"This Is Going to Be the Worst Year of Your Life."
By Christy A. Zlatkus, Esquire
Before we even talk retainer, every divorce client walking through my door gets the same piece of non-legal advice: “This is going to be the worst year of your life.”
As a firm that strives to uplift its clients through the worst challenges many will face in their lifetime, it may seem out of sync with our culture to wallop soon-to-be-divorcees with such a sour and depressing statement. But empowering our clients means more than being their cheerleaders; it means equipping them to face whatever their cases fling at them.
If you know it is going to rain, you carry an umbrella. If you know it is going to snow, you buy a shovel. If your life is going to be an interpersonal, emotional and financial hellscape for a protracted period of time, best to hunker down and brace yourself for the hurricane.
Many people imagine that when they finally work up the courage to exit a bad marriage that they will feel instant relief—- lighter and happier and free. In reality, fear, grief, financial insecurity and a generalized sense of overwhelm quickly swallow up any exhilaration that bubbled up in the immediate aftermath of the breakup.
Do not despair.
Happiness and freedom will come.
You just have to hang in there for about 365 days.
My efforts to brace my clients for The Worst Year prepares them for that post-separation let down and the hard things (so, so many hard things) that follow. Going through a divorce is like getting a root canal and a colonic at the same time, except it’s your bank accounts and parenting choices instead of your teeth and your, ahem….well, you get the idea.
Divorcing parties have to endure strict scrutiny of the finances, their spending, their parenting, and their behavior as a spouse all while navigating the choppy emotional waters to find their New Normal. Budgets and lifestyles need to be reexamined. That spacious five bedroom house may transform into his and hers one bedroom apartments with futons in the living rooms and bunk beds for the kiddos stuffed into the small bedroom. Friends may dig into respective camps, and in-laws may draw back or grow antagonistic. It’s like a zombie revival of the bride and groom sides of the aisle from your wedding; bizarre, sad, and likely to give you more than a few nightmares.
I brace my clients for the brutality of the year they face because it makes getting to the other side— yes, the other side really does exist!— easier. In their darkest moments, I can clock for my clients where they are in the process; “yes, this is what three months in looks like,” or “yes, hyperventilating 10 days before trial is just part of the process.” I hold up the shiny New Normal on the other side, reminding them that peace and happiness are theirs for the taking…in just a few more months.
One of my good friends described her year of divorce as her “year of good enough.” Her rented flat was not the dream home she had abandoned when she left her ex-husband, and her budget was a dismal shadow of its former European-vacationing self. The only reason her new place was Marie Kondo-tidy was because it was easier to hit Homegoods for a few essentials than to rescue the bulk of her possessions from the marital home he still inhabited.
Your year of good enough is not a data point that holds evidence of how the rest of your life will look. It’s not your New Normal. Your heart and your head and your checkbook are going through a lot. It’s okay for things to not be okay.
Your life is going to feel like a mess.
It’s supposed to.
Divorces are messy.
Leaving a bad marriage is a bit like deciding to lose weight. You work up all the nerve and energy to get clear that you want to make a change in your life, but then you have to face the challenges and hard work that stand between you and the life you want to create. Even when you are putting in the work to change— be it time in the gym or hours answering discovery requests— the results are far from instant. But when you reach your goal, the rewards are too numerous to describe. If you know this going in, you can brace yourself.
While there really aren’t any shortcuts to make The Worst Year into The Worst 27 Days, you can shift your attitudes and activities to help get you through. Engage in as much self-care as you possibly can: take up yoga, learn to enjoy a relaxing bubble bath, walk in the woods, take a trip to the zoo or an art museum—anything outside of your ordinary routine that helps you breathe deeper or feel more grounded. Spend a ton of time with people who love you. You may find that long-dormant friendships perk back up now that you’re reclaiming a sense of self that’s unmoored from the influence of a relationship gone sour, or that you and your sister have a common love of cooking that never surfaced while you were busy fighting with your ex-spouse prepping the Thanksgiving turkey. Whatever self-care looks like to you, do lots and lots of it.
Grief comes with divorce because most of us walk into marriage hoping to create a life full of peace and joy. For many of my clients, the legal process of working to end their marriage helps work through the emotions that accompany the emotional disentanglement that happens concurrent to their legal proceedings. By the time they come to the end of their Worst Year Ever, many of them have found a version of joy they had been hoping to create in their marriage. Sadness and uncertainty give way to clarity and gratitude to have the worst behind them. Your joy will come, right on time. Just hang in there.
One of the most gratifying moments of my career thus far was a chance meeting between two of my clients in the Courthouse. I was shepherding one to the first hearing in her case, the other was leaving with another attorney from my then-firm, having just completed her divorce hearing. My old client was beaming, and we stopped to chat so I could wish her congratulations. The newly-minted divorcee took one look at the terrified look on my new client’s face and reached over to give her shoulder a squeeze. Clutching her newly-signed Judgment of Absolute Divorce, she leaned closer and said, “Christy told me this would be the worst year of my life. She was right. But I got through it and so will you, and it was so worth it.”