Communicating About “The Breakup”

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It is traumatic enough to decide to end a marriage.  Then there is the business of announcing the event to friends and family.  In an ideal world, couples would take the Jeff and McKinsey Bezos approach.  Press release from the couple sprinkled with words of kindness for each other.  While that’s an ideal approach, most of us don’t merit a press release.  In addition, rare are the cases where both spouses want “out” of a marriage at the same time.

Lawyers are often asked how to spread the word.  Truth is that there are many options and they are complicated.  Let’s start with the innermost circle.

Your spouse:  This almost always needs to be in person or at least by phone.  The most direct approach, “I met with a lawyer and I have decided to file for a divorce.”  Two aspects of this are important.  The first is that people rarely consult with attorneys unless something is quite serious and the word “filing” means it will soon become public.  Your attorney can do this for you by writing the vanilla letter saying, “Your spouse has asked me to initiate proceedings to end your marriage.”  That gets the job done, but doing it in person yourself makes it clear that you are very serious and not under the spell of the greedy lawyer.  It also may prompt some of the most honest conversations about marriage you will ever have.

People will sometimes ask if we can just have their spouse “served” by a process server.  Yes, it can be done and sometimes it must be done when a spouse is avoiding a divorce by trying to hide.  But process servers often create very embarrassing situations without even wanting to and that sends a message that the plan is to make things both public and messy.  If that is the plan, realize that dirt flies in both directions.

Your kids: ideally, both parents do this, although that suggestion is often met with this response: “Well, you’re the one who decided to destroy our family so I guess you can take care of this too.”  Ask your spouse to reconsider and note that you owe it to each other and especially the children to do this right.  However, if rebuffed, go it alone.  Just keep it simple and avoid lengthy justifications for your decision.  Little kids won’t understand and big kids already have their own views of why things have been so bad at home.  Parents are often shocked to hear teenagers respond to the “news” with, “You should have started this two years ago.”

Your parents and close personal friends:  Two schools of thought here.  It would seem the best way would be in person or by phone.  There is merit to that.  But, if this news will come as a shock to the recipient, perhaps the better approach is to make the announcement via email and promise to follow up shortly with a call.  This allows the recipient to absorb the shock of the event and be prepared when your follow up call or visit occurs.  Consider how you would respond if a call from a friend that you would expect to be routine starts with, “Hi, calling to let you know that I filed for divorce.”  Email also allows friends and family to collect their thoughts and then telephone you.  Those calls can be among the best you will get because these people care about you; may also care about your spouse and want to be supportive.  However, you will also learn that for many friends, the breakup of your marriage will be very unsettling for them.  Sometimes that’s because they perceived your marriage to be stronger than it was.  Sometimes it is because it prompts them to evaluate where they are in their relationship.

Ordinary friends and co-workers:  The co-worker aspect of this is more challenging.  It depends on how tight you are with the co-worker.  Ordinary colleagues don’t really need to be informed about this unless it will affect your work schedule.  Regular friends should be informed by email.  Again, in an ideal world, it would be nice if the message were joint but that often causes confusion as well.  The key thing here is to keep the message short and tight.  This should not be your chance to spill all the problems you have encountered that prompted your decision to leave a relationship.  Emails get forwarded and you can end up with an electronic war where you describe all that angers you and your spouse responds in kind.  This puts friends in the middle, and while some friends enjoy the middle, rarely do they like being there for long.  Email and Facebook are not a good place to trade insults or allegations.  It diminishes both you and your spouse.  Take the high road and hope that your kindness is met with kindness.  Nevertheless, if it is not, realize that no one wins a war conducted electronically.

People want to know about a life transition like divorce and separation.  Good friends will want to help you with that process.  Let them volunteer to help rather than be dragged into an acrimonious series of exchanges that make you and your spouse look petty.  Be wary of friends who want to take up the cudgel for you.  All too often, those offers of support are about your friend’s needs and not yours.

Communicate.  But be circumspect in doing so.

If there is physical abuse:  Be very cautious here.  Everything you write to friends and family is admissible in court.  Meanwhile, it may be provident to write something like, “An incident (or series of incidents) have occurred in recent weeks that have prompted me to file for divorce (or court protection).  Again, the emails, electronic or otherwise, are not places to air your grievances no matter how serious.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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