How to Avoid Getting Screwed Over in Divorce

Do you know anyone who believes that they were screwed over in their divorce? Perhaps you feel as though you were taken advantage of by your spouse or by your divorce attorney?  Or maybe this your biggest fear about going through an upcoming divorce.

It’s a pretty common theme. I hear it a lot – not only in my practice, but also in my personal life.

As a part of my practice, I meet with many prospective clients, who are divorced and need post-decree help (i.e., to change parenting time or to modify a support obligation). I was not their attorney in the divorce.  When I ask why they are not going back to meet with their original attorney (who undoubtedly knows more about their case), I often hear something like:  “Oh, I got screwed over in my divorce.  I would never go back to that attorney.”

In my personal life, I have had friends complain about their divorce attorneys to me. One friend recently said, “I felt completely screwed over by my attorney in every way I could’ve been screwed over in the divorce.”  (No, I was not her divorce attorney!) As much as I care for my friend, I simply do not buy her story.

What I’ve seen in over eighteen years of practice is this:

When all is said and done, the only one who screws you over in your divorce is you.

My friend who felt victimized by her divorce attorney really gave all her power away in a mediation session. Her divorce attorney had informed her prior to mediation that they would stand firm on keeping her in the homestead (which she wanted).  When they showed up at mediation, he began to negotiate her move from the homestead.  What?!

I wish my friend would have told the mediator that she needed a break to speak privately with her attorney. I wish my friend would have pulled her attorney aside and had this conversation: “Excuse me, but what the Hell is going on here?  I thought you said we weren’t going to negotiate this issue?”  And I wish my friend would have said “I feel betrayed by you, Mr. Attorney.  I am concluding this mediation session, and will be replacing you as my attorney.”  Instead, my friend apparently bit her tongue, gave away her power, and ended up yielding to an unacceptable “agreement” as a result of an exhausting, marathon mediation session.

My friend’s situation is not unique. Many divorcing parties are inclined to evaluate their attorney based on the outcome of the divorce.  They blame their attorney if things go “poorly.”  I have also seen parties be congratulatory of their divorce attorneys when thing go “well.”  Both of these perspectives, in my humble opinion, are misguided.

Whether a case goes “well” or “poorly” often reflects two things…

Whether a case goes “well” or “poorly” often reflects two things. First, the energy of the marriage frequently shows up as the energy of the divorce.  So, if you felt screwed over by your spouse in your marriage (or if you screwed over your spouse in the marriage), chances are you may well feel screwed over by your spouse in the divorce.  If you’re really good at projecting your feelings, then you may also feel screwed over by your divorce attorney, the opposing attorney, the mediator, the judge, or all of them!  The opposite is true as well.  If the energy of your marriage was passionless and business-like, then it’s likely your divorce will be negotiated to a “satisfactory” conclusion in hushed tones with little or no fanfare.

In addition to the energy of the marriage, the divorce usually goes “well” or “poorly” based on the level of your self-esteem. What?!  Yes, I said your self-esteem helps dictate the outcome of the divorce.  In life, you generally get what you think you deserve.  So, too, in divorce.  Ninety percent (90%) of all divorce cases are concluded via settlement, and clients who feel they deserve better settlements tend to get them.  Why?  Because they feel worthy of them, and are willing to endure the discomfort of the divorce process to obtain a better settlement (or a better outcome from the court, if need be).

So, if I could give a divorcing party advice on this issue it would be this: Stop blaming. Period.  This means not blaming your spouse, your attorney, the mediator, the court, and, most importantly, yourself.  When we blame and judge others, psychologically we are really just blaming and judging what we find unacceptable about ourselves.  (“When you point a finger at someone else, there are three fingers pointing right back at you.”)  For example, while my friend felt screwed over by her attorney, I believe that deep down, she was really mad at herself for giving away her power by partaking in any negotiation regarding the homestead, and by eventually capitulating on this issue, which was very important to her.

So, how do you stop giving away your power in the heat of divorce? First, work on raising your self-esteem in a therapeutic process with a really good therapist or divorce coach.  You need to feel worthy of a fair and equitable divorce settlement.  You also need to work on tolerating the discomfort of the divorce process to get to that better outcome, because so many parties (especially women) want to be divorced yesterday and will often give in simply to be done.

In addition, you have to know what your interests are (e.g., I want to see my kids several times a week; I want to maintain my standard of living as best as possible; I’d like to stay in the house, if possible). Once you know your interests, I suggest you rank them (yes, rank them) in order of priority.  Then you need to assess your interests in light of the range of likely legal outcomes relative to these interests, often with the help of an attorney.  And once this is done, you need to stick by your guns in negotiating a settlement (or trying the case, if need be).


Conclusion

Divorce is one of the most painful transitions in life. The pain of divorce makes it easy to lash out and blame others.  But, this won’t get you what you really want, which is a divorce settlement that is acceptable to you.  Since most divorces are finalized through negotiation, you can increase your chances of getting a better settlement by working on bolstering your self-esteem (so you feel worthy of, and demand, a better settlement), and by being willing to hold firm on the issues that matter most to you.

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