice to the effect of “eat healthy” can be challenging and possibly counterintuitive. Pay attention to your body, work with your doctor, educate yourself as a patient, and persist to achieve your health and wellness goals.
How important is social support after a divorce, and what can you do to improve your social connections?
Divorce can lead to surprising consequences, socially, because human beings are naturally social animals. In fact, you and your spouse probably shared a lot of knowledge about your lives in unconscious ways. Your wife, for instance, may have been the one who kept the household “books” -- you may not even know the passwords to your various accounts. Or maybe your husband had been the master of the kitchen, and you don’t know how to make quality meals for yourself and your kids, because you’ve been working all the time.
It could take some time before the void left by your spouse’s absence feels less empty and scary.
Ideally, you want to reach out to people to meet your needs for communication, empathy, support and insight. At the same time, you also want to respect your needs for space, privacy and calm. It’s not good to lock yourself away after a divorce. But likewise, it’s not ideal to rush out and socialize and meet 30 new friends within the next month.
Take it slow. And for your children’s sake, avoid rushing into new serious relationships. Sociology research shows that subjecting children to a lot of relationship “churn” in their lives can be stressful and destabilizing. Children (and all of us, really) need stability and routine. If people are constantly coming into the family and leaving, stability can’t take root. Strive for a healthy medium when it comes to social engagement. Don’t lock yourself away -- make sure you go out and see friends. But take time to be by yourself in peace to reflect.
What can you do to gain control of your finances after a divorce or separation?
First, get a clear picture of what’s going on in your financial life right now. What are your marital assets? What are your liabilities? How much property do you have? Where is it? What’s your budget? What’s your income? What are your longer term goals? The more specifically you can answer those questions and questions like them, the easier it will be to develop a sound plan. Our firm can likely refer you to a good financial planner or advisor.
What if you can't find or calculate answers to those questions?
A qualified divorce attorney -- together with an experienced financial planner -- can help you organize your finances and bookkeeping and strategize to handle various contingencies that might happen during the divorce. Given all the uncertainty in your life, hold off on making major financial decisions, such as selling your house, starting a business, or making a dramatic change regarding your employment. Avoid juggling “too many balls in the air” to keep finances simple.
How can you find an effective financial planner?
You can use a very similar process to the one that we discussed earlier in our chapter about how to find a divorce attorney. Understand your purpose. Create a list of principles that you want to govern the relationship, and then recruit and vet prospects, like we discussed. Your divorce attorney at DiPietro Family Law Group can also provide you with a referral, if you would like.
What can you do to prepare financially for good results and bad results from the divorce?
Develop financial contingency plans to meet whatever happens during your divorce.
It would be great if things “went your way,” and you obtained all the alimony, child support and marital assets that you want. But as the old military adage goes: hope for the best, but prepare for the worst. So what would be “the worst”? You might find it resourceful (and oddly calming) to contemplate various bad scenarios and come up with possible solutions.
How would you live your life, take care of your kids, build your career and pursue other life goals if things didn’t work out well for you, financially, during the divorce? Life wouldn’t come to an end. You’d develop workarounds. So what might those workarounds be?
For instance, let's say you wouldn't be able to pay the mortgage. So maybe you’d have to sell your house and move in with your sister or with your parents. Or maybe you'd have to stick it out for a few more years at a job you dislike -- one you had been hoping to quit. Don’t dwell on these worse case scenarios and make yourself miserable. But do think about and prepare for the most likely of them. Armed with real, concrete "back up plans" -- informed by your financial planner and divorce attorney -- you will approach your case with a lot more confidence and calmness, because you know you’ll able to meet your core needs, no matter what happens.
Part of what makes divorce so stressful isn’t just all the losses -- it's also all the uncertainty. So when you eliminate some of the uncertainty by doing good contingency planning -- financial and otherwise -- you make the entire divorce less painful. You reclaim peace of mind, which can be worth its weight in gold.
How can you deal with depression after divorce?
Feeling overwhelmed, agitated, depressed or otherwise “out of sorts” is natural after a divorce or separation. The silver lining is that science suggests that your levels of happiness will likely rebound after the divorce process ends. For instance, one recent Gallup survey examined happiness levels of Americans who were married, separated, and divorced. Counterintuitively, the married and divorced people were happier than the people who were just “separated.” Perhaps the state of being in limbo – i.e. being separated, but not knowing what the separation will ultimately entail – causes distress. Those who were separated but not divorced also were more likely to abuse alcohol, drugs, or prescription medications.
Other than “wait it out,” what else can you do to deal with depression after a separation?
Scientists now generally believe that diverse, often unrelated problems can contribute to depression during divorce. For instance, physical illness, mental illness, changes in diet, changes in the seasons, changes in relative exposure to sunlight and trauma might contribute to depression. Seek assistance from a competent therapist and medical doctor.
What if you develop an addiction to alcohol or controlled substances during the divorce?
Addiction can contribute to the breakup of relationships and also persist afterwards and cause substantial harm, financially, emotionally and even physically. Most people who are “hooked” intellectually understand that their behaviors are causing harm, but they nevertheless keep engaging in the addictive behaviors.
Some researchers have begun to question the current paradigms used to diagnose and treat addiction. In their 2014 book, The Sober Truth, authors Dr. Lance Dodes and Zachary Dodes provide evidence that the so-called “12 step” methodology that forms the bedrock of most addiction treatments in this country may not have been founded on solid or compelling science.
Irrespective of what actually drives people to engage in addictive or compulsive behaviors, work with a competent and compassionate therapist to develop an approach that meets your needs.
How can you make your work situation more bearable after a divorce?
In a widely received TED talk, motivation researcher Daniel Pink presented evidence from his research and other scholarly sources that suggest that three critical elements determine motivation at work. These include:
To be satisfied and motivated at work, you need to have a degree of control over what you do.
To thrive at work, you need to believe that you’re doing something that has a noble or important purpose. Whether that purpose is highly personal – you’re earning money to feed your family – or broader – you’re engineering better ways to deliver water to third world countries – you want to feel like the work that you do every day serves a greater good.
There’s a reason why people are addicted to things like video games: we love getting better and “leveling up” at things. Your job should challenge you to constantly improve at key skills.
Will your divorce ultimately leave you less happy than you were?
The research science here is mixed.
If you’re leaving an abusive or destructive relationship, you should probably end up happier, because you’ll no longer be exposed to the negative behaviors causing stress, anxiety and pain.
However, peoples’ levels of happiness (and unhappiness) are remarkably resilient and resistant to change. For instance, if you measure the happiness levels of someone who wins the lottery, here’s what you’ll find. Unsurprisingly, for the first few months after the win, that person will experience higher than average levels of happiness, on a day-to-day basis. But that initial glow will fade. If you test that person’s happiness a year later, he or she will be approximately just as happy as he or she was prior to winning the lottery!
This same affect also manifests when bad things happen. Imagine a healthy person who gets into an accident and becomes quadriplegic. He or she will feel more depressed than average for the first few months after the accident. However, if you test that person’s happiness a year later, he or she will be just as happy as he or she was prior to the accident. This phenomenon is known in the literature as the “hedonic set point.”
Is there anything you can do to change your “hedonic set point”?
Research science says yes. Some strategies that seem to be able to increase baseline levels of happiness include:
- Regular mindfulness meditation practice (15+ minutes a day);
- Giving gratitude every day for what’s going well in your life and reflecting emotionally and intentionally on those good things;
- Getting enough sleep;
- Eating a good diet;
- Adopting or refining a daily routine: perpetual instability can lead to unhappiness;
- Spending time with people you know, trust and love;
- Accumulating enough money to eliminate problems, such as lingering credit card debt. [Money cannot buy happiness, though. Cross cultural studies show that, once you earn beyond a certain threshold, having more money will not make you any happier];
- Giving to charity. Contributing to the welfare of other people can also raise your hedonic set point.
The Impact of a Divorce
Even an amicable divorce will carry some stress that comes with change and adjustment to new routines. Rely on a skilled divorce attorney to handle the most challenging and stressful parts of the process so that you can focus on robust financial planning and strategies to set yourself up for a successful future. Keep your wellbeing in mind throughout the process; your legal representative is ready to answer any questions or concerns you may have as the divorce progresses.