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Thinking of separating from your spouse? Read this first.

by Stephen Morgan

As a family law lawyer, I often find out that a client is contemplating separation before their spouse does. Whether they’re thinking out loud, worried about the reaction or just feeling overwhelmed, I always commend clients for taking a proactive approach to their legal rights and emotional well-being.

In this post, I’m sharing some of our best tips for those who are contemplating a breakup or are in the early stages of a family law matter.

Make sure you’re sure 

Before taking any concrete steps toward a separation, it’s important to make sure that’s what you want and that you’ve contemplated the tumult that will likely follow. 

I always advise people to keep relations civil — for the benefit of themselves and any children involved — but that’s easier said than done, and just the suggestion of a separation can set off a chain reaction that is impossible to control.

If you’re feeling conflicted about the decision, you might want to think a little longer on it or talk things through with a therapist, because this is one rabbit hole you might not be able to back out of once you’ve gone down it. I also suggest you speak with a family law lawyer before you speak with your spouse to get a sense of your rights and obligations arising out of a separation. This can be critical information in deciding how best to move forward with the decision to separate.

The conversation: where and when 

Once you’ve made a final decision, it’s time to break the news to your spouse. Practical details such as where and when are very important for a difficult conversation like this. Pick a time in both of your schedules when you’re unlikely to be interrupted, especially by your children, who should not be exposed to any part of the conversation at this stage.

If you can, avoid bringing up the topic when either of you are tired, hungry or just not in the right frame of mind for an emotional conversation. The calmer and more respectful you can keep it, the better it will be for everyone. Some people prefer to speak with their spouse in a public or quasi-public place, allowing them to depart quickly and easily in case things do go badly.

What to say 

Keep the conversation as simple and businesslike as you can. This is the time for broad strokes, not fine details. It’s too soon to get into the nitty-gritty of who’s keeping the house or how much support one of you will owe the other, and if you’re dragged into an argument over any of those issues, it could spiral.

You probably know your spouse better than anyone, so no one is better positioned to predict their reaction. You may find it helpful to role-play replies to possible responses in advance with a therapist or close friend. 

Organize your documents

Gathering and storing any relevant financial information before you talk with your spouse about separating could save you time later if relations with your spouse deteriorate. The most important documents to get hold of are tax returns, bank statements, credit card statements and anything else related to your assets and debts. If your spouse is self-employed or receives any part of his or her income in cash, gathering documentation in advance to help prove his or her income can also prove invaluable.

Set realistic goals 

Separating spouses are often unsure how their parenting arrangement will work after their divorce,so it’s important to turn your mind not only to what you want but also what’s possible. Some are reluctant to consider any kind of shared parenting schedule, while for others, their work schedule makes an equal shared arrangement, practically speaking,impossible. Every family situation is unique, but one of my earliest jobs is to get clients thinking about possible scenarios that could work for them.

Wait to date

Many of my clients hope to find a new partner in the future, but it’s generally best to let the dust settle on a separation before leaping into a new relationship, especially if one spouse was less enthusiastic about the split. 

If they do plan to start dating immediately, I suggest clients do so discretely and absolutely avoid introducing their date to their children. Although there won’t be any negative repercussions in court for moving on quickly, it could stem the flow of goodwill from their former partner in ongoing negotiations.

Start budgeting

Post-separation finances can look quitedifferent for many divorcing couples, especially in the early days as both parties adjust to their new realities.

When we start working with clients to prepare a financial statement, we have them draw up a budget so they can consider the constraints within which they will be living. Clients whose exes handled the money might also benefit from talking to a financial planner. People often have different degrees of financial literacy from their spouse and this can be a challenge for some clients in the wake of a separation. 

Often, one or both parties will express a desire to keep the matrimonial home, and a thorough budgeting process can give you a sense of the viability of that goal. 

Think before you tweet 

Anyone going through a separation needs to be careful what they post on social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or other platforms. There are certainly advantages to connecting with friends and family, and many people will find it helpful to share their concerns in a public forum. But it’s an emotional time, and it’s easy to cross the line when venting about your ex or the challenges of a divorce — I’ve seen too many people post something inappropriate that they later regret. And more importantly, you cannot be sure that your children will not see what you have posted now or at some date in the future. 

Breaking the news to the children

Parents often think that children are oblivious to the collapse of their relationship, but kids are generally far more perceptive. They are programmed to assess their parent’s emotional state and will be able to sense any building tensions or hostilities. 

Children don’t need a running commentary on the breakdown of their parents’ marriage, but whatever inklings they may have, they deserve to have their suspicions confirmed before the actual separation happens. I’ve heard horror stories about kids who find out mom and dad are splitting up when one of them is at the front door with their bags packed.

This conversation is the one talk about your separation that could be as difficult, if not more, than the one you had with your partner: Prepare yourself for tears, anger and even possibly accusations. If possible, both parents should announce the news together and deal with their children’s questions about what it all means. 

Children will sometimesseek to lay the fault for the separation at the feet of one parent or the other. As hard as it may be, resist engaging in the blame game and keep any and all adult details to yourself. That said, parents should reassure their children that they are not the cause of the separation.

In the end, all children really need to know is that they are loved by both parents and that they should feel safe voicing whatever fears or sadness they feel about the situation. 

Keep kids out of your disputes 

Children should never be used as pawns in the process of a separation. A favourite saying in court is that “we don’t charge people admission to see their own children,” and judges will take very unkindly to anyone who threatens to withhold custody or support payments as a negotiation tool. 

Apart from the risk of legal trouble, it’s also potentially damaging to your child’s emotional well-being to make them feel like they’re being forced to choose sides between the two people they love most in the world. 

The same goes for disparaging your former spouse in front of your kids. Your children may take it as a personal attack, while your ex could see it as an invitation to defend themselves or escalate the dispute. Whatever the result, it’s the child caught in the middle who always fares the worst. 

The best thing you can do for your children is to treat your former spouse with respect. According to social science research on separating families, the drivers of a child’s life outcomes are determined less by their parents’ marital status than by how a child saw their parents treat each other. Kids with unhappily married parents do not tend to fare as well as those whose divorced parents got along well.

If you’re thinking about separating from your spouse and would like to understand your options, give us a call at Morgan and Phillips LLP.

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by Stephen Morgan

Stephen Morgan practices exclusively in family law and is highly skilled and experienced in litigation. He aims to guide clients through a difficult and stressful time in their lives with understanding, support, and practical advice.