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Anatomy of a Divorce: How it Really Works

The legal divorce vs. your real divorce

The legal divorce has very limited concerns: to get a judgment of divorce, you have to make arrangements for your property, your children, and support (if any). If you have a high degree of conflict, it is also about keeping the peace and protecting you, your children and your property. That's it; that's all the legal divorce is about.

The law is used to impose a decision in your case only when there is a disagreement that has been brought into court. If you can reach a fair written agreement with your spouse, you can get almost any terms you like without much reference to laws. But, where children are concerned, a judge might take a look at your terms to make sure they are reasonably well supported and protected.

All you get from your legal divorce is a piece of paper--a Judgment--with findings of fact and court orders on the above subjects. That's all. This is what all the fuss is about; this is what people go to attorneys for and spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to get--a piece of paper with orders about peace, property, custody, and support.

You might think that a legal divorce will solve your problems, but it probably won't and it is critically important that you understand this so you don't expect too much from the legal divorce--or some lawyer--and set yourself up for frustration and disappointment.

Your real divorce is about ending one life and beginning another, then making it work--spiritually, emotionally and practically. The real divorce is about breaking old patterns, making a new life and seeking a new center of balance. It's about doing your best with the hand you've been dealt.

Understanding some basic things about how the real divorce works will help you enormously in dealing with yourself, your spouse and your list of practical problems.

How you feel is probably the most real thing in your life right now. Nothing else in your life is as real as your pain, your fear, your anger, hurt, guilt, tension, nervousness, illness, depression--whatever it is you are feeling.

The practical tasks you face are also very real: how to get by financially, how to rearrange the parenting of your children, what to say to family and friends, what to do next, and so on.

In your real divorce, then, you face these challenges:

Emotional: This is about breaking (or failing to break) the bonds, patterns, dependencies, and habits that attach you to your ex-spouse. It's about learning to let go of anger, fear, hurt, guilt, blame, and resentment. You learn about past mistakes so you don't have to repeat them. You develop a balanced view of yourself, your ex-spouse, and your marriage. You create self-confidence and an openness to new intimate relationships.

Physical: Our minds and bodies are not separate and life does not come in these neat boxes. Emotions--especially strong ones that are ignored, denied or repressed--are frequently expressed physically. During divorce, people tend to experience a lot of tension and nervousness. They get ill frequently and have accidents. This is a time when you must take extra good care of your health, pay close attention to your body, and be extra careful when driving.

Practical: This is about taking care of business on the physical plane--including the legal divorce. It's the nuts and bolts of what to do, where to go, and how to get there as you begin to build a new life for yourself. You need to create safety and security for yourself and your children; to make ends meet in a new life-style that produces what you need and needs no more than you can produce.

Going through major life changes--in other words, re-creating your life--is demanding, hard work, but it may be the most important thing you ever do. And, unless you decide to get counseling or go into therapy, the real divorce won't cost a dime!

This article was taken from the book Divorce Solutions: How to Make Any Better, which is full of practical advice on how to handle the issues described above. Learn more by going to Divorce Solutions.

Copyright 2005 Ed Sherman

Ed Sherman is a family law attorney, divorce expert, and founder of Nolo Press. He started the self-help law movement in 1971 when he published the first edition of How to Do Your Own Divorce, and founded the paralegal industry in 1973. With more than a million books sold, Ed has saved the public billions of dollars in legal fees while making divorce go more smoothly and easily for millions of readers. You can order his books from or by calling (800) 464-5502.

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