Sometimes, women come to me and ask me my opinion – not on a legal issue or point of law, but my personal opinion about their personal situation. I get it; I’ve been there, too. I often ask professionals, “What would you do, in my position?” so I can understand why this question would come up, again and again.
I did, for example, after having an emergency c-section with the birth of my first child, ask a doctor and a midwife whether they would attempt a VBAC birth for the second, if they were in my position and with my medical history. That’s personal, of course. It’s asking for their opinion, too.
The question “Should I get a divorce?”, though, is different. I get it from time to time, though, and I’m always a little hesitant to answer. Like most people, I think, I DO believe strongly in the institution of marriage. I would never counsel someone to throw away their marriage too soon, without full knowledge of the facts that have brought them to this point. Generally speaking, when I do get this question, it’s at the beginning of my acquaintance with someone, usually a prospective client. It’s hard to have full and complete knowledge of the facts at that point. It’s also hard to really have a sense of who your client is as a person. It’s also a very, very intensely personal decision, and one that I find it very hard to fault a person for whatever decision they decide to ultimately make.
Some cases are easy. If he hits you, for example, or leaves you in fear for your or your children’s safety, then I would say that a divorce is probably not a bad option. (Though, also, in truly abusive cases, things become MORE dangerous, not less, when you decide to leave, and I’d encourage you to work with a therapist or a victim advocate or even a shelter to ensure that you have a plan in place for when you leave. It may also be a good idea to get a protective order in place, too.) If he repeatedly cheats on you, too, that may be another good reason to move forward with your divorce. Cheating is itself a violation of trust, but I also worry, in cases where chronic cheating is an issue, about the sexual health of my clients. By sleeping around, he shows a complete lack of concern for your health. I’ve had a number of clients who ended up with both curable and incurable sexually transmitted infections (and had a couple of HIV and AIDS related scares, too), and I can tell you – you don’t want to wait until it gets to this point to leave.
In other situations, though, the answer is less clear. It’s also less possible for an attorney to answer for you. I’m not here to make value based decisions. I’m here to give you an idea of what your rights are, what kind of entitlements you might have based on your unique circumstances, and educate you on the process involved. It’s probably a better question to ask an attorney, “If I DO decide to divorce, then what?” to get an idea of what you might expect in terms of things like spousal support, child custody and support, and equitable distribution. In Virginia, equitable distribution is the fancy legal word we use to describe how marital property is divided between two soon-to-be former spouses. Things like retirement, investment accounts, bank accounts, real estate, cars (and boats and RVs and airplanes and the like), etc. are divided in equitable distribution.
If you’re not sure whether divorce is the right course of action for you, that’s fine! You will likely still benefit from talking to an attorney – just in terms of understanding what you might be able to get if you resolve things with an agreement, or what the judge might award if your case ultimately went to court. Knowing what to expect can have a tremendous calming effect. It can also help you to know, ultimately, which choice is going to be better for you. I’ve met with people who’ve had both reactions – “knowing what to expect, I’ll go back and try again and hope we can avoid divorce,” and “knowing what to expect, I’m ready to start the process and free myself from this marriage”. Either way is, of course, perfectly acceptable and understandable.
I think there’s a common feeling that a divorce attorney will pressure a person into a divorce. Though I’ve never practiced at any other family law firm and can’t speak to any potential pressure that might be placed on a prospective client there, I can tell you that, in our office, we NEVER counsel a client to end her marriage or push her to that decision. We discuss goals, and educate on the process – but we don’t push a particular course of action. We make sure that our clients understand options available to them, but ultimately the choice is left up to the woman herself to decide (1) whether to end her marriage at all, and then, if so, (2) what course of action to pursue (for example, separation agreement, contested divorce, collaborative divorce, mediation, etc.) in order to end it.
If you don’t know the answer to the first question – whether to end your marriage at all – then it’s probably a good time to do some soul searching. Enlist the support of a licensed mental health provider, a victim advocate, or a spiritual or religious advisor to help you determine the proper course of action.
If you don’t know the answer to the second question – what course of action to pursue once you DO decide to head towards divorce – we’re here, and happy to help. There are lots of things you probably should know about divorce, and it’s a good idea to start asking questions and getting the information you need to make good, informed decisions. Where to start? Request a free copy of our divorce book or custody book (or both!).
For more information, or to schedule an appointment with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.