Whether married or not, separations can be scary.  We all hope for the best, but four out of ten marriages end in divorce.  But worst of all is that people often don’t know the basic rules that apply to them.  A lack of good information, abundance of misinformation, and challenge of separating serious emotional change from the legal problems makes it harder than it needs to be.

This article is designed to be a survival guide for those dealing with the end of a long-term relationship.  It’s the least you need to know until you can get proper advice about how the law applies to you and what your options are.

One: No changes without good legal advice

Avoid changing the status quo without first knowing the legal effect of that change.  It doesn’t matter if the change is benign or aggressive – both can easily backfire.  Some common examples are closing joint bank accounts, moving residences, changing parenting arrangements, and filing court applications.

The corollary of this is to avoid making unsupportable threats and promises that you’ll eventually regret.  Without legal advice it’s hard to know which is which.

Two: Get good advice early

A good family law lawyer is the best resource for knowing what the law says about your situation.  The article you read on the internet, the thing that happened in your friend’s situation, and your common-sense intuition about what should happen can easily lead you to wrong conclusions.  And acting on incorrect conclusions can give you extremely bad outcomes.

If your lawyer confirms everything you already know then great!  You can proceed with confidence.  But it is more likely that you will learn a great deal from an early assessment of your case.  Having that knowledge early can dramatically reduce the time, stress, and expense of resolving disputes.

Three: Recognize that divorce is an emotional and interpersonal process with legal implications – not the other way around

All too often people and lawyers get so caught up in the legal challenges inherent in coming to a settlement of financial or parenting disputes that the person’s emotional needs get pushed to the back burner.  For good or ill the legal system tends to ignore the emotional side of the dispute.  But even though those emotions are legally irrelevant they fuel the legal dispute and can be significant barriers to negotiation.

By definition a negotiated resolution is preferable to litigation.  By agreeing to a settlement both parties are demonstrating that the settlement is better for them than the alternative of going to court.  But try as we might to reasonably and logically work out our differences, it is impossible to do that if we cannot get past our emotional animal-brain fight or flight responses.

Use your personal support networks.  See a therapist.  Keep healthy and active.  Do what you need to do to make sure you’re ok, and recognize that your spouse might be on a different timeline in doing the same.

Four: Protect the kids

It’s no surprise that it’s hard on kids to have their parents split up.  Unfortunately, there is no one size fits all solution to maximize the children’s outcome, but there are some common themes.

First, conflict hurts kids, so isolate the children from the conflict.  Recognize that even if they try to become involved they are kids – it’s your job to protect them.  Second, kids do best when they have a relationship with both parents.  Foster that as much as your situation permits.  Third, approach your dispute with a process that minimizes conflict and ensures a child-centered perspective.  Your lawyer can help guide you on what process that might be.

You are not alone.  My colleagues and I have helped thousands of people resolve their separation and divorce problems.  Call me – I’ll pick up the phone.