Of the hundreds of arguments Certified Marital Mediator Jen Warren Medwin has helped her clients navigate, one in particular sticks out.
“I had a mediation where we literally argued over a parrot,” says Medwin, MS, CDC, also a Supreme Court of Florida family mediator and author of Strategies and Tips from a Divorce Coach: A Roadmap to Move Forward. “Custody time-sharing of a parrot. Believe it or not, people fight over food processors and plastic containers as well.”
The common theme?
“They’re fearful of the expenditure of additional money,” she says. “So, whoever is taking that food processor, the other person has to buy one.”
Medwin calls these fights “tug of war arguments—a fight for the sake of arguing,” she says. They’re one of seemingly countless disputes separated couples may encounter over the course of their divorce proceedings, the length of which depends on the state in which the divorcing couple lives and the number of issues to be hammered out, including child custody arrangements, division of assets, and spousal support agreements. In some states, divorcing couples are required to retain opposing lawyers, making a potentially smooth divorce more contentious. Then there is cost; if each spouse hires a full-scope divorce lawyer, they can expect to pay an average of $11,300 in legal fees.
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Of course, there is an emotional cost to divorce as well. “Everybody has to understand that most things are getting divided, and that each person is going to walk away with less than they had when they were living together, and this loss is really hard to accept for a lot of people,” says Medwin. “So, what I try to encourage my clients is, ‘Think of this as a business transaction. Let’s separate the emotional side from the business side.’”
However, arguments will inevitably come up. “Most people during divorce are emotionally vulnerable, and unfortunately this means that arguments can get out of hand,” says Medwin. “People can become so position-based, and this has a negative effect on the divorce process.”
Related: Why Do So Many People Have a Fear of Divorce?
The good news? By employing a few key strategies, arguments can be handled fairly and with little drama.
Fight No. 1: “It’s Not Fair.”
When Divorce Coach Andrea Hipps counsels people at the beginning of their divorce negotiations, she says they often think, “‘You know what? This can be amicable. We have this amount of assets, and this amount of income, and we are going to 50/50, and it’s going to be fine,’” she says. “And most people do start with that. Even in the hardest situations, people are like ‘We can figure this out.’”
Until they can’t.
“Let’s say that somebody has, just for ease of numbers, a hundred thousand dollars between the two of them,” says Hipps who is also a licensed social worker and author of The Best Worst Time Of Your Life: Four Practices To Get You Through The Pain Of Divorce. “And so you go, ‘Oh, that’s going to be 50/50.’ But then you go, ‘Wait a minute, you took $10,000 during this six-month period that we were getting divorced, and you bought furniture for your new apartment when you moved out. I want that $10,000 to come back.’ Well, that’s a fair question. Right? You’re at a 10% of the net asset value. If you’re over 10% of the net asset value, I’d say it’s worth asking the question: Is there a way to do an offset here?”
However, if the money in question is $1,000 on a hundred-thousand-dollar asset, “you might be adding a month of time, a month of agitation, and a month of legal fees to get that thousand dollars,” she says.
Her advice is to take a different approach and to seek what is acceptable.
“There are going to be things about acceptable that are inherently unfair,” she says, “but they will also get you to the resolution of your divorce and allow you to move on to what’s next for you.”
Fight No. 2: “What’s Best For The Kids?”
What Hipps has discovered over the years advising divorcing couples is that even when married, they often had legitimate disagreements about what they think is best for the kids—whether it’s over curfew, when to get one’s ears pierced, or even how much sugar consumption is appropriate.
But in the divorce process, kid-centered disagreements can become acute and messy, especially when negotiating on how much time the kids should spend with each parent.
“What’s best for the kids is a moving target,” she says. “People think there is a single way that is best for the kids, and there is not.”
Often, “Mom might have an opinion that they’re better off spending the lion’s share of the time with her,” says Hipps. “And she might be right from her perspective. Dad or the other mom might have a very different perspective and want to have the kids 50% of the time. They’re thinking, ‘If I don’t have 50% of the time, I’m going to lose even more connection to them than I already have lost.’”
Hipps’ advice? Get on the same page and put the kids first.
“Most parents want their kids to launch well,” she says. “So, couples should start the conversation from there. We both really want this kid, who’s anxious, to find their center. Or this kid, who’s disorganized, to start figuring out executive functioning. This is what we want. That can sometimes turn the temperature down on the argument.”
Then, revisit the custody arrangement as needed.
“If we start noticing after giving it six months that the kids are always upset at one house or the other house, how do we dial into that?” explains Hipps. “How do we truly look at what’s best for the kids? Is it best that they hang in there and learn how to adapt? Or is it best that we give them some relief and send them back to the home that they feel most comfortable in more often?”
Sometimes, when a significant other is in the picture, arguments may arise over how much exposure the kids have to that person.
In these cases, Medwin advises her clients to understand that chances are good that both will move on to relationships with others and to think about custom provisions that keep the kids’ wellbeing in mind.
Fight No. 3: “Show Me the Money”
Both Hipps and Medwin have found that there are two types of divorce-related money arguments.
One, over those tug-of-war items, can consume loads of both time and energy. To avoid this, Medwin advises her clients to “videotape your house or your apartment. Then sit down and make a list for yourself of ‘definitely want,’ ‘definitely don’t want,’ and ‘willing to compromise,’” she says. “Then we have a basis from which to start the negotiation.”
This also helps her clients avoid entering negotiations like a “deer in headlights,” she says. “Everybody has to give up something in the divorce process, because you’re dividing things. So it’s really important to think about those things that you really want, things that you can live without, and things that you are willing to give up depending on what you get for it.”
The second argument revolves around each spouse’s divorce settlement and what each believes they deserve based on their individual roles in and financial contributions to the marriage.
In most cases, one or both spouses feel the agreement is unfair, says Hipps. That means it’s important to enter financial negotiations with an understanding that “you are going to need to step up and into managing your finances in a very different way, post-divorce,” she says.
Related: The Case for Separate Finances—and How to Make That Happen in Your Next Relationship
“You’re going to have to come into a different relationship to your money,” she says. “So, in part, it’s figuring out, ‘how do I maximize my settlement on the front end?’ But then, also, ‘how do I enter into a different relationship to money and to either the receipt of it or the giving of it so that I still feel detached from my former partner, not reliant on my former partner?”
Though divorces can be emotionally draining, by preparing yourself either by working with a divorce coach or mediator, or thinking through your points of view and enabling yourself to see your spouse’s, you can more smoothly hash out your issues and move on.
You want to ask yourself, “How do I both stay in relationship to this person and be extremely detached from them?” says Hipps. “That’s why divorce coaches exist. To help people create a legitimate, reliable detachment, and learn how to communicate in a very protected way.”