What to Give Up in a Divorce

Here’s a question I’m sometimes asked: when is it OK to give up what you’re entitled to just to get it over with?  This is a great question and it gets to the core of mediation. Naturally, there’s no simple answer to this question, but there are a number of issues to consider. 

First, dollar value is only one value.  Throughout our lives, we choose intangibles that we can’t put a price to: Our sense of peace.  The health of our children. Their relationship with their other parent.  Ease in a working relationship.  Every day, we make big and small decisions where we trade financial value for something that makes our life better.  We go to a particular chiropractor because we feel comforted by her care.  We get our coffee in a pricey café rather than making it at home because it feels good to be out.  We attend an expensive college because we hope it will get us a better job. Often, well-meaning friends, family and attorneys will attempt to boil down your situation to a spreadsheet and just look at the bottom line. I’m not saying you should sell yourself out, but consider the non-financial cost/benefit to an agreement. Related to that, consider the long-term financial factors of a protracted divorce.  Factor what it might cost you to continue to fight the battle and whether you’d really prefer to see that money in the hands of attorneys rather than your ex-partner.  I had a client once say to his ex-wife after a lengthy alimony discussion “I’ll give you the amount your asking in the hope that you’ll be able to put some of it into an educational account for our kids because otherwise it’s going to end up lost to legal fees and no one will benefit.”

Secondly, the most stable arrangement is perceived as fair by both sides.  I’ve seen plenty of cases where one party gets a fantastic deal and feels pleased by the outcome of the divorce, while the other party ends up struggling to make ends meet.  In our most vindictive moments, we may believe that is what we want, but the truth is, that scenario becomes a breeding ground for resentment and anger.  It’s a cliché in mediation that a good outcome leaves both parties feeling a little disgruntled. 

Third, (and forgive me for repeating myself with this one) divorce creates fear, generosity soothes it.  People rarely make good decisions when they are fearful.  But nearly everyone is fearful as they begin the separation process.  They are unfamiliar with the laws, afraid of what their ex might do, possibly afraid of being alone or financially ruined.  If you can make a gesture toward generosity, you convey to your ex-partner that s/he doesn’t need to be afraid of your intentions.  You will continue to behave as the upstanding, decent person you’ve always been.  This can reap great rewards in the long run as you make financial and/or custodial decisions together. 

Lastly, if you are a parent, you are starting a new relationship with your ex-partner.  It’s a business where you are together charged with raising fantastic children.  In weighing out the choices and deciding whether or not to take less than you feel entitled to, factor the stability of your new business arrangement into the equation.

Having said this, there are of course times when you want to hold your ground and not compromise your stake.  Often people are willing to let everything go in the initial stages of separation because they simply want out, they feel pressure from their ex, or they feel guilty about the way the relationship dissolved.  If you feel you may be making a rash decision just to get through an ugly process, give yourself a week or a month to sit with your agreement before you sign.  Relax and wait for things to get better.