It’s January, which even in normal years is the month when most divorce cases are filed. Maybe it’s because the holidays are over and people want a fresh start at the New Year. Some couples already knew they were going to separate, but understandably chose to avoid disrupting their families during the holidays. So the slow-down of divorce filings in December is met with an increase in January.
Today, we’re talking about the decision to legally file for divorce, and how you know when it’s time. If you’re still uncertain if your marriage can survive, by all means keep working at it. And know that you’re in good company. In fact, according to the Institute for Family Studies, as many as 1/3 of couples have faced traumatic stress in their marriages in the past year. That’s a lot!
The good news is that not all couples who struggle will divorce. It’s normal in any marriage to go through hard times. We talk here about 2 things to keep in mind if you’re having a rough time in your marriage right now.
But what if you’ve already separated, or are certain it’s unavoidable? How do you know whether to just live apart or actually go ahead with a divorce? You can’t control if your spouse decides to file before you’re ready. But to the extent you have a say in the matter, here are 4 statements to try on for size. See if any of them apply to you. If so, consider them an indication (not an absolute) that you might be ready.
1. I’m OK with getting a divorce. This isn’t about being divorced vs. staying together. This is about coming to terms with the fact that, at the end of this process, that’s what will happen. We’re not suggesting anyone wants one, but there are folks who are adamantly opposed to divorce for religious or other reasons. If this is you, you might consider a “legal separation” instead. We explain how that works here. But if not, and you have accepted that’s what will happen legally, then you might be ready to file.
2. The timing is “right.” Who are we kidding; there’s no such thing as right timing when it comes to divorce. But there is decidedly bad timing that you might be looking to avoid. Like 2 weeks before your daughter’s wedding. The month before your son graduates high school. Or while your spouse is recovering from back surgery. Starting the divorce process is a highly stressful time. It requires a huge amount of your focus, energy, and emotion. If you need to put that energy into celebrating someone else, or being there for someone else, consider waiting a few weeks (as long as it’s not just an excuse to indefinitely delay your own happiness). But if there’s nothing once-in-a-lifetime in your way, and this seems to be as good (or bad) a time as any, you might be ready.
3. My spouse is being funny with the money. If your spouse stopped paying the bills or is suddenly moving money around, you might need to officially file for divorce and ask the court to step in. At a temporary or interim hearing, you can seek temporary support, exclusive use of the home, etc., while your case is pending. In other words, the court can put certain terms in place until you figure out everything on a “permanent” basis. Also, many states have “standing orders” which prevent parties to a divorce case from depleting assets, canceling insurances, and removing their kids from the state. Think about it like “ground rules” for your divorce. The standing order only goes into effect once a divorce is filed (in some places they are automatic and in others you have to request it when you file) - so if you feel you need the court's protection, you might need to file.
4. I need a divorce so I can move on with my life. Being in limbo is terrible. Not knowing what direction the marriage is going can be worse for some people than knowing it’s over. And there can truly be value in closure. We don’t say any of these things to suggest the process is easy (it’s not) or that there won’t be times during it you wish you could stop it (you might). But if you are certain that you can’t live the life you want and deserve until this is over, then you might be ready. Sometimes, accepting that a relationship is over, and ending it to make room for other things, is the healthiest choice.
What if one of these statements does apply to you, but you still don’t feel ready? Don’t rush. Take the time to explore what’s holding you back and what you need to feel ready. My law partner used to say, “You’ll know it’s time when the pain of staying is worse than the pain of the thought of leaving.” It may be that you’re scared of the process, or of being alone, or any one of a number of understandable reasons. Seek support from a trained professional so you don’t have to make this decision alone. And trust yourself that you’ll know when it’s time.