The legal divorce process consists of several steps but, once you understand it, is not terribly complicated. The Petitioner (you) creates a Complaint for Divorce and has it served on the Respondent. The Complaint looks a lot like a divorce decree – but it only records how the Petitioner would like to see the marriage end.
- The Petitioner generally has 120 days from when the Complaint is filed with the Court to get it served or the case will be dismissed. Anytime after the Complaint is served, the two of you can come to agreement on the terms of your divorce and quickly finish up the divorce process by filing any formal agreements (i.e., Stipulations) that differ from the original Complaint along with a Final Decree of Divorce and your divorce can be finalized.
- The Respondent (the person who got served) generally has 20 days from the date of Service to file an Answer with the Court. An Answer looks a lot like a divorce decree, too. It tells the Petitioner which terms of the Complaint are acceptable and which are not. If the Respondent agrees with everything in the Complaint for Divorce, there is no need to file an answer. You can go ahead and submit the final divorce papers to complete your divorce.
- If an Answer is filed, both parties have the opportunity to collect information (e.g., credit card statements, wage statements, bank account information, etc.) from the other person in order to support their proposed divorce terms. This activity is called Discovery. In many divorces the Discovery step is skipped because the two people believe they are already cooperating in sharing the necessary information.
- Once both parties have the information they need to make informed decisions, they will know if there are any areas of disagreement. This is often the best time to mediate. Mediation is a meeting in which both people meet with a trained mediator to discuss their differences of opinions. A good Mediator will not make any decisions; but will facilitate the conversation to help you decide what is in your best interests. If you come to agreement during mediation, the Mediator (or an attorney if any have been hired) will draw up the formal agreement (i.e., Stipulation) so it can be filed with the courts to complete your divorce.
- If agreement can’t be reached through mediations or private conversations, the divorce case may be set for trial where the Judge will make decisions regarding each disagreement. Less than 4% of all filed divorces end up going to trial. In most cases, it’s in your best interests to reach a agreement without a trial – but it is important you know your rights and responsibilities to do so. Additionally, you need to recognize how the psychological divorce process is impacting your legal divorce.
The psychological divorce process is similar to the grieving process you experience when there is a death in your family. You might work through some of these steps before you even file for divorce.
- Denial – Disbelief that your relationship is not working. You might continue to try to patch things up despite all the signs that everything is over. It is possible that affairs will occur during this phase if you are still together.
- Anger – ‘Nuff said. Anger will be part of your divorce process. It is surprisingly common for domestic violence of some type to occur during this step. Anger sometimes is the fuel of a needlessly ugly legal divorce – prolonging the pain and expense for everyone involved (including their children). Some couples remain a couple in an extremely negative sense because they effectively fail to work through their anger. Decades after the divorce is finalized, the couple will still be antagonizing each other. The divorce has evolved into a very negative, albeit, strong relationship where new spouses may refer to the old spouse as the “ex-wife-in-law” or the “ex-husband-in-law.”
- Bargaining – You may be bargaining with your ex for peace, with God for a return to peaceful times, or something altogether different. Some people want the old relationship back while others are attempting to move forward while not quite ready to do so.
- Depression - At some point you stop being angry at the other person and become angry or frustrated with yourself – which is what situational depression is all about. You may feel angry at yourself for having failed at an important relationship – even if you really did not do anything to make the marriage fail. Remember, it takes two to make a marriage but it only takes one to destroy it. Even if you are elated to be free, you may be sad. If you were left and not ready to be divorced you may experience depression while going through all the other steps.
- Acceptance – Once you have worked through your psychological divorce, you will be ready to move forward and create a new life for yourself on your own terms.
Unfortunately, your two divorce processes will often collide; resulting in delayed legal proceedings or expensive court costs if you choose to take out your anger via your legal divorce. Moving from litigation to mediation will not only save you time and money, it will actually aid in moving you through your emotional divorce as you move away from anger and toward bargaining – from feeling helpless to gaining a bit of control over what is happening to your life. A good therapist might be able to aid you in moving through the emotional divorce process in a healthy manner.
You will have an easier time moving through the legal divorce process, if you are familiar with the legal divorce process while remembering you are also working through your emotional divorce. Remember to allow yourself some time and space to grieve the loss of your relationship so you can move forward and leave the anger and frustration of a failed marriage behind.
Article by Dr. Sherry Thompson