Advice from a Judge

Advice from Judge

In my several decades in and near divorce court, I have seen more than a fair share of sad people who can’t seem to move on from their divorces.

Some of them manage to turn the process of getting a judgment terminating their marriage from something that should have been finished in a few months into litigation that stretches on for way too many years. Others who have already divorced continue to find new legal issues or causes that allow them to come back to court and continue to fight their former spouses for many additional years.

And those battles are expensive. It costs the taxpayers somewhere around $30,000 a day to keep the courtroom operating. That doesn’t include the cost of the building, the utilities, or anything like that — just the salaries of the judge, the courtroom staff, and the support group backing up the courtroom. If one of these divorced people files a motion over a question such as which school a child should attend in the coming year and then calls a series of witnesses to testify on that issue, the judge is somewhat limited as to how strictly he or she can limit testimony to move the matter along. Meanwhile, other cases back up in the hallway outside the courtroom.

Psychological underpinnings

Some unhappy litigants who cause divorce proceedings to drag on seem to have chosen the ending of their marriages as the most important event in their lives. Some appear to be determined to use the courts to punish their former spouses. And some of them just seem to hope a judge will declare for the entire world to hear that they are good and that their spouses treated them very badly.

Many experts say that some people have formed such a pattern of constant feuding during their marriages that they just can’t break the habit. Those who aren’t really sure they want to be divorced anyway may feel that losing their spouse is akin to losing part of their identity and that continuing the battle in court after the divorce allows them to hold on to what they consider an important part of themselves.

Vivienne Roseby and Janet R. Johnston, clinician and researchers in the field of high-conflict divorce, explain in their book In the Name of the Child that some people feel so betrayed when their spouses seek a divorce that their counterattack becomes the central obsession in their lives.

Stand up for yourself and control your emotional upsets

Your goal should be to get through this divorce as quickly and wisely as possible. But keep in mind when settling the issues involved that you are not a helpless nobody who can be pushed into accepting results and alleged compromises that just don’t feel right to you. Do not let self-pity, humiliation, guilt, or depression cause you to swallow anything you find to be unacceptable.

At the same time, remember that the breakdown of a marriage is usually not all one person’s fault and, where it is appropriate, it may be helpful for you to share some of the responsibility for the demise of your marriage. Uncontrolled rage about your spouse is going to make it difficult to reach any settlement. Compromising here or there on some issues is not a sign of weakness — particularly if it will allow you to complete the process and get on with your new life.

Find a wise friend to talk with about what is going on in your life. Or consider scheduling an appointment or two with a therapist to share your thoughts and help keep you grounded.

Walk the moral high ground

Although you may be tempted to seek revenge for things your spouse did in the past or during this divorce, the following words are among the most important advice you will hear: Resist the urge to get even. Concentrate on getting through the process as quickly and simply as possible.

You might even surprise your spouse by being generous on an issue or two –perhaps lightening your stance on monthly support or the kids’ visitation schedules. Those who follow this path almost always benefit in the long run.

Seek expert advice on technical matters

Feeling confident about the technical side of your divorce can help you avoid many sleepless hours you might otherwise spend tossing and turning, wondering whether you did the right thing.

For example, if you’re not sure whether a proposed child custody issue is right for your kids, talk with a family therapist. If there are issues about the valuation of a business or how to divide an IRA, a stock option plan, or a pension, talk with a certified public accountant, actuary, or divorce lawyer. Even if things are fairly amicable between you and your spouse, consider having a lawyer look over any agreement you are asked to sign.

Manage contacts with your spouse

You can often avoid a lot of problems by setting up some rules for when and where you and your spouse will have contact. The process of getting divorced can easily become more complicated if either of you is allowed to drop by to see or to call the other whenever the mood strikes.

Agree to periods of no contact and limit phone calls. If even such limited contact becomes too emotional, insist that communications be made only in writing. If your spouse is very angry, or working hard to avoid being divorced, understand that this is not the time to attempt to reach a compromise on the issues surrounding the end of your marriage. Try to calm things down to allow reality to set in.

Keep the lines of communication open, but if you are determined to proceed with the divorce, let your spouse know as respectfully as you can that getting back together is not an option for you.

The brighter side

As tough as the process often feels, divorce also presents a golden opportunity to make some changes in your life and to identify characteristics you should look for in a future partner. The experts say that getting over a divorce takes many people two years, some even longer.

Carol B. Thompson, who before her retirement was one of the most respected child custody evaluators in the Bay Area — and, incidentally, my wife — says this about the subject: “The notion of ‘getting over divorce’ is bogus. Marriage is a major life event and the impact of a failed marriage will have long-lasting scars for many very normal people. Instead of ‘getting over’, the focus should be on ‘getting on with life’. Not only is that a satisfying goal, it is also realistic and attainable.”

You can’t really get started on all of this until your divorce is over, so my hope for you is that you will get through this process successfully, having learned more about yourself and what you want for your future life.


This excerpt from the book A Judge’s Guide to Divorce, written by Judge Roderic Duncan, originally appeared on

Posted by Sinta Ebersohn (Creator of – Stellenbosch RSA)