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The day he moved out was terrible –
That evening she went through hell.
His absence wasn’t a problem
But the corkscrew had gone as well.
— Wendy Cope
“I’m going through separation in Pennsylvania… what do I do?”
Separation can be a time of confusion, anguish, distrust and resentment, and the very best of intentions are sometimes not enough to prevent both you and your spouse from being pulled into fighting that neither of you ever wanted. You never imagined that things would come to this, and you’ve heard plenty of horror stories about what happens when marriages end. Whatever the circumstances of your marriage or what brought you to this moment, here are some suggestions that might help you keep yourself together while you prepare for divorce or whatever comes next.
Accept the reality: you and your spouse are separating.
You can’t afford denial right now. If you want to work things out with your spouse, and if marital reconciliation is possible, that is a blessing indeed… but meanwhile you cannot afford to turn your face from the realities of your situation. Who might be right and who might be wrong matters much less right now, than where you go from here and how you get there. Let me assure you from personal as well as professional experience: it may not feel like it right now, but you will get through this. Meanwhile, be sure that you take care of yourself, and let your friends be there for you. You might be amazed by just how much emotional support your friends can offer you during this painful transition.
Discuss your goals and needs with your spouse.
While this is not always possible, the more problems you can solve over the kitchen table, the cheaper and easier your divorce will probably be. Fights often start where the trust and the communication end, simply because there is too much at stake to let things “slide.” The court is always there as a safety net to resolve the disputes that the two of you cannot, but reaching your own agreements can save you tremendous amounts of money and anguish. Especially if you have children together, accept the emotional risk of sitting down together and try to look beyond the problems that brought you to this point. If you can manage to put aside the reality of who might be at fault for the end of your marriage, you have better hope of working together to clear the way forward for each of you. If you can’t discuss important issues without falling into argument, consider alternative forms of dispute resolution such as mediation; sometimes, adding a skilled “referee” to your discussions – be it a professional mediator, a member of the clergy, or a mutually-trusted friend – can bring order and structure to your discussions in a way that the two of you alone might not be able to achieve.
Avoid making things worse.
Especially while the two of you remain under the same roof, guard against letting negative emotions make your decisions for you, no matter how justified they might be and no matter how much your spouse might be provoking you. No matter how strong the temptation, you cannot afford spite; and the odds are that it will come back to haunt you sooner than you think. Getting through your difficult situation with everything you need to be able to regain personal and financial stability is far more important than “setting the record straight” about who caused the trouble in the first place. You will help yourself stay out of trouble if you make sure that you act instead of reacting, (except for violent situations, which is another matter entirely). Give some thought to how your own words and actions might worsen your already-bad situation, and learn to recognize the warning signs of an escalating conflict. If necessary, learn to back off and give yourself space to cool down, especially when you feel that you are being provoked. If it is important to your spouse that he or she be “right” all the time, nothing you can do or say is ever going to change that. If your spouse is being confrontational and you let that set you off, you are now playing your spouse’s game… and rule number one of that game is that you lose. Watch your words and gestures, and make sure that nothing you say or do can be interpreted as being violent or physically threatening. In the end, what actually happens is less important than what a judge decides happened, so try to recognize the times when the cleverest thing you can say or do is nothing at all.
Be careful about what you record or put into writing.
Anything you put down on paper, on a recorder or into email can become evidence. The same goes for social media, and never imagine that anything you post online is private, even if your privacy settings say otherwise. Stay sensible and civil, and resist the temptation to write down insults and self-justifications. Keep your written communications polite, simple, and to the point. Write nothing you would not willingly answer for to in front of a judge who doesn’t know you and your spouse from Adam and Eve, but who is ready to see you as the source of the problem if you get careless.
Work for sunshine, but always carry an umbrella.
The seat belt, the spare tire, and the umbrella in the glove compartment are there because they are good to have handy when something goes wrong while you are trying to get ahead. Even a worst-case scenario doesn’t have to be a disaster, though, if you take the time and effort to do some advance planning. Part of your lawyer’s job is to consider what can go wrong, so that you can decide for yourself what protections you want to arrange. That leads to…
Meet with a Pennsylvania divorce lawyer.
The sooner you learn what you are in for when you separate, what your options are and how a divorce court might handle your situation, the more choices you have and the better your chances of protecting yourself. Now is a very good time to start getting advice from someone who is very familiar with what you are dealing with, and who can help you avoid trouble before it happens. Lawyers are not automatically “warmongers,” and can often suggest approaches that will help you avoid the need to fight. People hire lawyers for the same reason that they hire plumbers and roofers: because each of them works every day at something you never wanted to have to deal with in the first place. Yes, lawyers are expensive, but so is false economy. When you are called upon to make short-term decisions that carry long-term consequences, an ounce of prevention really can be worth a pound of cure.
Gather and secure financial records.
Now is the time to gather records of all kinds: property, debt (including credit cards), income (yours and your spouse’s), taxes, insurance, investments, retirement savings plans and pensions, bank statements, etc. Stop throwing away old pay stubs, bank statements, bills, etc. If it has to do with money and the marriage – no matter which of you owns the asset or owes the debt – gather it, organize it and secure it, with particular attention to balances and values as of the date of your marriage (if applicable), and of your final separation. Maintain these records, or copies of them, in a protected location. It is better to have too many records, than too little.
Secure your personal property.
What can’t you afford to do without? This is particularly true for jewelry and other small, valuable items, and for items of purely sentimental value that can be easily hidden, held hostage or destroyed. The contents of jewelry boxes often “disappear” when spouses separate, and what actually happened to them can quickly become lost in pointless “he said/she said.”
Secure your financial resources.
Might your spouse empty your bank accounts and run off with the money? Is there cash around the house? Are you financially dependent on your spouse? During separations and divorces, things sometimes can get harder before they get easier. Securing as much financial stability for yourself as possible is a good idea. If you might need to rely on friends and family members for your support for a while, consider talking with them to find out what is available to you, and how quickly. If you are economically dependent on your spouse, prepare yourself for several “dry” months with only your own resources to help you get by, if you can.
Consider closing joint credit lines.
Joint credit lines, or credit lines of one spouse for which the other is an authorized user, are invitations to get each other further into debt. Avoid that if possible, by shutting down joint credit lines and revoking authorization for your spouse to use your credit cards. You might want to get a copy of your credit report to ensure that you did not miss anything, and to make sure that no new credit has been taken out in your name and without your knowledge.
If you are leaving, decide what property you need.
Cleaning out a home to the bare walls is harsh medicine if there is a reasonable alternative, but you should consider that whatever you might need that you do not take with you is something you may have to buy again. Might your spouse be considering this, too? Right now, either of you has the power to take property from where both of you have access, to where only one of you can go. Courts prefer to avoid distributing “pots and pans,” so it is always safest to assume that if you leave something behind when you move out, you will never see it again. Do not expect a court to assign more than “tag sale” value to the collective contents of the average home.
Talk about the children.
If children are involved, realize that your relationship with your spouse never ends; it only changes. It is painfully easy for children to get caught up in the issues between their parents, and to the extent that you can protect them from the consequences of your separation, the better off they will be. Children deserve parents who can respect and support their relationship with the other parent. Children will adjust to a new parenting situation in time, and can be successfully raised by separated parents who have found a way to work together for their children’s benefit. If the court becomes involved in your custody dispute your judge will do his or her best to resolve the situation in the best interest of your children, but no judge loves your children or truly knows what is good for them. There simply is no good substitute for two parents working together in the best interest of their children. Your family lawyer can suggest approaches that might help to minimize the prospect of fighting over the custody of your children.
Take care of yourself.
You cannot be strong for anyone else without first being strong for yourself. Recognize that nobody goes through a situation like this unchanged… even if the changes can ultimately be for the better. The more aware you can become of how your separation from your spouse is affecting you, the more likely that you can manage those changes as constructively as your difficult situation permits. Make sure that during this painful moment in your life, when your spouse can seem further removed from you than a stranger and when you find yourself saying and doing things that you never imagined could come from you, you become your own best friend. Advise yourself like you would advise a friend, and follow that advice.
You will get through this.
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If you need legal assistance with your divorce or family law matter in Southwestern Pennsylvania, call my office to set up a personal consultation with a divorce lawyer in Pittsburgh and to learn more about divorce in PA. This blog will feature periodic updates. Consider subscribing! Please do not comment anonymously, and do not post anything that you consider confidential. I try to be responsive to commentary and questions, but know that posting here will not create an attorney/client relationship and that I will not offer legal advice via the Internet.
Michael B. Greenstein
Greenstein Family Law Services, P.C.
1789 S. Braddock Avenue, Suite 590
Pittsburgh, PA 15218