8 practical tips for navigating separation and divorce

February 2, 2024
8 practical tips for navigating separation and divorce

8 practical tips for navigating separation and divorce

It’s no secret that a marriage breakdown can take an emotional and financial toll, but it doesn’t have to leave you shattered. These tips from a psychologist and a lawyer will help you come out the other side of divorce with your best foot forward.

By Sabrina Rogers-Anderson

When you exchange teary vows with your partner and promise to stick together through thick and thin, it’s hard to imagine signing divorce papers one day. But with close to 50,000 divorces granted in Australia each year,[a] it’s a reality many of us will eventually face.

Recent research even shows that a growing number of Australian couples are parting ways later in life with 32 percent of divorces taking place after the age of 50.[b]

Despite these seemingly grim statistics and all the stories you’ve heard about nasty splits that leave both parties financially and emotionally ruined, most divorces have much more positive outcomes.

“Family law in Australia is geared towards avoiding court,” says Nicol Prinsloo, solicitor at Andrew Gardiner Law in Queensland. “More than 87 percent of family law matters are settled without the need to go to trial.”

Separation and divorce also have some unexpected advantages, says relationship psychologist and CEO of Marriage Works Philipa Thornton. “If you have a co-parent, you’ll have more of your own time,” she explains. “This is an opportunity to discover who you are beyond being a mother and a wife. What do you need and want?”

Here’s their advice for navigating the divorce process as smoothly as possible.

Legal tips for a good divorce

1. Get the right information

Well-meaning family and friends may offer you advice that isn’t correct or in your best interest because they’re emotionally involved. And Nicol warns that searching for answers to your legal questions online may not turn up the most objective information.

“Your first port of call should be the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia’s webpage,” says Nicol. “There are different tabs for separation, divorce, family violence and so on. It will give you unbiased information on what you need to do and an idea of the court process. All the states and territories have the same Family Law Act except for Western Australia, where processes are only slightly different.”

2. Ask friends to recommend a lawyer

Nicol strongly suggests engaging a solicitor whether you’re separating amicably or not. “You might be amicable right now, but a new partner could be whispering in your ex-partner’s ear in two years’ time and that could cause problems,” he explains. “Ask friends or other people you trust in your local area if they know a good divorce lawyer.”

3. Try to settle amicably

Settling out of court could save you tens of thousands of dollars and years of stress.

“Property matters often settle out of court, but children's matters can get a little wild because they’re emotionally driven,” says Nicol. “If the parties can’t come to an agreement through negotiation, the next step is dispute resolution, which normally takes the form of mediation. A highly trained and experienced legal practitioner acts as an independent third party mediator and makes suggestions to guide both parties towards a settled solution.”

If mediation fails, the next step is to make an application to the court. “But there’s a very good chance the court will order you to do court-based dispute resolution before you go to trial,” Nicol notes. “There are a lot of steps to try to avoid it.”

Both mediation and going to trial can leave you with a gargantuan legal bill. “In 2020, the average cost of a family law property settlement that settled at mediation was between $20,000 and $25,000,” says Nicol. “If you go to trial, once you add up the barrister and lawyer fees, it’s likely to cost you at least $8500 a day.”

4. Have realistic expectations about the outcomes

It’s a common misconception that assets are split down the middle and each party walks away with 50 percent of the motherlode, but it’s a little more complicated than that.

“In short-term marriages and de facto relationships - more than two years but less than about five - your contribution at the beginning of the relationship is taken into account,” Nicol says. “For example, if you came in with $1 million and I came in with $1, you should get your million back and I should get my dollar, and the remaining assets are split equally. This is especially true when there are no children and the parties still have the ability to earn an income. The shorter a relationship is, the more important individual contributions are.

“With long-term marriages or de facto relationships, non-financial contributions are taken into account. If a husband made a million dollars while his wife stayed at home raising the children, it’s considered that he couldn’t have made that money without her assistance, so assets must be split to ensure she has an income when she retires. You can even transfer super from one person to another.

“There are various factors that might impact the final outcome of a property settlement, some of which might not be apparent to you. The most critical thing is to seek legal advice early and to not let yourself be forced into a difficult position.”

Psychological and emotional advice to navigate divorce

5. Expect a rollercoaster of emotions

Philipa is on a mission to normalise the emotional highs and lows of the separation and divorce process - even if it was your decision.

“Anthropologist Helen Fisher explains that romantic love happens in a part of our brain called the ventral tegmental area,” she says. “That’s our emotional brain and it's the same area that’s involved in reward-seeking and addiction. So, if you’ve been rejected, that part of your brain is overstimulated and you can become obsessive and out of control. It's not you - it's your biology.”

But you can take control back by learning to calm your nervous system. “I love Andrew Huberman’s physiological sigh,” Philipa says. “It’s basically two short in-breaths followed by a long out-breath. It helps down-regulate the system from sympathetic, which is on, to parasympathetic, which is rest and digest. You can also teach your kids this method.”

[h3] 6. Try to build a positive relationship with your co-parent

When children are involved, Philipa stresses the importance of taking the time to pause and reflect to make the best possible decisions. Even adult children can be deeply shaken by the news that their parents are splitting and have trouble accepting it.

“Our kids look to us to see how we’re handling a situation,” she explains. “You'll have your meltdown moments, but try to have them in the shower or when you’re alone if you can. It might be really hard, but the best thing you can do for your children is to build some form of relationship with your co-parent and to acknowledge your children’s mixed emotions, confusion and sense of powerlessness. It's OK to say, ‘I don't know and we will figure this out together.’”

7. Take the time you need to heal

It might be tempting to throw yourself into online dating or other distractions, but taking time to grieve the end of your marriage will serve you in the long run.

“There's no timeframe for healing,” says Philipa. “Our society isn’t very good at handling grief and allowing that space for processing. If you need to spend the day under the duvet, do it. When we’re stressed, cortisol kicks in and we can get sick. That level of energy burns a lot of calories too and we want to hibernate. It’s OK to do that.”

8. Do small things that lift your spirits

A good self-care routine can help lift you out of your funk when you’re ready. “Go into your wardrobe and decide which clothes make you feel good, even if you're faking it till you make it,” Philipa suggests.

“Putting on make-up, giving yourself a mani-pedi or starting a skincare routine can also help. Or you could start a girls’ night in tradition with your friends. It's important to let your hair down!

“Giving yourself the opportunity to grieve, heal and reinvigorate yourself is a gift.”