The advice I always give people about divorce is this: don’t get it. The best divorce is the one you will never have, if you can avoid it.
I never wanted to become a divorce lawyer. In 2001, I worked in a small law firm with a partner who did “door law” – we handled any type of case that came to the door. A woman I represented in a personal injury case called one day and asked if I could help her with a divorce. I took the case, telling him that I would learn divorce law at my own expense.
She told her friends about it, and soon I had so many divorce cases that I decided to focus on just that. Over the next 20 years, I worked with about a thousand couples and consulted with thousands more. I learned everything about divorce, from dealing with complex financial issues to dealing with custody and child support.
By getting an insider’s perspective on marriages that don’t work, I also learned a lot about what makes marriages work – maybe a bit like a doctor who better understands how to stay healthy in caring for sick patients. Here are some of the most common problems I have encountered in my law practice.
This seems to be the simplest reason for a divorce: someone cheated.
But in my experience, infidelity is most often a symptom, not the disease. Aside from pathological cheaters who are there for the thrill of sneaking in, in my experience with clients, most people cheat on their spouse because intimacy is lacking in their relationship.
I have seen many reasons for cheating in my years as a divorce attorney. It could be that the couple have already fallen in love and the cheater finds a side relationship that gives them the intimacy they wanted. Some people use an affair as an escape route out of marriage; a way to end it without saying up front that this is what they wanted.
It could be a form of revenge for real or perceived neglect. Or just someone arrived at the wrong time.
I had a client who was very outdoorsy when she was younger. As her children grew up, she wanted to get back into biking, hiking and kayaking, but her husband was not interested. He just wanted to hang out at home and watch football.
Soon she learned that her neighbor also liked these active activities, and his wife also preferred to stay at home. After several months, the outdoor adventure partners turned into a romantic relationship, and both marriages went downhill from there.
Infidelity almost always demonstrates that marriages were already failing. In my client’s case, he and his spouse were not devoting time or energy to each other. Suddenly, one of them looked elsewhere for what he was missing.
I hear a lot of signs of this in client consultations: “There’s no romance” or “She doesn’t care about me anymore.” Couples break up and fall in love. The specific reasons for this vary from couple to couple, but I’ve noticed that the underlying issue remains the same. The couple didn’t spend enough time on each other.
Being married is work. There are homes to buy and renovate, there may be children to raise, careers to build, and it’s easy to take yourself for granted. But when couples don’t make an effort to maintain their relationship, it can suffer.
I represented a man in a divorce case who got married young. When his wife’s career started to take off, they decided he would stay home and be the primary caregiver for their children. Over the years, the wife spent her time working, including traveling around the world for her job. As the children grew, the husband was absorbed in them and his hobbies, while she remained focused on her career. When their eldest started college, there simply wasn’t enough substance or connection in their marriage.
When you’re dating, you might notice minor differences in how you approach certain topics, like money. Maybe one of you likes to wear more expensive clothes or take exotic vacations far away. You may have religious or political differences. These can seem insignificant when you are in the first flushes of love and, sometimes, it stays that way.
But in my experience of working with divorcing couples, after marriage those differences in values can start to develop. I had a client who was a successful businessman in his early 50s. He worked hard for nearly 30 years, invested wisely, and built a seven-figure net worth. But after a cancer scare, he realized he didn’t want to work so much anymore.
He wanted to go out and have adventures, travel, surf and live his life, while he was still young enough to enjoy it, and he wanted to enjoy that time with his wife. but unfortunately, she was not interested in this lifestyle and they could not overcome these differences.
I have also seen cases where married couples had children, which brought family differences to the forefront of the relationship. Some couples I’ve worked with have gone through tough times financially, and their different opinions on saving have become divisive. Sometimes, the simple fact of getting older can cause these values to change and become decisive factors within a marriage.
I have seen mental health issues affect not only the person who suffers from them, but also their spouse, which may lead them to see a divorce lawyer like me.
In some cases, people whose spouses have depression, bipolar disorder or more serious mental health issues may decide they just don’t want to deal with them anymore – I often see this happen in situations where they feel that their partner does not take enough responsibility for their own problems.
I have also seen cases involving a spouse with what appears to be narcissistic or borderline personality disorder, usually undiagnosed by a doctor, but evident in their behavior and treatment of their partner.
In one case, I worked with a woman whose husband had been verbally abusive for years; insulting his wife, demonizing his family and controlling the family finances with an iron fist. While outwardly it looked like they had a perfect marriage, his behavior when they were alone drove her to the point where she just couldn’t take it anymore.
Unfortunately, the same behavior that led to the end of the marriage continued in the divorce case itself, with the husband attempting to use the litigation to destroy his wife. In this case, I was able to work with her to successfully negotiate a settlement and cut the unnecessary drama short.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking reason for a divorce is addiction. In things like drugs and alcohol, I’ve seen cases where a spouse supported me for years, but eventually reached their own breaking point. I’ve also worked with clients whose spouses have had addictions that may be seen as less impactful, such as gambling, but are just as damaging to the marriage.
I had a client in her late 50s whose wife had exhausted all of her retirement savings going to area casinos to play high limit slots. He loved his wife deeply, which made him allow her behavior, and it was long out of control when he came to talk to me. He tried to work with her, but he had already exhausted his retirement funds and saw no way to stop her. He was afraid of being left with nothing.
I have personally seen more so-called “gray divorces” in recent years; those involving older couples. I believe they are usually the result of cumulative damage, whether it is neglect, lack of attention, or the negative impact of mental illness or addiction. Ongoing challenges in marriage become unbearable after a while. And, when people start to wonder how they want to spend the last years of their life, they are no longer willing to put up with it.
Many divorces are the collective result of years of action and inaction and were triggered years earlier by decisions made by couples, both about their relationship and their own issues.
In the end, that’s my advice in a nutshell. If you want to avoid ending up in my office down the street, it can be helpful to take advantage of the many resources available for couples. For example, marriage counseling is a way of trying to resolve differences quickly and can help prevent resentment from building up. It can really help to start working on your marriage as soon as possible. Spend time together and have adventures together.
Raiford Dalton Palmer is the author of the new Amazon bestseller “I just want it done.” He is also managing shareholder of STG Divorce Law in Chicago, where he focuses on family law, including complex cases, particularly high net worth divorces.
All opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.