Dating During Divorce

January 23, 2014

A friend of mine asks, “Is it OK to start dating before my divorce is final?”  Well…

A significant percentage of my clients and friends going through a divorce start dating before it is final.  Everything you read on the subject says, “Don’t.”  There are, generally, three reasons for it being a bad idea:

1) Legal risk.  Most of the time, the judges don’t care whether someone is dating before the divorce is final.  Heck, they don’t even care if someone had an affair before the separation.  In short, they don’t want to hear about your broken heart;  they just want the kids taken care of and the property divided.  However, that doesn’t mean I tell my clients that it’s OK to date, because sometimes, seemingly randomly, judges do care.  Or your judge may not care, but the day of your hearing your judge is at a conference so you have a retired judge hearing your case, and he was born in 1933 and he does care, very much.  So an affair, even if it starts after you and your spouse have separated, could have a detrimental effect on your divorce, in terms of time with your children, child support, spousal support, and the property division.

And I can pretty much guarantee the judge will care if you are carrying on any sort of new relationship in front of your kids.  DO NOT introduce any new partners to your children during the divorce, don’t talk about new partners, and in general, keep your dating life completely away from your children.

“But we don’t have any kids under 18,” you say, “So that doesn’t matter to us.”  Do you have any community property?  Can your spouse argue that you’re spending it on dating?  There is a case pending here where the husband reportedly took his girlfriends on his private company jet to the Caymans on a regular basis.  He now has to account for the tens of thousands of dollars he spent on said girlfriends while the divorce was pending.  So there’s that – talk to your lawyer, and make sure there’s no chance of this coming back to bite you in the final divorce decree.

2) Emotional considerations.  Most experts agree that people are not ready to date or get involved with someone else until at least a year after the divorce is final.  Some say three years.  Of course this varies widely based on the length of the marriage, the reason for the breakup, and the mental health and self-awareness of the individual.  And this is definitely a case of “Do what I say, not what I do,” because I started dating too soon after my first marriage ended, and ended up getting divorced again.

I taught “Divorce Care” at my church last year, and I was amazed at the emotions that came up for me about my first divorce, 13 years later.  So any of us who think, “Oh, well, I’m fine, I can just shove that emotional garbage under the bed and not deal with it” are kidding ourselves.  There really is a rush of emotion that comes with the finality of the decree, and most people are not ready for it.  They think, “Oh, we’ve been separated a long time;  I’ve grieved; I’m over it.”  And maybe you are.  But it’s more likely that the day you walk out of the courthouse and you’re “free,” you will feel something – elation, pain, or something else.

3)  Religious and moral considerations.  Some people feel that it’s a sin to date or have sexual relations with anyone outside of marriage.  Some believe that in addition to the civil divorce, they have to get an annulment or a get before they get involved with someone else.  And that’s a valid and admirable position, if for no other reason than it helps them wait longer, and avoid the potential legal and emotional consequences of a too-early, “rebound” relationship.

So, if you ask your attorney or your counselor or religious advisor, “Should I start dating before my divorce is final?” chances are the answer you’re going to get is “no.”  Then if you conduct a poll of your friends on the subject, chances are most of them will admit, “Yes, I did.”  And some of them will say it was fine, and some of them will tell you a horror story about a bad rebound relationship, and some people will say they found The Most Wonderful Person in the World and are now deliriously happy.  In short, everyone says “Don’t do it,” and then everyone does it.

We are human, and have a basic human desire to be with other people.  And when you’ve just gone through a breakup, it can feel like you have a hole next to you, one exactly the size and shape of your former spouse.  So you try to fill it.  Chances are, if you’re successful, it will work out just about as well as your prior relationship did.  A much wiser choice is to wait.  Fill the hole with something else – friends, church, your kids, yourself.  Or leave it empty for a while, and see if it shrinks or goes away on its own.

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while.  As a divorce attorney, I see this behavior over and over.  It breaks my heart, frankly.  There are hundreds of articles about parenting during divorce, and so this advice is hardly new.  But on the off chance that one parent will read this, and stop the destructive behavior that harms their children, here are my top ten mistakes divorcing parents make:

10.  Giving up on seeing the child because the other parent is making it difficult.  I see this most often with dads.  Mom moves with the kids to a new location, or re-marries, or is just a screeching banshee at every drop-off and pick-up.  So, eventually, Dad gives up, deciding it’s not worth the trouble.  WRONG.  It is worth the trouble.  NEVER give up on seeing your child.  Even if she makes it hard, even if she calls CPS on you for no reason, even if she creates drama every time.  Do it anyway.  Never give up.

9.    Fighting with the other parent at drop-offs and pick-ups. News flash:  the kids can hear you.  Have those difficult conversations at other times – preferably, via e-mail, because then you can choose not to respond to any attacks.

8.    Not paying child support.  Hey, just pay it.  I don’t care if she’s getting her nails done with it, or if he’s using it to buy a new bass boat.  If you’re not current on your child support, you won’t have a leg to stand on in front of the judge on ANY issue.  If you lose your job or otherwise can’t pay, then go back to court and have the order changed.  Otherwise, pay it.

7.    Not allowing the other parent to see the child when scheduled.  This is just as infuriating to judges as not paying child support.  Unless you can prove that your children will be in danger with the other parent, then let them go.  They may not brush their teeth for three days, or eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day, but they’ll probably live.  And you’ll get a break from them, and be a better parent when they return.

6.    Introducing the child to a new romantic partner. It stuns me how often people do this.  Mom and Dad aren’t even divorced yet, and here’s Dad with “your new Mommy,” or Mom announcing that they’re moving in with Bubba, the new boyfriend.  NO.  Just no.  First of all, it’s not good for you to start dating again so soon;  second of all, it’s even worse for your kids.  Don’t start dating until you and the other parent have been separated at least six months to a year.  Then, keep romantic partners out of your children’s lives for at least six months after you start dating – until you’re certain that this person is going to be around a while.  Don’t tell me your kids love the new guy, or that they’re mature enough to handle it.  Put their needs ahead of yours, and keep them separate.

5.    Confiding in the child.  Divorce is a lonely and traumatic time, and it can be tempting to imagine that you and your child are in it together, supporting each other through it.  But that’s way too much pressure to put on a child, even a teenager.  It’s your job to support your child, and it’s your job to find other sources of support for yourself.  I tell my clients that they need a whole team to support them through their divorce – a lawyer, an accountant, a counselor, a spiritual advisor, friends and family.  But your child is not a member of your support team.  Let the child be a child, and feel safe and assured that the adults are taking care of everything.

4.    Trying to get the child on your side.  Trying to persuade a child to live with you so you don’t have to pay child support, or so you do get child support, is just destructive and harmful to the child.  The best way to avoid making this mistake is to let go of the idea that there are “sides” in a divorce. There are no “winners” or “losers” in family law cases, because it’s not a contest to be won or lost.  It’s a transition;  a process of changing the structure of a family.  You and your ex are not on opposing sides.  You should be on the same side, and have the same goal of raising your children in the best possible way.  So instead of trying to pit your child against the other parent, try to work with the other parent in the best interest of the child.

3.    Making an older child care for younger siblings.  This can be very tempting, especially to a frazzled single parent with multiple children.  But it’s very unhealthy for the child.  Let the kids be kids;  make sure that what you’re asking of each child is appropriate for the child’s age and maturity.  It’s fine to leave a 10-year-old with a 13-year-old while you run to the store for half an hour;  it’s not OK to expect an 11-year-old to raise a 6-year-old while you fall apart.

2.    Not allowing the child to communicate with the other parent.  Repeat after me:  it’s best for your child to have a positive relationship with the other parent.  That means regular contact.  I don’t care how mad you are at him, or whether you’re trying to store ammunition for your next round in court.  Let the kid talk to Mom or Dad on the phone.  Every day, three times a day, whenever she wants to.  In fact, help the child remember to call the absent parent and share news, like a lost tooth or a home run.  Because it’s good for your child.

1.    Telling the child negative things about the other parent.  Children view themselves as a combination of both parents.  So every time you say something negative about the other parent, the child hears it as being about herself.  So if you say, “Your momma is a cheating, lying whore,” your little girl is going to hear you saying that about her.  Chilling, isn’t it?  Imagine saying to a little boy, “You are just a worthless, no-good jerk.”  You’d never do that, would you?  Then don’t say ANYTHING negative about the other parent in front of them.  And instruct all your family and friends to follow this rule as well.  If he really is a worthless no-good jerk, by the time the kids are adults, they’ll figure it out.  And they’ll realize you were a saint for not telling them so.

Look, I know you’re upset.  I know your soon-to-be-ex is a jerk.  I know you’re at the end of your rope. But please, don’t completely lose your mind and do things that will have a negative effect on your children.

Dear friends:

I am writing to deliver what I believe is an important message about judicial elections in Collin County. Before I began appearing in the District courts on a regular basis, I did not pay attention our local judicial elections. However, now that I see the effect they have on my family law clients, I think it is important that all voters be informed and participate in the process. Statistically, it is very likely that you or a relative will be involved in a family law matter in Collin County. Therefore, it is probable that these elections will affect you personally.

As you may have heard, early voting is underway in the Collin County primary elections. Election day is May 29th. In Collin County, 100% of our elected officials are Republican. I’m not going to comment on whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing; it just is. Because of this, if a candidate wins the Republican primary, he or she will most likely win in the general election in November. So, for all practical purposes, the Republican primary is the only contested election. In Texas, you may vote in a party’s primary, even if you are not a member of that party. You may also vote in the Republican primary and then vote for a Democratic candidate in the general election in the Fall. So, my message to you is, Go vote in the Republican primary.

To find out where to vote, check here.  I just voted at the Elections office on Redbud this morning, there was no line, and it took me less than 5 minutes.

There are a number of contested races, and I won’t comment on all of them. But I would appreciate your vote for the following candidates:

199th District Court: ANGELA TUCKER. Angela has the most experience, and actively practices in the areas of family and criminal law – which are the majority of cases before the District courts. Her opponent is the former judge’s son, has been out of law school less than 10 years, and has never handled a criminal or family case. She is in a very close race, so she really needs your vote and support. Also, Angela happens to be African-American. Her election would be an historic event for Collin County.

380th District Court: JODY JOHNSON. Jody is board-certified in family law, and an extremely well-respected member of the bar. She also has prior criminal and civil litigation experience. She gained the support of more than 60% of the Collin County Bar Association in their recent poll, against three other candidates.

401st District Court: MARK RUSCH. Judge Rusch is the incumbent on this bench, and much more qualified than his opponent. I don’t always agree with his decisions, but he is extremely conscientious. When you need a protective order signed at 4:30 on a Friday, Judge Rusch is always still in his office.

416th District Court: Judge Chris Older is unopposed.

County Court at Law#2: SHARON RAMAGE. She has the longest legal experience, and is the only candidate with judicial experience.

If you’d like to see the complete bar poll results, they are here.

Thank you all. If you have questions, then please contact me.

-Melanie

I have always been an avid reader, and when life throws a new experience my way, I try to read what I can on it.  These books all helped me through my own divorce eleven years ago.  (I guess they’re considered classics now!)   I would encourage you to pick them up, no matter what stage of the process you are in – as Constance Ahrons says, “It’s never too late to have a good divorce.”

1.  The Good Divorce, by Constance Ahrons. In this 1995 work, Ahrons lays out a startling premise – that it is possible to have a “good” divorce.  I know the idea shocked me when I first saw the title, but I grabbed onto it as a lifeline of hope.  Was it possible for me to end my marriage and not ruin my life, or permanently damage my children?  Here’s a quote from her first chapter:

The good divorce is not an oxymoron. A good divorce is one in which both the adults and children emerge at least as emotionally well as they were before the divorce. Because we have been so inundated with negative stories, divorce immediately carries with it a negative association. Even though we have difficulty conjuring up positive images of divorce, the reality is that most people feel their lives improved after their divorces.

I meet many people who say, “Oh, it’s too late for that.  my spouse is crazy.”  And then they tell me their divorce tale of woe.  But I’m here to tell you, it can get better.  The most important message I took away from this book was that, even if your divorce was 20 years ago, your family will benefit now from you improving your relationship with your ex-spouse.  I kept that goal in mind, and by the time our youngest was in kindergarten, three years after our much-less-than-perfect divorce was final, her teacher commented, “I wish my ex and I could get along as well as you two.” I almost fell out of my chair, but when I recovered from the shock, I realized she was right.  We had finally achieved the good divorce.

Author’s Website:  http://constanceahrons.com/the%20good%20divorce.htm

2.  Mom’s House, Dad’s House:  Making Two Homes for Your Child, by Isolina Ricci.  Originally published in 1980 (and revised in 1997), this book was groundbreaking in rejecting traditional ideas of custody and visitation.  Children don’t have to live with one parent or the other;  they can live with both parents, in two separate households.  Thirty-plus years later, and I still find parents, judges and attorneys who haven’t embraced this idea.  But do a little research on the effect of divorce on children, and you’ll find a consensus that what harms children is not the divorce itself, it’s other factors, including conflict between parents, and the loss of contact with the “non-custodial” parent.  Read this book;  follow the suggestions in this book, and you’ll be doing as much as you can for your children.

Author’s Website:  http://www.momshousedadshouse.com/index.html

3.  Getting Divorced Without Ruining Your Life: A Reasoned, Practical Guide to the Legal, Emotional and Financial Ins and Outs of Negotiating a Divorce Settlement, by Sam Margulies.  If you have made the painful decision to divorce, this book helps you do it in the “best” way possible.  It is my opinion that litigation is a poor solution litigation is to family problems. Margulies, an attorney and mediator, makes the very valid point that the legal process is liable to lead you to take actions that are contrary to your long-term interests: an effective parenting plan, the maximum financial benefit, and emotional health and well-being. Legal battles drive you apart, escalate conflict, and cost a lot of money.  He suggests mediation as an alternative, and provides a blueprint for the process.

One caveat: some of the information in this edition is slightly out of date, since it is from 1992. Also, if you are in a community property state (such as Texas), much of the advice on dividing up the marital estate is going to be inapplicable.

Author’s Website:  http://www.sammargulies.com/

4.  Joint Custody With a Jerk: Raising a Child with an Uncooperative Ex, A hands-on, practical guide to coping with custody issues that arise with an uncooperative ex-spouse, by Julie A. Ross and Judy Corcoran.  I love this book because the title is so great.  Everyone thinks their ex-spouse is a jerk, so it draws them in.  However, the contents are much more balanced than the title.  The point of the book is, you can’t do anything about his or her jerk-like behavior.  You can only change your own responses to it.  I will never forget the first time I used a technique from this book with my ex.  I was driving my car in rush hour traffic, and he was pestering me for an answer on something.  I said, “If you need an answer right now, the answer is no.  If you give me some time to consider it, that answer may change.”  Worked like magic.  Now, I no longer think my ex is a jerk – I think he, like all of us going through a divorce, was acting out of fear.  But learning to look at my own behavior really helped our relationship, and this book helped me start to do that.

Author’s Website:  http://www.parentinghorizons.com/

5.  The Collaborative Way to Divorce:  The Revolutionary Method That Results in Less Stress, Lower Costs, and Happier Kids – Without Going to Court, by Stuart G. Webb and Ronald D. Ousky.  This was the first book on Collaborative Divorce in the U.S., and it’s one I routinely give out to clients.  The authors are based in Minnesota, so some of the points on property division and child custody won’t be the same as in Texas.  But the basic outline of the Collaborative model is here, and it’s a great place for divorcing couples to start. I firmly believe that the traditional, litigated divorce process makes most divorces worse, not better, and that a collaborative divorce can set the foundation for a healthy, financially stable post-divorce life.

Author’s website:  http://www.ousky.com/ousky/book.shtml

These books encapsulate my whole ethos of divorce:  that it’s possible to have a good divorce; that children are better off with regular, healthy contact with both parents; that it’s possible to work cooperatively to reach a divorce settlement that doesn’t ruin your life; that you can parent effectively even when other parent is trying not to; and that the collaborative model is the best, safest way to reach a healthy end point of the process.