Guidelines for Relating to Your Wife During Divorce


By: Sam Margulies, Ph.D., J.D.

Between the decision to divorce and the physical separation, you and your wife are stranded between two worlds: your past life together and your future lives apart. It is only natural during this period of limbo that emotions run high. Even the slightest miscue can lead to an explosion that could irrevocably damage your chances at a good divorce. The problem is that, because the relationship has changed, it is hard to know how to act.

Managing Day-to-Day Interactions

So how do you relate to each other? Even though you and your wife are divorcing, you are still together and still have many of the expectations of a married couple. She may still be your primary confidant, so you may be inclined to turn to her when something is troubling you. However, she is also the person you are divorcing and the feelings of rejection are still palpable. She is both friend and stranger at the same time, as are you to her.

While you are in this stage, it's likely that you and your wife may get into discussions that begin as pleasant recollections from the past, only to see them deteriorate into two conflicting versions of history. You may each ruminate about the future, only to find yourselves in a fight over how much support she seeks or whether she will agree to sell the house. Your situation is volatile, and what begins as a simple discussion soon becomes a battle with hurt feelings.

This is all part of the process of parting, and the sooner you acquire new expectations of each other, the better off you will be. Many couples come to me for mediation and express hope that they can come out of the divorce still being friends. It is very difficult to ratchet a relationship down from an intimate one to a friendship. Friends expect to be able to turn to each other for emotional sustenance, encouragement, and approval. Calling on each other for help or emotional reinforcement is tricky because intimate conversation between you triggers so many old and unresolved issues. You are the source of so much pain to each other that the pain is simply inconsistent with a friendship. So talk of friendship, more often than not, can just lead to further disillusionment with each other.

So, instead of aiming for friendship, the model that I return to repeatedly in this book is the appropriate dialogue with a business colleague. We expect business colleagues to be friendly rather than to be friends. When you talk to a colleague, you are careful to maintain a cordial and respectful tone. You do not engage in bursts of anger and you do not attack each other's character. You can agree to disagree, and you can negotiate amicable resolutions.

Because your relationship with a business colleague is limited to your common purpose, your communication is also limited. This helps ensure the relationship is long term; you do not stress it by demanding interaction outside of what is necessary to achieve a common goal. This is especially important if you have children, as you and your wife will have to cooperate around child-related issues for a long time. You will have to be able to share relevant information, cooperate with each other to achieve common but limited goals, and resolve conflicts related to those goals on the occasions when such conflicts arise.

Although it is quite difficult to shift gears suddenly and move from an intimate relationship with complex expectations to that of business colleagues, you need to begin consciously moving toward the transition. As mentioned before, during the very difficult period after you have decided to divorce but before you have separated, it is easy to do great damage. Each of you may still be testing old agendas with each other. Each may look for approval and then feel angry when it is not forthcoming.

That's why now is the time to learn how to steer clear of trouble. You must be polite and cordial. Let your wife know when you are coming and going. Do your share of work in the house and have no expectations of personal service from her. Do your own laundry and shopping. Think of yourself as housemates, not spouses; you need to exercise the independence of a housemate. Do not burden your wife with your fears and do not expect to have intimate discussions. That is what you have friends for. That is what you use a therapist for. The sooner you and your wife achieve a respectful and cordial distance, the better off you both will be.

I also urge that you suggest divorce counseling for the two of you. Divorce counseling is not marital therapy and is not intended to achieve reconciliation. Divorce counseling uses a skilled therapist to help the two of you have any unfinished discussions about emotional issues that will help you both accept that the marriage is over. Ideally, divorce counseling provides a safe place where each of you can say things that you feel the need to say and ask questions that are still unanswered. Frequently in such counseling, the noninitiator of the divorce seeks answers about why you want a divorce and sometimes tries one last time to get you to agree to try again. It is a useful forum, because the therapist can interrupt to ensure that each of you are heard, can intervene to help you frame statements to minimize injury, and can provide the opinion of an independent third party that the marriage indeed seems to be over. It is also a safe place to try and obtain your wife's agreement to join you in managing a decent and gentle divorce. It gives you an opportunity to assure her that your intentions are to be fair and gentle and to meet your responsibilities to her and the children. A competent counselor should be able to help you do this in a few sessions. As in the choice of any professional, check out the counselor's credentials and experience carefully because an incompetent counselor can do more harm than good.

Managing Your Finances

Needless battles over money derail more divorces in the early stages than any other issue. Money is a source of power, so to be without money makes us feel powerless. At this point in your divorce, you want to avoid any behavior that will frighten your wife about money. Here are some simple rules.

  1. Make no unilateral change in any bank or securities account. Well-meaning but ignorant advisers and some overzealous lawyers may counsel you to raid the accounts and move the money to new accounts in your name only. The usual rationale is that if you don't strike first, your wife will, and then she will have a huge advantage. And it is true that were she to sequester the money she would enjoy a slight bargaining advantage in the war that would follow. But it would also not be difficult to obtain a court order freezing the money so that neither of you could get at it without the consent of the other. But that is irrelevant because your objective here is trust, and trust cannot be achieved without some vulnerability and risk.


  2. If there is some compelling reason that you have to make a withdrawal, such as payment of taxes, tell your wife first and secure her consent. Do not assume that she trusts you, and control your indignation if she asks for safeguards that she had not sought in the past.


  3. Do not cancel your wife's credit cards or in any way take unilateral measures to control her spending. If you think that her spending is a problem, take the question up with your counselor or mediator. It is often necessary to negotiate temporary support or money management arrangements. By insisting on a bilateral agreement, you establish the premise that you and your wife can work out the details in negotiation and that power struggles through lawyers are unnecessary.

Managing Parenting Issues

At this stage of your divorce, it's critical to maintain the parenting status quo. If your wife has been the parent in charge of the children, now is not the time to assert your equality as a parent. Your relative parenting roles will be negotiated soon, and in your anxiety to maintain your role as father, do not precipitate threatening struggles over the children.

One of the most painful aspects of divorce is informing the children. I have seen many couples mess up this sensitive task by handling it unilaterally or precipitously. So develop a plan with your wife for you to together tell the children about the divorce. This is absolutely a joint task, and you may want some joint counseling about how and what to tell them.

Managing the News of Your Breakup

This is the time to develop a plan with your wife to break the news to relatives and friends. You can assume that she has discussed this already with intimate confidants, so don't be surprised to discover that some people already know. Nevertheless, offering to consult with your wife on the timing of the public dissemination of the news is an essential courtesy to extend.

Managing Your New Social Lives

Be very discreet in dating at this time. Even when your wife is the initiator, she will not be ready to receive information that she has been replaced without your even breaking stride. Do not assume that because she is leaving you she is done with you emotionally. She may even continue to harbor strong feelings toward you and may fantasize that you will make some dramatic gesture to win her back. If your wife gets a report that you were at the movies with some other woman just 2 weeks after she told you that she wanted a divorce, her resentment may sizzle even though you think she has no right to such feelings.

Ideally, dating should wait until you are living separately, and even then there is no reason to put new relationships in your wife's face. You have nothing to prove to her, and there is no issue here of who is right or wrong. It is only an issue of maintaining civility and moving the relationship along to a businesslike collaboration. But if you are dating while you are still living in the family home, it is worth taking pains to keep that activity thoroughly segregated from your continuing life at home.

The article was excerpted from the book A Man's Guide to a Civilized Divorce: How to Divorce with Grace, a Little Class, and a Lot of Common Sense by Sam Margulies, Ph.D., J.D. Published by Rodale. © 2004 Sam Margulies, Ph.D., J.D.

For more information, please visit www.sammargulies.com, or www.writtenvoices.com.

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