A dad’s divorce diary: ‘See you in court is an expensive phrase’

“It’s late on a cold Monday evening in March, I’m sitting on the armrest of the couch leaning forward in numb disbelief as she drops the ‘D’ bomb. I look at the fireplace with its welcoming flicker and tell myself it will be a long time before I have a home again. What I didn’t know was the roller coaster that was to come. 

We were married for four years with one young child and had just bought a house. I guess nothing untoward motivated our split– we were both just unhappy.

Our judicial separation took 13 months and 9 formal negotiation sessions. Interestingly in Ireland, the majority of separations are initiated by women, but unlike the UK, we lack any real guidelines around splitting assets or child support. This results in the family law court being a theatre and we are but actors in a play. The judge can rule any way they like, so you’d better hope they like you. 

After a few weeks of feeling sorry for myself, a lawyer gave me a sympathetic smile and told me, “you’ve lost buddy, the only question is, by how much?” Here’s what I wish I knew back then:

Quit your Squabbles

Unless there is infidelity or abuse, the judge is not Jerry Springer. Leave your emotional spats out of court. We’re told the needs of the child are put first, but make no mistake, this feels like a punishment for the hurt and disappointment you’ve caused each other. If I had listened to my ex and tried to understand her pain, her struggle, her fears rather than showing her my multiple spreadsheets, I’m sure I would have saved enough on legal fees to buy Greenland. Message: You have two ears and one mouth. 

It’s ok to Cry

I may have skin thicker than Micheal O’Muircheartaigh’s accent, but being asked to leave your house, your child and to have family and friends suddenly drop off all around you, floored me. I reverted to student life for distraction. When the party stopped, the silence was deafening.  Message: Mind your noggin, process that pain.

In case there is any doubt at this point, divorce sucks. You want this nightmare to be as short as an Irish summer. 

Shield your Children

Hard as it was bouncing around friend’s couches for those initial few weeks, I always showed up for my child on my weekends with a big smile and an adventure planned. Even at the height of the drama, we put on our happy family faces. This really helped protect them. My time with my child when they were very young going through this was tough, but it was an investment in a stronger relationship now. In fact, I’d say it is stronger than I could ever have had if I was with their mother. Message: Prioritise quality time with your little one. 

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Honesty, unfortunately, is not always rewarded

Each of you should disclose your true earnings and savings. But it turns out the truth is subjective. If you are dishonest and this is found out, it opens back up the assets and maintenance for discussion after the divorce. So being super transparent is a protection mechanism. What if your ex is entirely dishonest on the affidavit you ask? Recently, the family law courts, in their wisdom, created yet another layer of an already convoluted process called ‘vouching’. Here you appear in front of a clerk, share financials and confirm that you agree with your other half’s disclosure. If you refuse to accept whatever fiction they have created, you don’t go to court. This means you stay in this hellish purgatory forever. Neat trick, eh?  Message: Worry about what you can control. Disclose everything.

Patience

In case there is any doubt at this point, divorce sucks. You want this nightmare to be as short as an Irish summer. However, I was advised to remain in the house to encourage my ex into agreeing to a fair deal–a hellish prospect when a relationship is over. As a motivation to settle, this is a particularly grim strategy, but one many solicitors still advise. Message: Sit tight, if you dare.

More Patience 

On the topic of time, the debate and subsequent referendum on how long a couple needs to be ‘apart’ is moot. You can always say as my ex did, that although we were sleeping in the same bed, in fact, she was emotionally checked out years ago. The judge will not object as they don’t read minds, plus only government ministers can afford to run two households these days. The courts do, however, like to see you fight it out for about a year before giving you a hearing in the hope you’ll sort things out yourselves, giving the agreement more chance of holding. Message: Time is but a concept.

Think Harvey Specter 

Solicitors typically bill €300 per hour. A full-blown dispute costs about €30k. If you stop arguing, they stop billing, and who is going to pay for those lovely gowns barristers wear? It would be wise to agree to a set price or at least be sure to put a cap on it. There are about six different ways a separation or divorce can go ranging from contentious (expensive) to amicable (slightly less expensive). Take a solicitor’s advice with a spoon full of salt, and try to agree and settle with your ex early, if they are willing. Message: ‘See you in court’ is an expensive phrase. 

Become a Private Person

Divorce can be adversarial. Some solicitors advise you to hide your social media completely and change passwords on your log-ins to everything. Collect any private documents and keep them in a separate secure location. Be super careful about what you say to even close friends as unfortunately there is a team of rottweilers besties foaming at the mouth for any scrap of information on you to report back. Message: You have the right to remain silent.

Don’t look too good nor talk too wise 

Stay consistent in your lifestyle as any changes are seen as ‘dissipating assets’ in court. I showed up to court in a pressed suit, briefcase, well organised. This worked to my disadvantage. Equally, be sure not to suddenly move into a bedsit, as this sends the message that you can afford to live on a fraction of your income. Message: Dress down for this one

It’s a process

I wish I’d learned to communicate better – that I knew what lay ahead. Divorce is harder than anyone knows, and it takes a toll on everyone involved. I’m out the other side and working on rebuilding parts of my life as successfully as I can. I’m so grateful for friends and family, especially my sister who was always there to listen to my rants and give excellent advice. Message: No man is an Island.