Don’t end a long-term marriage unless you’re ready to amputate

Posted Wednesday, February 24th, 2016 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Attorney-Client Relations, Divorce and Marriage, Not South Carolina Specific, Of Interest to Family Court Litigants, Of Interest to General Public

I spend a bit of time talking folks in long-term marriages out of separating from a spouse with whom they are unhappy. It’s amazing how many people come to me expecting that ending their long-term marriage will be relatively painless. Instead I liken it to an amputation: expect serious, permanent loss as part of a best-case scenario.

If there are still minor children living in the home at the time separation is contemplated, both spouses will lose time with the children. As children grow older they spend less time with their parents but, until they fledge, they spend most nights at home. When parents have separate homes, each parent has less time with the children in his or her home. Occasionally going a few days without seeing one’s children (because they are in camp or visiting friends or relatives) can be a welcome respite. Having such breaks from the children become a common occurrence is a loss.

Further these children may now be in the awkward position of having loyalties divided between their parents. Mindful divorcing couples work hard to insure the children don’t have this pressure. However, the awkwardness of where and with whom adult children will spend holidays and vacations can be reduced by staying married.

Even if there are no minor children, the ending of a long-term marriage will involve financial loss for both spouses. In a long-term marriage the court is likely to divide the parties’ property and debt on a close-to-equal basis. Assuming spouses could cooperate financially, having full control of half the marital estate is not as valuable as having joint control of the full marital estate.

Marriage provides certain economies that spouses tend, after a while, to take for granted. One $400,000 home is typically nicer than two $200,000 homes. Hotel rooms cost the same for one guest or two. It takes little more gas for a car to transport one’s spouse too. Even something as small and mundane as milk is less expensive per ounce if one can purchase a bigger size because more household members are drinking it. While having half the marital estate go to one’s spouse doesn’t reduce one’s usable wealth by 50%, it does negatively impact one’s lifestyle.

Further, there’s spousal support. Unless the supported spouse is committing adultery, the supporting spouse is likely to pay alimony–and South Carolina law strongly favors permanent periodic alimony. However, such alimony is rarely sufficient to leave the supported spouse with the same lifestyle. Supported spouses need to get more ambitious with earning money, find ways to economize, or, most often, do both. Meanwhile supporting spouses will find a significant portion of their earnings going to their ex, while their expenses have not decreased in a commensurate amount. Except in situations where one spouse completely mishandles money, both spouses are typically worse off financially, at least initially, after the divorce.

Finally, the shared experiences that make up a marriage and bind a couple to family, friends and community are frayed by the divorce process. Milestones that were previously recalled fondly may now be tinged with ambivalence and regret. The culture for middle-aged, middle-class Americans is very couple-centric. It can be awkward for divorced or separated spouses to attend events in which most adults are part of a couple. Couples often socialize with other couples and when one uncouples one can feel like a third wheel when socializing with such friends. One or both spouses often feel isolated as they separate. Both will need to rebuild or find new familial and peer relationships.

This doesn’t mean folks should never seek divorce. For short marriages that produced no children but much unhappiness, divorce can be liberating and relatively pain free. There are some long-term marriages in which one spouse simply needs to be freed from obligations to the other. Living with a spouse who is physically abusive, habitually demeaning, substance abusing, or spends recklessly can be intolerable. Sometimes the other spouse is simply not committed to the marriage and unwilling to recommit. In these circumstances undergoing the financial and emotional pain of divorce is necessary if one hopes to achieve happiness and/or stability.

Ending a long-term marriage is akin to amputation. One wouldn’t consider amputation except to prevent a larger and significant harm. Unless one is willing to undergo great loss to be free of one’s spouse, one is not ready to end a long-term marriage. Beware the family law attorney who promises the pain-free ending of a lengthy marriage.

7 thoughts on Don’t end a long-term marriage unless you’re ready to amputate

  1. Once of your best pieces in recent memory and beyond, Greg.

  2. Exceptionally well done sir….thank you. As a counselor I couldn’t have expressed it better or more poignantly…..thanks.

  3. David DeVane says:

    This has held true for nearly all of the long term marriage divorces I have handled in my 42 years of practice. Former Family Court Judge and friend L. Mendel Rivers, III would often tell the parties that “marriage is an economic pie”. He would then draw a circle with a dollar sign in the middle and proceed to draw a slash mark through the circle. Voila, two small pies.

  4. Tony O'Neill says:

    All true. Although sometimes Peace of Mind offsets all of the economic hardships.

    1. Written by a lawyer with three ex-wives who’s never paid a dime of alimony. You’re the luckiest dude alive.

  5. very well said and nice article

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