The Divorce Survival Guide

Your marriage is over. From legal maneuvering to social interaction, here are the new rules of disengagement.

Last year, Rob, a stock trader, stood in his office, pounding his telephone to bits with the receiver. He’d just been served papers from his wife’s lawyer demanding a list of every time he’d asked his wife for sex over the past two years and whether, on those occasions, he’d been able to perform. Although he was angry, Rob’s main emotion was shock: He and his wife, Becca, both 38 (their names have been changed), had shared a decade, three kids, and a move to the suburbs together. But when Becca, a homemaker, grew disenchanted and asked for a separation, Rob tried to call her bluff by filing for divorce—citing the fact that she had stopped sleeping with him.

That’s when Becca’s lawyer served him with the papers asking about their love life. Rob had no idea how damn ugly things would get, or how damn fast. “I thought we were going through a tough patch,“ Rob says. “Then, suddenly, the divorce was a reality.“

Think things are fine at home? Well, maybe they are, or maybe you just don’t see that your marriage is hurtling toward disaster. By now you’re familiar with the sad statistics: Almost 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce, and the average marriage lasts eight years—and since most guys marry in their late twenties, that makes the years from 35 to 40 the divorce sweet spot. What you might not know is that studies show two thirds of divorces are now initiated by wives, and increasingly, husbands are being caught unawares. “Women today are more calculating,“ says Steve Mandel, a high-profile New York divorce lawyer. “While the men are hiding their heads in the sand, the women are many steps ahead.“

Divorces, according to the experts, are the culminations of serial bad choices, lingering unhappiness, and lack of mutual understanding. Even seemingly sudden events, like a night of cheating or a savage fight, are usually just final acts in a long drama.

But being blind to what’s going on in your marriage can cost you, emotionally and financially. The system might not be biased against men exactly, but most people in the divorce racket agree that the system is biased against breadwinners. If you’re male and earn the money in your family, chances are divorce will leave you living apart from your kids and financially screwed. “And you’ll pay your wife’s attorney as well,“ says Laura Allison Wasser, an L.A. divorce lawyer whose clients include Stevie Wonder. “That’s one check you hate writing.“

This doesn’t mean all divorces play out like The War of the Roses. But, even at its best, divorce is a nasty business, and before you get into it you need to know what to expect. Take it from Rob. “I should have educated myself earlier about all of this,“ he says. “And I should have taken charge of it sooner.“

Today, dissolving a marriage no longer carries much social stigma. In other words, getting a divorce doesn’t seem like the end of the world. Liam, 42, and Maggie, 39, (not their real names) were high-school sweethearts, and were happily married and living in New York for years before Liam began to have doubts about the relationship. It wasn’t anything specific, he says, just a nagging feeling they’d drifted apart. Liam’s dissatisfaction led to Maggie’s becoming defensive. Several years ago, they separated and began proceedings. “You know what?“ Liam says. “I still don’t know if we should have gotten divorced.“

Barring cheating, addiction, or abuse, experts say the key to assessing a marriage’s health is intimacy. When the talking, the touching, and the sex go, the union is in trouble. “Look for whether one or both of the spouses have pulled back,“ says Marsha Kline Pruett, a psychologist. “Once that process starts, it can be hard to stop.“

It varies from state to state, but most divorces take less than a year, and even complex ones rarely go more than two years. During this time, the couple can decide to separate physically, or they might continue to occupy the same home and separate on paper. But take note: It’s important not to move out before the separation is legal—that can be construed as “abandoning the family home“ and can hurt your chances of getting custody of your kids. Bear in mind that during this period you’re still married and your behavior can have a big effect on whether your divorce goes smoothly.

Lawyers say that the most common mistake men make is acting like, well, men. About the worst thing you can do is go into dick-swinging aggressive mode. Divorce isn’t the NFL—you don’t win by destroying your enemy. You win by coming through with your relationship with your kids, your bank account, and your sanity intact. Hard as it may be, that means staying close with your wife. Don’t hide money. Don’t cancel credit cards. Don’t get lawyered up with an L.A. Law, Arnie Becker type who likes to talk volubly about how he’s going to clean your wife’s clock. Above all, don’t spread rumors about your spouse or get into a war over friends or children.

“I tell every client, ‘You need to deal with your spouse as though she were your boss,’“ says Jim Hennenhoefer, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. “‘Keep her on your side, or it’s going to cost you.’“ Hennenhoefer once had a wealthy client whose wife cheated on him. The unfaithful wife was willing to settle quickly and cleanly for $2 million. During the divorce proceedings, however, the husband got angry when he saw his ex, and insulted her. That’s when the wife decided to play hardball and took her husband for $29 million including lawyers’ fees.

This highlights another mistake men make in divorces that are initiated by their wives: expecting the process to punish their exes. The division of assets and determination of alimony in divorce are not decided according to who behaved badly.

“Family court is not a damage court,“ Hennenhoefer says. “There are always wrongs in a divorce, but the system does not compensate you for that.“ Of course, this cuts both ways. If you feel bad about the way you behaved during your marriage, there’s no reason to use the settlement as a form of penance.

Financially, at least, divorce is not nearly as dramatic as most people think. The truth is, even without a prenuptial agreement, there isn’t much in a division that’s open to dispute. In some states the couple’s possessions are divided in half, but most states apply a legal notion called “equitable distribution,“ which weighs various factors, including the earning power of each party. This can get complicated if you fail to settle amicably, and take things to court.

The good news for men is that with more women working, there’s less of an expectation for an ex-husband to pay his ex-wife alimony for the rest of her life or even bear the full burden of child support. And men can also count on equal footing with women with regard to child custody. Wasser says she even got custody recently for a father of three whose new girlfriend was a porn actress. The bad news is the same as it’s been since before the gender wars: If the man is the primary earner, he’s going to have to stay on the work treadmill to pay child support that will allow his family to maintain the lifestyle they had before the divorce. “How do you spend lots of time with your kids,“ Wasser says, “when you are working to pay for everything?“

There’s no easy answer. But it’s worth noting that Rob and Liam are happier now that they’re living apart from their former wives. And they’ve both found new love interests (something studies show men do faster and more easily than women) and are enjoying post-split life. But they agree the divorce itself was much worse than they expected, mostly because they didn’t know what was coming. Rob sums it up this way: “I’m kicked out of my house. I no longer live with my kids. And I have to pay for it.“

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