A Separate Peace: How to begin to transition out of a marriage sensibly and peacefully

By, Felicia Soleil, Attorney at Law/Mediator

I don’t know how to do this. I’ve never done this before.”

These are words I often hear as a mediator and lawyer when parties are considering separating prior to divorce. This can be an anxious time. It is one thing to work on disentangling your financial lives, it is another to disentangle your living situation.

When considering a physical separation, whether for a trial period or as a definite first step toward divorce, a smooth transition actually begins with examining the level of trust between you and the other party. A consultation with a professional can be very helpful with understanding potential pitfalls and help with establishing ground rules for moving forward, but your trust level will inform whether you can separate with good faith and mutual understanding versus needing to make things more “legal” through written and signed agreements or court orders.

Keeping your level of trust in mind, here are my top three things to consider for separation:

  1. What can you afford?  Depending on your financial circumstances, separating might be as cost-effective as establishing separate living and sleeping spaces in the family home or temporarily moving in with a family member or friend. Otherwise, one of you might opt to sign a short-term or long-term lease on a rental. If money is not an issue, you might choose to purchase a second home.  Any of these options should be selected only after a careful examination of cash flow and budgets. The most common mistake I see in my practice is when one party hastily signs a long-term lease or purchases a second home, thereby taking on a hefty financial commitment prior to learning what any of the support obligations might be to (or from) the other spouse. The same can be said for hastily taking on a new vehicle payment at separation. Get informed about potential support obligations before assuming any other financial commitments so you don’t find yourself in a cash flow dilemma later. (For instance, child support is based on incomes, not on what is left over after your bills are paid.)
  2. Once housing is determined, decide whether you will continue to operate out of joint bank accounts, or begin separate accounts. Will each of you have enough money to meet your needs after housing, utilities, insurance, auto, and other regular bills are paid? Establish basic ground rules for discretionary spending, major purchases, and debt acquisition and payments. Can you rely on each other to not waste precious funds through emotional spending during this time? Or would you benefit from a written, signed document that holds each of you more accountable in the event of a transgression?
  3. If you have children, will they benefit more from a structured schedule or more free-flowing flexibility while everyone gets uses to the new arrangements? Important factors to consider include proximity of each home to one another’s as well as to the children’s schools, minimizing the amount of time children will spend being transported, perhaps taking turns being the “on-duty” parent if remaining in the same home or until a residential schedule can be established.

Most importantly, establish the message you want to send to your children during this time. Steps toward physical separation should include clear, age-appropriate communication with your children, assuring them that although their living situation may look different, you are still a family. Of course, seeking guidance from a family therapist for what to include in these conversations is often wise.

Will you make mistakes? Sure. It is normal to experience “Two steps forward, one step back.” Change is hard, even if you want it. But if you work from your level of trust with the other party, establish clear ground rules, and recognize when you need professional support, you can build a strong foundation for creating a smoother transition.

If you’ve reached a decision about separation or divorce, Felicia Soleil can help.  Through her practice, Family Law Resolutions, you can achieve an outcome that fosters both a compassionate ending to your union and a healthy new beginning for you and your family.  Her goal is to help you focus on moving on, rather than simply moving out.  Felicia can be reached at 253-853-6940.  All consultations are strictly confidential.

Published on October 1, 2019