The Amicable Divorce: Is it possible?

In yesterday’s New York Times parenting blog, Motherlode, the question was asked by editor Lisa Belkin:

“Is it possible to have an amicable—truly amicable—divorce?

Today I read all 33 of the Motherlode reader comments, many of which express doubt that an “amicable divorce” is possible. I understand the doubt as well as the readers’ frustrations with the divorce system. I’ve seen these problems myself. Nonetheless, as someone who has been involved in amicable divorces professionally, I can attest they do exist.

Many of the amicable divorces I handled did not involve children, which made it considerably easier to split the sheets and walk away in peace. For those with children, I would say the key factors that kept these divorces friendly were: the maturity level of both spouses; their commitment to fairness and compromise; their mutual determination to stay out of the court system; and the involvement of mediators or attorneys who were committed to resolution. As you can imagine, a divorce case with this number of favorable factors is rather uncommon, which explains why the majority of divorces are not amicable.

This is not the whole ball of wax, however. Believe it or not, there is such a thing as a “good divorce” even when your spouse is not cooperating. (Perhaps “good” is not the best description, because no divorce experience is ever good, but I use the word “good” to contrast with “bad divorce.”) The “good divorces” I’ve seen often aren’t amicable, but for the spouse who is committed to this process, it does not leave lifelong scars and the outcome is the best it can be in light of the circumstances.

How I stumbled upon the “good divorce” is, in essence, the story of my career path. As someone who entered family law with idealism, I nearly despaired in the first few years of my practice after watching cases go sour when one spouse wanted revenge and was hell-bent on using the legal system to achieve this. What turned things around for me and kept me in the field were certain clients who walked through my door and became my teachers. (The ideas for my Divorce Doc workshops and for Lemonade Divorce actually trace back to these individuals.)

Somehow, each of these clients managed to do the unimaginable: go through divorce and still remain true to themselves and their integrity. They didn’t lose sight of what they wanted in the long run. In the face of nastiness from their spouse and their spouse’s lawyer, they chose to respond rationally and without vengeance. They rarely, if ever, used the children as a weapon. They weren’t perfect–they were confused and angry at times– but they didn’t let their emotions guide their legal actions, and as a result, they reached the end of their case without the usual bitterness and scars. Instead of being defeated by divorce, they had found a productive way to walk through the crisis.

These clients convinced me that a “good divorce” is a realistic goal for anyone, regardless whether the other side is cooperating. An amicable divorce is definitely the ideal scenario and worth aiming for, but the situation is by no means hopeless if your spouse doesn’t share your goal for a friendly divorce.

The last thing I want to say is that nice guys (and gals) don’t finish last, in my experience. For these clients who kept their head, the end result was more or less the same as what they would have “won” from a protracted legal battle. Further, the intangible benefits were often more important to them. Whatever they gave up in compromise, they more than made up for in emotional health and in what I call “spiritual currency.”