Why’s It SO HARD for People to Finish Divorce?

{5:00 minutes to read} One thing that is a very well known professional phenomenon is that, when people get toward the end of a negotiation, something comes up. Usually, a relatively small something becomes very emotionally significant to the parties that stops them from settling, right before the end.

I remember, as an example, the first case I ever went to try, decades ago. It was a pretty big case. There were three children and a lot of real property. We had settled the entire thing and were about to go into the courtroom to put the Stipulation of Settlement onto the record.

I’m pushing through the swinging doors into the courtroom, ready to tell the court we have agreed on settlement terms, when my client grabs me by the arm, pulls me back out into the hallway and says, “What about the couch? Who’s going to get the couch?” I said, “What do you mean? What do you think is going to happen to the couch?” He replied, “I think we should saw it in half.”

And so I said, “Hey, dude. I’m not telling the judge we should saw the couch in half.” He said, “What do you think we should do?” I replied, “I think you should let her have the couch.” We had the pressure of the judge waiting for us in the courtroom. My client let her have the couch.

In mediation and collaborative cases where there isn’t that kind of pressure, these things still come up. It’s the couch, or it’s the wedding china or something symbolic they want to hang onto. In the beginning of the case, if you were to say to the people, “You know what’s going to hold this up in the end? The couch,” they’d have been like, “No, that’s not going to happen,” and yet something like that almost always does come up.

It’s not pettiness.

Something happens toward the end that, as each big issue gets resolved, they’re not ready to be done. The roadblocks might represent a number of things, one of which, I think, is loss of hope. The hope could be that this marriage would be “successful” — whatever that means to people. Don’t think that, just because people are getting divorced, their marriage was not successful. It just means it came to an end.

People often come into divorce negotiations with a sense of entitlement, for lack of a better word. As we work through it, they process that sense of entitlement into an engagement of sorts, with each other, during the negotiation process and in the process of becoming divorced.

And then, we’re right at the end. They’ve done really hard work, often very good work, for themselves and with each other, independently and together. They have to give up that sense of themselves of who was entitled to the thing they came in wanting. They’re giving up hope that the settlement would be better or that now they have to own it with the other person, instead of this sense of being on the high horse: “I’m entitled to this, and you did that.” While simple, it’s hard to let go of.

I interviewed a woman, Monique Honaman, who wrote two books: The High Road Has Less Traffic and The High Road Has a Better View. Her advice is to take a deep breath, look all the way around and say, “Is it really this bad? What is it I want and how can I get there being the best me I can?”

At the end of the process, the parties have to step over the finish line, and the finish line is often emotionally complicated. By thinking about what’s really going on, there’s the opportunity to take a proactive step to help instead of dragging the other person through the mud to argue about who’s going to get the couch. Contact me with questions or comments.