And the time came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
Anais Nin (quoted in Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser)
Well darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable
And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear
I wrap my fear around me like a blanket
I sailed my ship of safety ’til I sank it
I’m crawling on your shores
The Indigo Girls, Closer to Fine
By Neil Kozek, Esq. and Michelle Lewis, Esq.
No matter how we feel about our marriage, choosing to divorce can be terrifying. Remaining in an intact nuclear family is a source of tremendous comfort, providing stability, certainty, and social acceptance that may feel impossible to replicate outside its confines.
On the other side of divorce, we may be unable to imagine that an exciting, rewarding, or happy new life awaits us. While that new life may present opportunities to realize our most desired and passionate dreams for ourselves, the fear of the unknown may also be a source of mystery and anxiety. Peering over the edge of our known lives, we may only be capable of seeing darkness. Should we jump into the icy waters of the unknown? Or should we stay in our lives, unfulfilled, but safe?
There is something about ending our marriage that frightens us to our core: if we are not a member of our family unit, not someone’s wife or husband, then who are we? If we do not share a home with our children every day of their childhoods, are we still a full-fledged parent? The prospect of divorce may fill us with shame and guilt as well as uncertainty.
Another obstacle to making the decision to divorce is our fear of the divorce process itself. We have all known or heard about family, friends, and even celebrities who have been consumed by their divorces, their lives going up in bitter flames of hate, judgment, and disgrace. We have heard the cautionary tales about attorneys who prey on vulnerable clients, promising them the sun, the moon and the stars, and their spouse’s head on a spit, only to leave them alienated from their own children, broke, and bereft. Sometimes it feels like even the most uncomplicated divorces become unnecessarily nasty, expensive, and protracted.
A traditional divorce process can give the more monied spouse the ability to exercise financial control by withholding support, transferring or wasting assets, and engaging in soul crushing litigation over every issue. Likewise, it can give the primary caregiver of the children the opportunity to play the role of victim, persuading the children that the other parent is selfish, cruel, or even dangerous. These fears are not unfounded, and many families unwittingly find themselves crushed and broken by the powerful tides of divorce litigation.
We have all heard that children whose parents are divorced come from “broken” homes. Parents who are divorced are “single” parents. The prevalent images in our culture surrounding divorced families are images of sad and unsupervised children, torn between embittered, frazzled and lonely parents. It is common knowledge that these children are at risk for educational, social, and emotional distress and failure to reach their potential. Who would choose this for their children? Persuaded by these pervasive images and beliefs, it is understandable that many unhappy couples have decided that the price of personal freedom at the potential expense of their children’s wellbeing is too high. Staying married seems to be the safest course.
Divorce, however, does not have to extract this kind of cost. Not only can you eschew the highly adversarial litigation process; if you and your spouse are aligned, you can preserve your family and protect your children’s wellbeing. Closing the door on the chapter of your lives in which you lived under one roof is certainly painful and sad, but it is not the end of your family’s story. As one door closes, a new one opens, and you and your spouse can begin a new chapter as co-parents in separate homes who support one another and coordinate your children’s care with maturity and respect.
The first and most important step is to have a frank discussion with your spouse about your decision to end the marriage and your goal of doing so in an out of court process that preserves and strengthens your ability to parent your children together. If you can agree on these goals, then the next step for each of you is finding and selecting an attorney who understands and supports your goals. Look for attorneys trained in collaborative divorce or mediation, as they will have the necessary tools, techniques, skills, commitment, and experience to help you restructure your family without destroying one another or your children.
In collaborative divorce, you and your spouse will meet with your attorneys and often will work as part of a team with a financial neutral and a trained mental health professional. Collaborative divorce may appeal to you if you want to have an attorney safeguarding your interests in the room during negotiations, if your finances are complex and the knowledge you and your spouse have about the finances is unequal, or if you feel that overwhelmingly strong emotions might derail a settlement without the assistance of a trained professional.
In mediation, you and your spouse will typically meet with a mediator who does not represent either of you but is trained to facilitate dialogue concerning your interests and to assist you in generating and choosing the best options to settle your case. Mediation is particularly well suited to couples who share financial information, have comparable levels of financial sophistication, and have some reservoir of trust in one another. It can also be an excellent choice for couples who substantially agree on parenting issues or whose children are grown. Be mindful that mediated agreements should always be reviewed by independent attorneys for each spouse. In either process, trust is going to be an important factor.
So as you stand uncomfortably on what may feel like the precipice of a high cliff, whipped by the winds of indecision as to whether to leave your marriage, know that if you decide to plunge, you do not have to be shattered on the rocks or tossed by the frothy waves below. If you and your spouse choose your attorneys and your divorce process wisely, you can successfully separate with dignity and respect, your relationships with your children intact and your finances preserved.
Mr. Kozek is a litigator, collaborative attorney, and founding member of Kramer Kozek LLP, a boutique Matrimonial Law Firm practicing in suburban and metropolitan New York City. He is a Fellow of both the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) and International Academy of Family Lawyers (IAFL), a pioneer of New York’s trend toward out-of-court dispute resolution which includes founding the New York Association of Collaborative Professionals (NYACP )and serving on the Board of Directors of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals (IACP). Mr. Kozek has been recognized in Best Lawyers in America, Top 25 attorneys in Westchester County, and is rated “AV” by Martindale Hubble as pre-eminent in both ethical standards and legal ability. He lectures and has written extensively on the topics of divorce, Collaborative Practice and Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR).
Ms. Lewis is also a member of Kramer Kozek LLP where she concentrates her practice exclusively on Matrimonial and Family Law matters, focusing on Collaborative Divorce, Mediation, Mediation Review and Litigation. She currently serves on the Board of Directors of the NYACP. Ms. Lewis began her career in ADR while focusing on Family Law and earning her Juris Doctorate from Harvard University prior to joining Kramer Kozek. Ms. Lewis recently received accolades for her pro bono service to separated and divorcing spouses from the Legal Services of the Hudson Valley. Ms. Lewis has been practicing law since 1998.
Mr. Kozek and Ms. Lewis are both active members of the Family Law Sections of multiple bar associations including the Westchester County, Westchester County Women’s, American and the New York and New Jersey State Bar Associations. Both have been recognized for their achievements in Collaborative and Family Law by New York Metro Super Lawyers.
For additional information about Neil and Michelle or to learn more about Kramer Kozek LLP, their website is kramerkozek.com and the firm’s main number is 914-683-3500.