Navigating the Essentials of Divorce

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The topic of divorce would seem to require no introduction. Divorce refers to the often messy and painful end of a marriage. For better or for worse, divorce is a very common event these days. Most everyone has been touched by it, either by going through it themselves as a spouse or a child, or knowing someone who has gone through it as a spouse or as a child. Despite widespread familiarity with the effects of divorce, the details of the divorce process are less well known. In this section, we discuss the important concepts and procedures involved in the divorce process with the sincere hope that educating people regarding this information will help minimize pain.


You can feel like the loneliest person in the world when you are contemplating divorce. It's therefore important to keep divorce in perspective so that it doesn't crush you.

What is Divorce?

Divorce is the legal termination of a marriage, marking the end of the marital union between two individuals. It involves the dissolution of marital obligations and the division of marital assets and responsibilities. Divorce can occur through both contested and uncontested means, where contested divorce involves disputes over issues like child custody, spousal support, and division of assets, while uncontested divorce occurs when both spouses agree on these terms and proceed with the dissolution amicably.

Divorce is Common

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The first thing to know about divorce is that it is common and nothing to be ashamed of. According to recent statistics, the rate of divorce in the United States (0.40%) is approximately half the rate of marriage (0.78%), suggesting that approximately 50% of all marriages - an enormous number! - are ending in divorce. 

However, it’s important to note that divorce rates can vary significantly depending on factors like geographical location, socioeconomic status, and cultural norms.

While the actual meaning of these figures is arguable (given that it may be unfair to try to predict who will divorce in the future based on who is divorcing today), there is no disputing the fact that a great number of Americans have divorced and will divorce in the future. Divorce is so common it has become an industry unto itself with lawyers and matchmaking companies being just a few of the groups deriving economic benefit from the process. Under the social pressure of so many divorces, the stigma that used to be attached to divorce is largely gone. It continues to be painful to divorce, but with so much company, it is no longer a lonely isolated place. 

Factors Affecting Divorce Rates & Trends

Economic stability and employment opportunities can influence individuals’ decisions regarding marriage and divorce. Additionally, shifting attitudes toward marriage, gender roles, and individual autonomy affect perceptions of marriage and divorce—and subsequent divorce rates.

The availability of marriage counseling, legal assistance, and social support networks can affect couples’ ability to navigate challenges and sustain marriages as well. If a couple doesn’t have affordable access to support services, they may be less likely to work through marital issues or conflict.

Moreover, changes in societal norms regarding the timing of marriage and family formation may contribute to lower divorce rates among couples who marry later in life.

Divorce is an Old Institution

The second thing to know about divorce is that it is an old and venerable institution. People have been getting divorced as long as people have been getting married. The ease with which a divorce can be obtained, the social stigma attached to divorce, and the amount of control religious and political powers have exercised over divorce have varied significantly over time and cultures. On the one hand, some accounts suggest that Islamic law at one point allowed a man to divorce his wife by simply stating the phrase "I divorce you" three times. On the other hand, other accounts suggest that the sixteenth-century English king Henry XIII went so far as to cause the Anglican Church to be created (or at least become fully recognized) so as to gain permission for a divorce which the Catholic Church had denied him.

Less than 50 years ago, divorce was only widely available in the United States on a "fault" basis; it could only be obtained by demonstrating to the state's approval that one of the partners was acting badly enough to warrant the release of the other partner. Acceptable grounds for fault divorce varied from state to state but usually included abuse, adultery, and abandonment. 

The difficulty of gaining divorce and a cultural climate that stigmatized divorce combined to keep divorce rates low. Since the 1960s most states have adopted "no-fault" divorce laws that allow couples to divorce without proving wrongdoing. Due in part to this reform and probably to other cultural changes, the divorce rate has risen, and being divorced is no longer looked down upon. 

Divorce Doesn’t Have to Be Awful

The third thing to know about divorce is that it isn't always awful. With the availability of no-fault divorce options, the process of divorce is no longer necessarily adversarial. Partners are now free to proceed with divorce as calmly and rationally as they can manage. Certainly, divorce is frequently born out of marital conflict and proceeds as a knockdown, drag-out fight for possessions, child custody, and pride. But modern divorce can also take place amicably, consciously, and without a court battle. 

Marriage therapy can help conflicted partners to repair their marriage, or, if that is not possible, to separate on as positive terms as possible. Arbitration is available to help partners successfully divide their possessions without recourse to the courts. The quality of the divorce any given couple will end up experiencing will be deeply influenced by the quality of relationships the partners can maintain with each other, and with professional helpers they work with during the separation process. 

The fourth thing to know about divorce is that it is at once an emotional journey and a legal process and that it is best to keep these two aspects of divorce separate when that is possible. Marriage is a legal contract recognized by the state conferring rights, privileges, and responsibilities. 

From a legal perspective, divorce is a process of disengaging partners from the legal marriage contract and making sure that those things the spouses are responsible for (including children and property) are properly accounted for and cared for. The very rational and purposeful legal process of divorce contrasts mightily with the chaotic and emotional aspects of divorce which involve coming to grips with rather massive life changes as significant and shattering as any family death and which may involve significant grief, anger, sadness, and pain. We'll be dealing with the emotional and legal aspects of divorce separately in this document. 

The notion of divorce can be overwhelming and stressful, especially if you aren’t sure what to do or what the process is like. Here are the typical steps in obtaining a divorce:

  • Initial filing:
    • One spouse files a petition for divorce with the appropriate court, outlining the grounds for divorce and requesting dissolution of the marriage.
    • The other spouse is served with the divorce papers and has the opportunity to respond, either contesting or consenting to the divorce.
  • Mediation:
    • In some jurisdictions, couples may engage in mediation to resolve issues such as child custody, visitation, division of assets, and spousal support.
    • Mediation involves a neutral third party who helps facilitate communication and negotiation between the spouses to reach mutually acceptable agreements.
  • Discovery and negotiation:
    • Both spouses gather and disclose financial and personal information relevant to the divorce proceedings.
    • Negotiations may occur between the spouses, their attorneys, or mediators to reach agreements on key issues.
  • Court hearings and trial:
    • If disputes remain unresolved, the divorce may proceed to court hearings or trial, where a judge makes decisions on contested issues such as child custody, support, and property division.
  • Finalization:
    • Once all issues are resolved, either through negotiation, mediation, or court proceedings, the divorce is finalized.
    • The court issues a final divorce decree, legally terminating the marriage and detailing the terms of the divorce settlement.

However, every divorce process is different. For example, divorce laws and procedures vary by jurisdiction, including requirements for residency, grounds for divorce, and legal processes. Some jurisdictions may have waiting periods of mandatory counseling requirements before a divorce can be finalized.

Furthermore, each divorce case is unique, with factors such as the complexity of assets, the presence of children, and the level of conflict influencing the duration and outcome of the divorce process. Couples may choose different dispute resolution methods, such as collaborative divorce or litigation, based on their specific needs and circumstances.

Divorce can be an emotional journey and a confusing legal process as well. Here are some key legal terms associated with divorce:

  • Dissolution: The legal termination of a marriage, also known as divorce, wherein spouses end their marital relationship and become legally single individuals.
  • Alimony (spousal support): Financial support paid by one spouse to the other during or after divorce proceedings, intended to provide financial assistance to the lower-earning or dependent spouse.
  • Custody: Legal authority and responsibility for the care, supervision, and decision-making regarding a child's upbringing, including physical custody (where the child resides) and legal custody (decision-making authority).
  • Child support: Financial payments made by one parent to another for the financial support and care of their child or children, typically based on state guidelines and calculated based on factors such as income and the child's needs.

Understanding these legal terms is essential for individuals navigating the divorce process, as they directly impact financial arrangements, living situations, and relationships with children. Seeking legal advice and support can help parties understand their rights and obligations and work toward fair and sustainable outcomes for all involved.

Divorce is Not the End of the World

The final thing to know upfront about divorce is that divorce is not the end of the world. Divorce is a crisis involving a very real end, but it is also a very real new beginning. Divorce is the end of a chapter of life, but not the end of life itself (even though it may feel that way). In the midst of the divorce crisis are seeds of opportunities for remaking life into something again enjoyable new and creatively good. It is important to keep this hopeful and true message in mind as the process unfolds.

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