Episode 62 Transcript: Divorcing with a Significant Other

In this episode, I wanted to speak to a dynamic or a series of dynamics that can come up when a spouse or both spouses have a significant other while they are going through the divorce negotiation process.

It’s pretty common for people going through a divorce that at some point before their legal divorce is finalized, they will be dating someone, whether that was a relationship that predated the end of the relationship between the couple or whether it’s a relationship that developed after the divorce process began but before it concluded. It’s probably more common than not that somebody who is going through a divorce negotiation, at some point in that process, is dating someone.

There are a couple of things that I have observed play out in the negotiation process that are, in a way, influenced by the significant other. And it’s something that I think is important and valuable for both spouses to be aware of and to be thoughtful about how they want to handle as part of their negotiation process.

The first influence that I notice on a spouse who has a significant other and is going through the negotiation process is a positive one, which is just that if you're in another relationship, often that relationship is a source of support to you. And when you're going through a divorce process, it's hard, and it is helpful to have some outside source of emotional support as you're going through the process. That’s not me advising you to go out before you’re ready or before it would seem right in your situation and look for a significant other to support you in your divorce process. No. But if you have a significant other, the next couple of things I’m going to talk about are challenging dynamics that a significant other can create in a divorce negotiation. The first dynamic that I just want to acknowledge that is positive is that they generally provide a lot of emotional support to the spouse who is going through the divorce process. So that’s a good thing.

But the other two areas in which a significant other can impact your divorce negotiation is both when they weigh in on the substance of the terms that you’re negotiating, and in particular, when they weigh in on the timeline of your divorce process. Let me speak to each of those separately.

With regard to the substance of the terms you’re negotiating, I’m talking about what are the actual agreements that you end up making in your divorce negotiation? What’s the amount of child support? How are the assets being divided? How long is spousal maintenance being paid for? What is your parenting schedule? Those are the substantive terms of your divorce agreement. And more often than not, your significant other, if you share these details with him or her, will have an opinion about them. The thing I want to really caution you from is from putting too much weight in that person’s opinion on the terms of your settlement, for two reasons.

Number One: unless you are dating a matrimonial attorney local to the jurisdiction in which you’re getting divorced, even if the person you’re dating has been through their own divorce, they really have not much to no information about what would be reasonable terms in your particular situation. So, their opinion on the terms [of your agreement] is guided not by an informed sense of what’s reasonable in your situation but more likely by their sense of what, I don’t want to say feels beneficial to them because that’s not it, but it’s more their own intuitive sense of fairness colored by their strong bias in your favor.

And so it’s essentially like asking your parent or your sibling or your best friend to weigh in on how much they like or don’t like the terms of your settlement agreement. Well, that person is often very happy to tell you how much they like or don’t like the terms of your settlement agreement, but you don’t want to put too much stock in what they are saying.

To the extent they’re raising a concern with you that seems to have some validity to it, I strongly encourage you to raise that with your attorney. Maybe they’re raising something that’s a really great point that your attorney hasn’t thought of or hasn’t yet mentioned to you. Then, raise that with your attorney and say, “What do you think about this? This is a concern that my significant other raised. And as I think about it, it actually seems valid to me. So why are we agreeing to do XYZ, or why wouldn’t we approach it in this other way?”

If there is validity to the point they have raised, your attorney will pick up on that. So it’s not to say that you discount out of hand anything and everything that your significant other shares about their opinion regarding your divorce terms, but you essentially just want to take it as a caring but uninformed opinion that, if you see any validity in it, you can certainly run by your attorney but you don’t want to be too strongly influenced or guided by.

Beyond substance, though, beyond the substantive terms of your agreement, the area where I see the dynamic with a significant other become the most tricky and potentially detrimental to your negotiation process is around the timeline of your divorce.

We've talked a fair amount in past episodes about the length, the slowness of the divorce process, and it's something that, for the most part, both spouses feel acutely when they're going through the process, and it's not a part of the process that they enjoy. There are not a lot of people who are looking to really draw out their divorce and have it take as long and cost as much as possible. The vast majority of clients, probably including you, are really motivated to move their divorce along as quickly as responsibly possible.

And I want to say that the majority of good attorneys and good mediators are motivated in the very same direction. They have as many cases as they can handle and they want to settle them so that they can take on new cases and serve new clients. And if they can settle your case responsibly today or yesterday or tomorrow, they will do it. That being said, for many reasons that we have talked about in past episodes, the divorce process doesn’t always proceed as quickly as one would like it to.

And in particular, if you are the party in the negotiation who is feeling really pressured in terms of timing and really like “We have to wrap this up yesterday,” you are putting yourself at a disadvantage in the negotiation process. So it’s really important to be aware of.

The more rushed you are, the more it damages your position vis-à-vis the substantive terms of your negotiation because you are going to be willing to make compromises in the substantive terms of your negotiation in exchange for a, in theory, quicker resolution. But the substantive terms of your agreement are terms you will be bound by ongoing – for support often for a period of years, many years, maybe 10 or 20 years – and with regard to the division of your assets, granted it’s often a one-time division, but it’s something that will continue to impact you for years. So you want to be really, really careful to not let yourself get too hooked into needing the divorce to be over to such a degree that it leads you to a place where you’re compromising on substantive terms beyond what is reasonable.

Of course, as I have said a bunch of times and I stand by, you have to be willing to compromise on terms in order to resolve your divorce. That's just a fact. But where you are the person who is so desperate to be finished that you basically come to a place where you don't even care what the substantive terms are, or you'll accept whatever the other side or your spouse is asking for despite your attorney saying, "Wait, wait. Hold on a second. That's really unreasonable," you want to check yourself at that point and be really clear on what you're doing.

Sometimes the drive to be done with the divorce process is completely internally motivated. It's not really being influenced by another person. It's being influenced by your own feeling and decision and assessment that it's not worth it to you to continue in this process for another 3, 6, 12 months in exchange for potentially gaining the $50,000 additional that you're negotiating over. You'd rather be done, and you're willing to accept the terms that are being offered by the other side. That's fine. It needs to be a considered decision, but that's completely fine.

Where you get into a little bit of a more dangerous zone is where your feeling of urgency around being done with the process is being influenced at least as, if not more strongly, by another person. And generally, that person is a significant other, which is totally understandable.

For many good reasons, if you’re dating someone and you are married and not divorced, they want you to be divorced already. That’s completely understandable. At the same time, the urgency that your significant other is feeling around you concluding your divorce process, in general, is adding nothing positive to your divorce negotiation. If anything, it detracts from and puts you in a more vulnerable negotiating position to be increasing the sense of urgency that you feel to conclude the process. And let me say why.

For a lot of people who are going through the divorce process and feeling pressure from a significant other to get divorced already, which means come to terms, agree to terms, and submit your divorce papers so the court can dissolve your marriage, if they end up compromising on substantive terms, agreeing to substantive terms that they otherwise would not have accepted in exchange for just being done with the process to accommodate their significant other, you’re exchanging things that are not of equivalent value in that the terms in your contract, in your divorce settlement, will be binding on you forever but your efforts to please or to placate your significant other are not contractually enforceable.

To create a concrete example, you can rush your divorce negotiation process to please your significant other, and you can agree to really crappy terms for yourself to be done to please your significant other and then sign that contract. You will be held to those terms, and your significant other may not be pleased, or they may be pleased for six months and then break up with you. There's no way that you are exchanging things of equal value there. If you are giving up on serious parenting or financial points to please another person, you have no guarantee that that person will be pleased in the first place or continue to be pleased with you, but you do have a guarantee that you will continue to be held to the agreements you made around custody and child support and alimony and the division of your assets and debts. So you want to be really careful that you're not making contractually, legally enforceable commitments in exchange for what exactly? In exchange for pleasing your significant other? You want to be really, really, really careful about what you're making those commitments in exchange for.

And by the way, that goes for any third party who is not a party to this negotiation. It doesn't have to be a significant other. It could be a parent. I don't see too much pressure from siblings, but I do sometimes see pressure from parents on a child who is a spouse going through the divorce process to finish the process already. I'd say I see that come up almost more in prenups than I do in separations and divorces, but sometimes the parents will be pressuring you to finish the process, and it's not helpful. Obviously, you're moving as quickly as you can, or in the vast majority of cases, you're moving as quickly as you can toward a reasonable settlement, and the fact that someone else in your life feels urgency for you to be done, it does not generally help your negotiating position or put you any closer to the finish line in terms of being done.

The final thing I’ll say on this topic, and I’ve said this to clients in the past, and I think it registers with some and not so much with others, but if you have a significant other when you are going through your divorce process, it’s actually challenging but it’s also a really useful source of information for you about how that person navigates challenging situations and navigates conflict with you because they’re going through a challenging situation.

Without dispute, it’s no fun to be dating somebody who is still married and is going through a divorce process. And so for many valid reasons, they are likely to be displeased to some degree with the fact that… They may understand that your divorce has to take three months, which would be like lightning speed. They may get, like, “Oh, this is going to take three months.” But the idea that it would take, God forbid, six or maybe nine or a year or, “Oh my god. Now it’s been two years or three years” – that, most people don’t have a sense of. And you can think about what sense you have of how long the divorce process should take when you are the outset of it. And if someone hasn’t gone through a divorce themselves, they generally don’t have any sense of what a reasonable timeline for one is.

It is a valuable data point for you to see how this person interacts and engages in your relationship when they are facing challenges in the relationship. Of course, they're able to be aware of what they're not pleased with and what their interests are and what's important to them. But are they able to also take into account you, as a separate person, having separate needs and separate interests, many of which are aligned with theirs but not all of them? And are they able to consider both their own and your interests and desires as part of the way that they think about the fact that you're going through a divorce negotiation, and it's taking longer than they would like?

Sometimes, I suggest it to clients that it might be helpful for their significant other, whether it's to speak to me or to speak to an independent attorney, to give them just some neutral information about what to expect from a divorce process, so that they're a little bit more educated about what's reasonable. And dating somebody for eight years while they're in a divorce is pretty darn uncommon. That's a long divorce, and something is going wrong there.

It's not to say, by any means, that someone should be willing to hang around for however long your divorce takes. No. In fact, to their credit and good for them if they're able to say, "You know, I really didn't understand how long this would take, and I'm not up for waiting this long, and the relationship is not working for me as a result." Every person is completely entitled to take that position, to take that stance on the relationship, to set a boundary in a kind way and just say, "This isn't working for me" as a result of how long this process is taking.

But what is not helpful is to, on one hand, not be able to set their own boundary, which is to say, "This is how long I can tolerate going through the divorce process with you, and beyond that just really doesn't work for me," but instead, to put constant pressure on you and express displeasure with you to change a situation that is not fully within your control to change. That is less helpful, and it gives you some information about how that person is able to navigate conflict or a challenging situation when their interests are not totally aligned with yours, which, by the way, if it does not happen in your divorce process, will happen in the future in your relationship because that's what happens in all relationships.

So, going through a divorce, in some ways, while you're in another relationship gives you the opportunity to see how this other person, how they field challenging periods in the relationship. And again, that’s certainly not to suggest that you want to artificially create a challenge for your relationship, but just that it is inconvenient and it is crappy for your significant other that you’re going through a divorce. And life is like that sometimes. Relationships are like that.

There will be things that happen in your significant other’s life that won’t be convenient for you. And what will be your expectations of them at that time, and how will you navigate that at that time? Will it be acknowledging that it’s frustrating but trying to be very mindful to not act in a way that’s detrimental to the process they’re going through, or will be it more to really try to ride them as hard as you can to get this difficult situation taken care of so you don’t have to deal with it anymore? Obviously, the former is preferable.

If it’s important to you to be really thoughtful and thorough in negotiating the terms of your settlement, you may not be able to do that in the timeline that either you and/or your significant other would ideally like, but it certainly will give you a lot of information about that person and how they navigate conflict and challenge in a relationship to observe how they respond to that and how they respond to you going through a challenging process in general.

That was our episode on going through the divorce process while being on an outside relationship. I hope it was helpful for you.


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