7 alternatives to consider before getting a divorce

March 20, 2024
7 alternatives to consider before getting a divorce

If your marriage is struggling, a messy divorce isn’t your only option. From the sensible to the unconventional, we explore seven divorce alternatives that could save you money and heartache.

By Sabrina Rogers-Anderson

From celebrity marriages that last a mere 55 hours to reality shows that depict venomous splits, our society glorifies bitter divorces and trash-talking our exes.

But the truth is that a nasty divorce can have long-lasting effects on your health, wellbeing, children, friendships and finances. In some cases, especially those that involve drawn-out legal battles, it can take years to process the trauma and rebuild your life.

Before you head down that road, it can be worth weighing your options. If you’re both willing to let go of the acrimony and work together, you’re likely to achieve better outcomes.

Here are seven alternatives to consider before serving divorce papers.

1. Marriage counselling

Whether you feel like you don’t have any love left for your partner or they’re the one who has checked out of the marriage, it’s worth attending a few couples counselling sessions before you make any decisions.

Therapy has saved countless marriages by teaching couples how to improve their communication, emotional connection and intimacy, but experts agree that both people have to be willing to put in the work and grow.

It’s important to find a counsellor you both connect with and who uses techniques you believe in. You can search for couples counsellors in your area and read about their qualifications and approach on the Australian Psychological Society website. Many counsellors offer both in-person and online sessions.

At the very least, a couples counsellor can help you gain some clarity on what has gone wrong and decide whether going your separate ways is the answer. If you do end up separating, you’ll know you tried everything you could.

2. The Last Resort technique

If you’re at the receiving end of a divorce request you don’t want, the Last Resort technique may help. The first step is to stop pursuing your partner with text messages, phone calls, affirmations of love or teary pleas to work on your relationship.

“This pursuing and chasing is deadly to a marriage,” says relationship psychologist and CEO of Marriage Works Philipa Thornton. “It can send your partner into fight or flight mode and make them feel like you’re the danger they need to escape from. They may go into anger as a distancing move and all other feelings and capacity for reflection get blocked out.”

Instead, start pursuing activities outside your marriage. Go for coffee with friends, sign up for the gym or take a new class. Not only will this give your partner space to think, but they’ll see the person they fell in love with and may come towards you.

As you can imagine, this technique isn’t foolproof and your spouse may stick to their guns. But at the very least, it will help you reconnect with yourself and prepare for a fulfilling life on your own if your marriage does come to an end. 

3. Separation under the same roof

While many couples are emotionally separated or sleep in separate bedrooms for some time before they start living apart, some choose to live separately under the same roof in the long term.

“I worked with a separated couple who moved to a country area to get a bigger house and be near family,” says Philipa. “They each had their own room and they were raising their children together. While this situation wouldn’t work for everyone, you can trial it to see if it works for you. It can also be something that works for a few years before moving on.”

4. Trial separation

A trial separation involves living apart for a set period of time to give each other space to reflect on what you want. But if there’s anything we learnt from Ross and Rachel’s infamous “break” on Friends, it’s that expectations and boundaries need to be clear.

How long will the trial separation last? What will you tell the children? Are you allowed to see other people? Set the ground rules and stick to them. Committing to regular therapy sessions during your break is also crucial if you want to have a chance of rebuilding your relationship and making it work.

5. Bird nesting

If your children still live at home and you want to minimise disruption to their lives, the bird nesting approach could work for you as a short or long-term solution.

With bird nesting, the kids stay in the family home while the parents “fly” in and out. Some couples share another home where they each go when they’re not caring for the children, but this requires a high level of cooperation and trust.

Other options include having separate homes outside the main home or staying with family or friends. Even if you’re not on the best of terms with your ex-partner, clear boundaries and routines can make this system work if you feel your children would benefit from the consistency and safety it creates.

6. Conscious uncoupling

Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin popularised the term “conscious uncoupling” when they used it to describe their split, but the idea comes from marriage and family therapist Katherine Woodward Thomas.

Her five-step process involves taking time to sit with and work through your own grief and emotions about your breakup before clearing the air with your former partner and then working on building the new life you want.

“As the name suggests, it's about becoming aware of how you got there and how you can negotiate and move forward together,” explains Philipa. “The reason a lot of people separate is because they can’t communicate effectively, but separation and divorce also require being able to communicate and cooperate, especially if there are children involved. Conscious uncoupling is about honouring your relationship and maybe even doing some separation counselling to have the space to talk it through.”

7. Collaborative divorce

If you’ve come to the conclusion that divorce is the way forward, you don’t have to fight it out and drain your life savings in family court.

A collaborative divorce involves you and your partner hiring separate lawyers who will help you negotiate a settlement that’s suitable for both of you. You’ll both sign an agreement saying you won’t take legal action against the other person. If you change your mind and want to take your ex-partner to court, your collaborative lawyer won’t be able to represent you and you’ll have to find a new one.

Other professionals, such as a collaborative financial advisor, may also be involved in the process. Your collaborative divorce team will work with you and your partner to achieve the best outcomes for you and your family. This approach is generally much more cost-effective and less stressful than going to court.

A new beginning

The end of a marriage is never easy, but it doesn’t have to leave you emotionally and financially drained. Amicable agreements are often possible if both parties are willing to, well, come to the party.

That said, if your spouse has an extreme personality disorder, severe mental health issues or you’ve been the victim of domestic violence, a collaborative approach isn’t advised. Your state’s Family Advocacy and Support Service may be able to provide you with free legal advice and support at court.

If you’re worried about your safety or your children’s safety, call Lifeline 24 hours a day on 13 11 14. If your life is in danger, call 000.