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Heading off a high-conflict divorce

by Houston Divorce Attorney Sam M. “Trey” Yates, III

Often when I meet with a potential client for the first time to discuss a divorce, they readily state that their divorce will be “uncontested.”

“We both pretty much agree on the basic terms of the divorce settlement and want to move ahead as quickly as possible,” I am told.

However, based on decades of experience, I advise my client to strive for civility, but be realistic about how the process will ultimately shake out. After all, they would not be getting a divorce unless there was some degree of contention in the relationship. We are all human and divorce is no walk in the park. It is a major life change that few of us ever anticipate. Confusion or misinformation about divorce law and divorce finances can turn an otherwise balanced person into someone you don’t recognize. When things don’t turn out as expected, emotions can bubble up and may reveal deep pain, underlying conflict, and resentment.

For some individuals, being civil during a divorce is simply impossible. Perhaps your soon-to-be-ex has a tendency to be confrontational or even abusive. Whatever the reason, if you foresee constant fighting and conflict in your divorce, it’s a good idea to be honest about this with your divorce attorney immediately. And be as specific as possible. If you believe your spouse will put up a fight over certain items or community assets, or has ideas about how the marital estate should be divided, explain this to your attorney. He or she can factor that into a strategy for moving through negotiations.

If you anticipate being involved in a high-conflict divorce or aren’t certain what to expect, here are a few tips on how to make the best of a potentially difficult process.

Establish Protections for yourself and your children

High-conflict personalities tend to be destructive in a variety of ways in a divorce situation. Whether your spouse is simply argumentative, emotionally aggressive, or physically dangerous, do whatever is necessary to protect yourself and your family as you move toward and through the divorce process. If your spouse is physically dangerous, call the police if you feel threatened. Be sure you talk honestly to your attorney about this aspect of your relationship; if necessary, ask about securing a restraining order.

Open new, protected bank accounts and credit cards in your name only to prevent your spouse from harming you in a financial way. You may want to move half your marital funds into a separate account in your name only. You will be responsible for these funds, but they are considered community assets and you have a legal right to access them. Also, consider changing the locks in your home. Stay off social media. The less information you give your spouse the less he or she will have to get upset about, or try to use against you; so be private about your affairs and leave communication to your attorney.

Get Temporary Orders in place immediately

Your divorce attorney will help you obtain temporary orders from the court regarding child support, a temporary parenting plan, living arrangements, and finances. Work with your legal team to develop these, especially with regard to finances. Temporary orders are legal orders signed by the court that establish rules on how both spouses behave during the divorce process. If your spouse does not follow the order, you will have legal recourse.

Stay neutral toward your spouse in front of your children

It’s never a good idea to disparage a spouse in front of your children. Remember, your issues with the other parent should not affect them. Don’t use children to send messages, and don’t deliberately try to alienate your children from your spouse. These are all actions that could be used against you in a custody fight. Once temporary orders are in place, abide by these, especially where visitations with children are concerned.

Focus on your future

Don’t dwell on past hurts. You can’t change the past. If you are seeking a divorce, you are already moving toward a new chapter of your life. Make choices now that will create the life you want. If your spouse tries to drag you back into the past, or wants to argue or find fault, stay calm and stick to the business at hand. The best approach is to limit contact and interaction with your spouse unless your attorney is present. It may be best to not answer texts, emails or phone calls. If you have children together, only respond succinctly to communications about their care, etc.

Talk with a therapist

Most people going through divorce have regrets. During the process, you may experience moments of guilt or remorse that trigger a desire to “try one more time to make it work.” Sharing these kinds of feelings with a therapist, and not your spouse, is your best move. A therapist will assist you in sorting through these emotions and help you to take the best course of action for you. If your spouse has been abusive or has a high-conflict personality, make sure you are honest with your therapist about this. Consider the fact that few of these individuals will ever really change who they are. Also, never apologize to your spouse during your divorce, especially in writing. This could be used as an admission of guilt, legally speaking, and could be used against you in court.

Be Realistic

It’s likely, the contention between you and your spouse during your marriage will never be fully resolved. Try to be realistic about what you expect to come from your divorce emotionally, financially and legally. Make a list of your priorities. Set realistic goals for you and your divorce attorney to focus on achieving. If you have children, prioritize their needs. Getting a divorce isn’t about “winning” or “losing,” even though some people may see it that way. Accept that you will likely not get everything you want. Then, move forward into the future you want for yourself.

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