Back when you uttered "I do," you never imagined that this is how your love story would end. However—some months, years, or decades down the line—your marriage has broken down and it’s time to go your separate ways. While the pain is raw right now, know that you are not alone and, although dim, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
"Marriage is hard," Brooke Bralove, LCSW-C, tells Brides. "The main reasons I see couples divorce are poor communication, infidelity, financial differences, resentment and anger, and overall falling out of love with your partner."
Meet the Expert
Brooke Bralove, LCSW-C is a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and AASECT-certified sex therapist. Having worked in private practice for more than 18 years, Bralove is an expert in matters of heartbreak and divorce.
If you’ve given the marriage or relationship all you’ve got and it’s time to walk away, there’s likely one question burning in your mind: Is it even possible to have an amicable divorce?
What Is an Amicable Divorce?
The Holy Grail of breakups, an amicable divorce or separation is one in which you both work together to reach a favorable outcome. Rather than trying to score points or hurt one another, you both compromise and work toward the best result for you and your family. Reaching this high level of emotional maturity isn’t always easy but it is possible.
"While divorce is usually a painful and difficult process, you can divorce amicably with a lot of effort and commitment from both parties," says Bralove. "Many couples approach the divorce process with anger, resentment, and unmet needs and expectations from their marriage. This is what often fuels partners to create conflict in the divorce process, rather than create an amicable atmosphere in which they acknowledge the end goal of divorce."
Expert Tips on Separating or Divorcing Amicably
Hold your tongue.
If there are children involved, the last thing you want is for them to get caught in the middle. Save your venting for wine with your friends and avoid telling your kids exactly what you think of your ex.
"Think about your kids at all times and never say anything negative about the other parent," says Bralove. "This is harmful to your kids, makes them feel like a part of them is bad, and will definitely cause a rupture between the couple. There is nothing more destructive to kids than their parents engaging in mutual trash-talking."
Always assume their best intentions.
Think your ex is out to get you? Worried they’ve devised a master plan to mess up your entire life? Stop. If you’ve got your back up from the start, you could be ruining any chance of having an amicable divorce or separation.
"There’s a school of thought that we should engage with other human beings with the belief that everyone is struggling and everyone is trying their best," explains Bralove. "When folks are in the divorce process, that completely goes out the window and the reverse assumptions are made. Give your spouse the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they are doing their best even when it doesn’t seem that way."
Be clear and kind.
Your emotions are running high—don’t let them get the better of you. You may be tempted to let your heart rule your head here. "Communicate with your spouse as you would want to be communicated with," suggests Bralove.
"When negotiating, be clear about your desires and kind in the delivery," she adds. "Say what you mean and mean what you say. The divorce process is not a time to play games. It’s too painful, and you both deserve peace and resolution as quickly as possible."
Stay focused on the goal.
The war is over; stop trying to win battles. When you’re getting a divorce or separating, the end goal is that you both come out unscathed.
"Keep your eye on the prize—to get divorced in the most peaceful and equitable way possible," says Bralove. "Remind yourself and each other of the ultimate goal, which is not to drag the proceedings out and harm each other in the process."
Rank your priorities.
Spoiler: You can’t have it all. When you’re divorcing or separating, take a minute to consider what is most important to you here. Keep in mind that you may have to compromise on some of your ideals.
"Marriages take a great deal of compromise and so do divorces," admits Bralove. "As you’re negotiating the terms of your divorce, it can be helpful to create a list in which you rank your priorities. Figure out where you’re willing to compromise and where you feel like you need to stick to your guns. Focus on what matters most to you and leave the rest."
Focus on equity, not equality.
Next up, let’s talk about the red tape. When it’s time to start dividing up assets, you’re going to need to take a measured approach to things.
"The separation agreement, which includes custody and financials, will not necessarily be completely equal," says Bralove. "Ask yourself what really matters most to you and stay focused on that. If time with your kids matters the most, then perhaps you’re willing to let go of some of your financial demands in exchange."
You might be angry, upset, frustrated, and disappointed in your ex. Nobody said that breaking up would be a walk in the park. Rather than letting your emotions rule your interactions, try a different approach. Dig deep and find some empathy.
"Although you can’t save your marriage at this point, you can have a more empathic divorce process," says Bralove. "Try to practice empathy in every interaction you have with your partner. Empathy begets empathy. If you lead with it, there’s a likelihood your partner will meet you there."
Set healthy boundaries.
Divorce or separation is a new chapter in your collective story. You shouldn’t expect the same level of contact or intimacy that you experienced before now. It’s time to start carving out a new type of relationship that works presently.
"While married, you may have texted each other at all hours of the day, but in the divorce process, you may want to set a different boundary," says Bralove. "Perhaps you won’t respond to texts after 10 p.m. Or, perhaps you need to tell your spouse that you won’t respond to texts in which he or she is demeaning or name-calling."
She continues, "Remember that you teach people how to treat you. Now that you’re ending your marriage, you get to establish new rules and boundaries."
Whether you’re having to co-parent or deal with mutual finances, teamwork is everything. You want your ex to play ball, and so it’s worth showing them that you appreciate their efforts. Whenever they are helpful, be sure to thank them for that.
"Say thank you to your spouse," encourages Bralove. "Don’t be stingy with gratitude. When he brings his plate to the sink, you don’t think, 'Why should I say 'good job' to him since he should have been doing that all along?' Instead, you reinforce the behavior with an exclamation of 'Good job, thank you so much.'"
Leave the threats at the door.
Heartbreak can do wild things to people. When you’re mourning the loss of your relationship and feel hard done by, you may find yourself throwing out ultimatums left, right, and center. Don’t make that mistake.
"This rarely works as an approach and often leads to the spouses becoming more rigid and alienated and ends up in litigation," explains Bralove.
Can You Remain Friends After a Breakup?
Once you’ve signed on the dotted line and things are final, what does the future hold for the two of you? If you’re harboring a smidge of care for them, you may want to be buddies. While that’s a noble long-term goal, keep in mind that it takes time and patience.
"While I do believe that couples can eventually create a new co-parenting friendship, I don’t think that should be the goal right away," explains Bralove. "Divorce is a huge loss no matter if you wanted the divorce or not. I think partners need to give themselves and each other time and space to grieve before attempting to be friends. If you force a friendship too soon after divorce, the boundaries of marriage and friendship can get blurred, often causing more confusion and harm to the partners."