Taking Control of Your Divorce – The Attorney’s Perspective

Taking Control of Your Divorce: The Attorney’s Perspective

by Marguerite C. Smith, J.D.




Anyone who is reading this site is going though a very tough time in their lives or cares for someone who is. Having been through a divorce myself, you have my sympathies and support. I have tried to bring my personal experience and the experiences of many of my clients, to this article to help the reader take what is often an unhappy situation and accept it. If the marriage cannot be saved, move on and shape your future the way you want it to be. You should shape your future during the divorce process rather than after.

Naturally it is much easier to do this when your divorce has not spiraled out of control. By that I mean that you are not caught up in a vicious court battle which drains your emotional and financial resources. I call this 'divorce control' If you can keep the divorce on a sane level you will have more time and energy to concentrate on what you want your post divorce life to look like. Some examples of future issues you may want to consider are:

  • Where would you like to live?
  • What level and lifestyle do you want to maintain?
  • How will you pay for this?
  • What kind of job do you want to have?
  • What do you wish for your children?
  • What parenting arrangement would you like to see between you and your ex?

In this article I give you tips on how to keep your divorce sane and 'in control' by emotional as well as financial preparation. Please note if you are in an abusive situation, you may need special help; whereas, spouses can be very nasty to each other when a relationship breaks down, if you have any inkling that you are truly 'abused' contact a domestic abuse profession to guide you such as a therapist; Eastside Domestic Violence; Police; an attorney, or Child Protective Services. Check Resources for further referrals. It is beyond the scope of this article to deal with this very special subject.

The Negative and Positive Approach

There are two approaches to divorce, one negative and the other positive. Both approaches concede that divorce is often heart-wrenching event. The difference is essentially the speed and quality of recovery.

The Negative Approach to Divorce

This Approach is summarized as follows: Divorce is a terrible trauma similar to a death in the family. Recovery will take a minimum of two years on average for you to focus your attentions on recovering and trying to move beyond this loss. The emphasis of this approach is just getting over it.

The Positive Approach to Divorce

Divorce is a terrible trauma. However, like a death in the family you must accept it. Whereas, grief is natural, giving your life new meanings and definitions helps to reduce the grieving time. Not only must you focus on recovery; you must focus on redefining your life. Furthermore, you should use the divorce as a catalyst to change your life for the better. This is an opportunity to develop your own personality and behavior without the constraints of the prior relationship. It is an opportunity to pick up career and life goals which may have been restricted by the marriage to your spouse. This is an opportunity to create a bright new future. The choice is yours; you can let divorce dwarf you for a while or even forever or open up great new possibilities for personal fulfillment. Suggestion: Read Who Moved the Cheese by Spencer Johnson, Kenneth H. Blanchard. This is a story of mice who learn how to move on when it becomes clear the cheese has gone. The cheese represents everything in our lives which no longer in exists. We must know when to move on.

The following is a guide to the entire divorce process i.e. mental preparation; the law and legal process; negotiation; planning for your future financially, socially, emotionally, and creating great possibilities for your exciting new life. The reader should be aware that references to the law and legal process are for Washington State only; the Resources focus on King County.

Stage One - Moving Away from Each Other Emotionally

The two of you are not communicating properly anymore; there is a lack of closeness. There is a wall between you. There is suspicion and distrust. You feel betrayed and let down. Your thoughts are moving towards divorce. You are thinking of going to see an attorney just to see what your rights would be if you decided to go ahead with divorce or it was forced upon you."

Stage Two - Finding an Attorney and Defining Your Divorce

CAUTION! Although it is a very good idea to see what your potential rights and liabilities are in case of a divorce, be aware that not all divorce attorneys are created equally. You will notice by discussing your case with a selection of them, that some of them build up your fears and distrust of the other spouse particularly mentioning hiding of assets, kicking you out of the house, etc.; whereas, others discuss a possibility of a negotiated settlement and trying to reduce the stress of divorce with less negative impact on the children. The latter group will also mention potential problems but will try to help you decide what are reasonable fears and which are not. It is up to you how you wish to proceed.

Personally, I am firmly within the camp of attorneys who emphasize settlement if possible over unnecessary litigation. The reasons why? Litigation is expensive, very expensive. It can cost you many tens of thousands of dollars extra that could have been saved for the family if at least one of you kept a cool head. I am not saying that if you go into court over some disagreement or disagreements that all is lost and that you will have a vicious and extremely combative divorce. It is not uncommon to go into court, for example to establish temporary orders i.e. pretrial issues such as finances, parenting, and use of property pending your final divorce. The key, however, is attitude. Getting a judge to make a decision can be done in a fashion that does not have people at each other’s throats in a tit-for-tat combat. A lot of the bloody divorce battles are caused by people’s fears, anxieties, and disappointments. If you can recognize these feelings for what they are in you, and in your spouse, and learn to deal with them, IT WILL HELP YOU TO TAKE CONTROL OF YOUR DIVORCE, RATHER THAN THE DIVORCE TAKING CONTROL OF YOU. In addition to financial cost, the emotional cost of an all-out battle can be devastating to you and your children. See the later discussion of emotional effects of divorce in Emotional Effects. If you are interested in attorneys who want the public to know that they try to avoid unnecessary litigation, go to Attorney List.

Stage Three - Establishing Your Divorce Mindset and Taking Control of Your Divorce

Remember that allowing negative feelings to get out of control means you will lose control of your divorce. Can you really imagine trying to shape a life for yourself as you negotiate your divorce (with or without an attorney) when you are consumed by feelings of revenge, hurt, anger, or you are abusing substances to such a degree you become an emotional mess? How can you come to a workable parenting solution when you use the kids to get back at your spouse? Is this the kind of relationship you want with your kids? If you wanted someone to negotiate your divorce for you and plan your life, would you choose someone like that? My guess is your answer is 'no' unless, of course, you want an emotionally draining, expensive, litigated battle. Then, my friend, that is what you will get. If that is the case, do not bother to read on. For those still reading...

Identify your negative feelings.
Own up to them.
Refuse to let them control you.

Here are some of the fillings that you may be experiencing and suggestions as to how to tackle them.

A. Anger

This can take the form of anger at your spouse or anger at your situation or both. Maybe your spouse has not treated you well. He or she may have had an affair or have been emotionally or physically abusive to you. You may feel anger towards your partner because he/she has not lived up to expectations. You may feel angry at the relationship or at life as a whole. 'It just isn’t fair' you think. You had designed your entire life around this marriage. You thought it would go on forever. 'It should have!' You think you’re entitled to have those expectations met. You are angry because you may be not be able to socialize in the same way with the same people if you split up; you may feel you can’t afford to keep up the same lifestyle without your spouse. You may feel convinced that your husband or wife is a bad person, but you may also have a nagging doubt about whether you have done something to contribute to this bad result in your marriage. After all, you married this other person and loved them once. You ask, 'Is there something wrong with me?' You may turn this into anger against self and blame yourself for what you probably see as the tragedy in your life.

Understand that in most cases both parties blame the other one and many feel that maybe they could have done something to save the marriage themselves. People tend to feel anger whether they are the one who is leaving or the one who is being left. Some things to tell yourself:
  • In a few years this entire episode will be part of my past and my emotional response to it will be so very much less.
  • I am a great person, but I am not a perfect person. This goes for my spouse, too. Who is a perfect person?
  • I refuse to get caught up in blame. This would make me bitter and stop me moving forward.

Tip: Consult with a therapist to help you work through these anger issues. The following are some books dealing with anger:

  • The Dance of Anger: A Woman’s Guide to Changing the Patterns of Intimate Relationships by Harriet Lerner.
  • Beyond Anger: A Guide for Men: How to Free Yourself from the Grip of Anger and Get More Out of Life by Thomas J. Harbin.
  • The Anger Workbook by Lorrinne Bilodau
  • Change Your Brain, Change Your Life: The Breakthrough Program for Conquering Anxiety, Depression, Obsessiveness, Anger, and Impulsiveness by Daniel G. Amen
  • 104 Activities That Build: Self-esteem, Teamwork, Communication, Anger Management, Self-discovery, and Coping Skills by Alanna E. Jones

B. Insecure, Nervous and Anxious

Not knowing what to expect is one of the worst things that can happen to you.

Fear of the unknown is often much worse than the thing itself when it finally happens.

What’s going to happen to me during the divorce process? What will the divorce process look like? What will my life look like afterwards? How will things look socially for me? How will things look financially for me? Am I going to 'lose' my kids?

Some solutions for getting through this mental anguish:

Find out the facts. You will feel a great sense of relief, even if the news is bad. People usually do. They then start to accept and do what they can to remedy a problem.


How will I survive financially? This is a fear suffered by both the wage earning and the non-wage-earning spouse (underemployed spouses also fall in this category). The non-wage-earning spouse is focused on how will he or she get enough money out of spousal maintenance and/or job to make ends meet. The wage-earning spouse is concerned that her/his income may be spread too thin by keeping up two households, i.e. his or her own and the other spouse’s household through paying maintenance and child support. Find out how much you need to survive by completing the Monthly Expense Calculator. The Monthly Expense Calculator to calculate what your expenses will be once you are separated from your spouse.

Now that you have completed the Monthly Expense Calculator, you know what your monthly expenses are. If children are an issue, you may be receiving or paying child support. Provide a calculation of child support for yourself under the Child Support Worksheets lists your monthly expenses. Use it or get a general idea under the Child Support Calculator

The person who will be paying child support needs to add this support to the list of expenses to see how to make ends meet. The person who will be receiving child support should deduct the amount of child support from the expenses as child support covers some of the children’s and general household expenses. The balance will have to be made up through work of the non-earning spouse and/or spousal maintenance (if the other spouse is able to pay it). You see how all this works out? There is only a certain amount in the pot to be divided to take care of everybody’s needs. The sensible divorcing person will find out what is needed, what is available, and based on that, can make a reasonable settlement proposal to the other side not based on fear of the unknown, but on a knowledge of the facts. This is a much stronger way to approach the divorce and will take much of the hysteria out of it.

Remember, fear of the unknown is the antithesis of control over your divorce, so find out the facts!

Legal Process:

Find out about the Legal Process, for example, how long the process will take. What the forms looks like; Whether you have to go to court; What is this thing called mediation? Do I have to litigate or can we negotiate a settlement? How would we do that? Many of these questions are answered under Legal Process. Familiarize yourself with the Law and the process. These sections naturally won’t tell you everything you need to know about the Law and Process. You need to go to law school for that. However they will give you a basic understanding and help you to talk reasonably with your attorney about what you want and what is feasible. Everyone should consult an attorney if possible. You will feel much better when you know what is likely to happen and what possibilities are available to steer the divorce in the direction you want.

Social Fears and Identity Fears:

Establishing Your Own Identity. This is a tough one. When you have lived with a person for an extended period of time, you cannot help but tie your identity to some extent to that person. For example, you identify with their social group. If they have a prestigious job, you may have enjoyed considerable prestige being the wife or the husband of that person. You may have gone so far as to have considered yourself an adjunct to that person and have subdued your own identity in building up your spouse. This is very difficult to overcome for anyone. Remember, you ARE an individual. You always have been an individual even though you didn’t realize it. Now is the opportunity to blossom on your own in your own right. Yes, it is frightening, but anything worth doing is frightening. You may need some help from a therapist at least in the initial stages of your new life development. See if your insurance coverage covers mental health treatments. Some do. This is a good time to take part in support groups. Self-help books may help: See Resources for support groups,books and other resources.

Learn to Like Yourself!

You are a unique person and as such are lovable. Learn to love yourself for all the things you’ve done wrong, as well as those you have done right. It is all of this that makes you the individual person you are. If everything you did and experienced went well for you, how would the rest of us poor mortals relate to you or you to us?

I heard a story in church once when I was going through my divorce. It went something like this. The only son of a poor woman died suddenly. She was grief stricken and asked God what to do. God told her to go out and find a family who had never suffered. She went from one house to another. At each house she was told of their suffering. Eventually, she came to a beautiful mansion. Now, surely, she thought, these people have never suffered. When she spoke to the lady of the house the poor women was so moved by her story of loss and grief that she decided to go live with the lady and help her as much as she could. As the story goes, she put her own grief aside and grew from the sense of fulfillment she experienced from helping another. I would imagine that the poor woman learned to love herself and to love what she was doing with her life. After all, she may (wrongly) have concluded that she was not a very valuable person after her son, who was everything to her, died. What a shame that would have been to go on thinking that way. 


  • You are among a huge group of fine people who get divorced for whatever reason.
  • The divorce is not who I am. It is merely something that is happening.
  • This is not my fault
  • I am lovable

C. Bad Personal Habits

While a relationship is breaking up and throughout divorce, people tend to adopt some very bad personal habits. Let’s face it, it’s hard to sleep; it’s hard to get up. You feel why bother? You overeat. You abuse substances. I know it’s tough not to do these things, but try to keep them to a minimum, if you can’t wipe them out altogether. One of the problems with these bad habits is that they adversely affect your mindset for approaching divorce. Alcohol, for example, can make you feel nervous and jittery; it can get in the way of your sleep, and generally make you feel sick. Overeating can make you feel bad about yourself, which is NOT where you want to be when things are already going wrong around you in your relationship. Lack of exercise is the same problem. You get sluggish, you feel hopeless, and you are not getting those adrenaline rushes that make you feel good about yourself. In summary, you feel lousy. How effective do you think you are going to be in taking control of your divorce when you feel awful? The answer is – You won’t be very effective!

The Solution:

Try to adopt better body and mind habits. Reduce or eliminate overeating, and substance abuse. Exercise. You will feel a lot better about yourself. You will clear the mind, and you will feel that you are actually getting somewhere in life. This is a very uplifting experience and will help you to take control of your divorce and your life. If you have trouble, go to see a therapist. Do not be embarrassed about that. Use other resources, such as Random Acts to Lighten Up! by Katie Evans to tackle weight problems.. You may find this book helpful for other concerns as it deals with a bad habit, (overeating) from the inside out. Overeating like other bad habits is a symptom of an internal struggle. Alcohol and other addictions are addressed in the following:
  • The Addiction Workbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Quitting Alcohol and Drugs by Patrick Fanning, John O’Neill (Contributor).
  • Addiction-Free – Naturally: Liberating Yourself from Tobacco, Caffeine, Sugar,Alcohol, Prescription Drugs, cocaine, and Narcotics by Brigitte Mars.

Stage Four - Get Ready to Start Your Divorce

Now you have your mindset reasonably under control and are ready for the nitty-gritty of putting your divorce together. You need to now address the law in light of what you would like to get out of the divorce and come up with reasonable parameters for settlement and be ready to settle. For this you will need to review the following sections:

(a) The Legal Process from Start to Finish

(b) The Law

(c) Financial Planning, Taxes and Divorce

(d) Emotional Effects

(e) Career Goals

Stage Five - Start Your Divorce

You are as ready as you’re ever going to be, so get on with it. Either do it yourself (generally not advisable) or select an attorney to do it for you. If you want one of the attorneys who adhere to the creed of professionalism, click here.

Whether or not you have an attorney, see How to Negotiate a Settlement and Avoid Trial regarding negotiation tips.

You can find the legal forms for your divorce at Forms. Other sources are listed in the Resources.

How to Negotiate a Settlement and Avoid Trial.

Remember that in most cases both parties are petrified of going through divorce. This is so whether they want to have the divorce or do not want to have the divorce. Common concerns:

  • Visitation with the children
  • Making it financially
  • The social implications (who will my circle of friends be now?)
  • Will anybody find me attractive again (yes they will, but it is something people often wonder)
  • A sense of failure

Knowing that the other side has his or her own fears, should be a considerable help to you in your divorce negotiations. This applies whether you negotiate through an attorney or just the two spouses. For discussions on Settlement and Mediation options, see Law.

Helpful tips:

  1. Know what the law is and work out the parameters for reasonable settlement.

  2. See where there may be a “give and take” natural to a negotiated settlement. You know your areas of give and take. Try to work out what your spouses are.

  3. A good way to achieve a settlement is to put yourself as much as you can in the shoes of the other party. Pretend that you ARE that person. A technique that is often used in negotiation exercises is to put two chairs facing each other. You state your peace. Then you move to the other chair and pretend to be the other party. You state peace of the other party from their point of view. You then switch back to your chair and play your own role again. Try not to identify too particularly with any particular role. While you are playing the male (you are female) really play that role. Understand that person’s hopes and fears as they approach this divorce. Try to identify your spouse’s major issues. They may not be your major issues, but if they are important to the other side, they could hold up a settlement. Sometimes if you give a little on a matter that is of great importance to the other side, you may win a greater prize in your own eyes in the end. The reason for this is, if one person finds one thing very important, they may well be willing to compromise on an issue that you find very important if they can succeed on theirs.

  4. Keep anger, blaming comments and nasty comments out of the proceeding. This type of conduct is the surest way to bring settlement negotiations to a speedy end, reopen wounds, and have the two of you battling in court at a great emotional and financial expense.

  5. Treat the other spouse and his/her attorney if applicable with respect. A good way to act is to look at the other person in the eye (if possible during this tough time). The purpose of this is to look like you are concentrating and giving them respect. Hear them out. Listen to what they have to say. Really listening encourages the other side to continue negotiation and helps you to see the strengths and weaknesses of their case.

  6. Read negotiation books, e.g. Negotiating Skills by Tim Hirdle or Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury

Good luck with your negotiations!

Stage Six - The End of Your Divorce

You have already started to plan your new life before you started the divorce. You knew then what you wanted to get out of the divorce, and as the divorce progressed, you found out how much in fact you will get. So, you came to a settlement within the reasonable parameters that you set out before negotiation, and now that the divorce is final. You know what you have after the divorce. You can actively pursue your new life. You have the money; you are free of the influence of the other spouse.

You are ready to pursue your new exciting life.

For those of you who are still clinging on to the old marriage, re-read: Who Moved the Cheese by Spencer, M.D. Johnson and Kenneth H. Blanchard. Your divorce is done. It is time to find a new cheese. Do it!

Stage Seven - Your Exciting New Life

Tips for Finding the New Cheese: There are numerous self help books. Career and life coaches that may assist you in finding out who are, who you would like to be, and what kind of work you would like to go into long term. You might consult with your Therapist. If you have not already done so consider your future career. You should have done this, preferably at Stage 3 or at the beginning of Stage 4, when you are getting ready to embark on the divorce process. Career consultants are often worth the money. Find out about available courses at your local community or technical colleges or university to improve your skills. Financial advisors may be helpful;  It is better to budget early in the divorce process how much money it will take to do what you intend to do with your new life and made this part of your divorce settlement but IT IS NEVER TOO LATE TO GET YOUR LIFE IN ORDER. This is also a good time to tackle the self-help books as we try to make ourselves into the kind of people we would like to be and make sure that we avoid the old traps which led us into the first relationship or led to its demise. See Resources for Reading suggestions and other resources. Try a search on book sites such as www.Amazon.com to find books or tapes in the area of self-improvement which interests or concerns you.