When you get married, you generally assume that you won't get divorced. You start making decisions with lasting consequences, without much regard for the big, scary "what if." The biggest of these decisions, of course, is parenthood. But other decisions can also have important lasting effects that need to be addressed during divorce: for example, the decision to have a single-income household. Thus, divorcing couples must find a way to turn a shared life into separate lives. In doing so, every divorcing couple needs to answer two important questions:
1. What Will Our Family Look Like After the Divorce?
This question is most relevant to couples with children, but not exclusively. When you live under the same roof, responsibilities and parenting roles develop over time, either organically or through deliberate delegation between the spouses. Those responsibilities and roles do not lend themselves as well to parents living in separate homes. Daily routines on which you frequently relied are simply no longer feasible -- for example, it is no longer possible for one parent to clean up the living room or do the dishes while the other puts the children to bed -- and you no longer have the advantage of daily impromptu discussions about your childrens' health, education, or wellbeing.
So, during a divorce, couples with children need to figure out how they will allocate parental decisionmaking responsibility, and how they will structure their parenting schedule. These are complicated questions that can cut to the core of the underlying reason for the divorce, but they are also questions that cannot be avoided. If they are not resolved mutually, with an eye toward sustainability, the couple could find themselves butting heads over and over again on parenting issues. This is just as true for court-ordered custody arrangements and parenting plans, which will almost certainly fail to address important concerns that the couple could have identified if they had been working together. As much as a divorcing couple might want to, they simply cannot ignore the parenting question or delegate responsibility for the decision to somebody without a vested interest in their family.
Whether or not a couple has children, other types of family-related issues could also come into play. There might be beloved pets involved, for example, or questions about how to handle mutual friends. The couple might want to maintain contact with members of each other's extended families, or conversely might want to avoid running into each other (or each other's families) at mutual vacation destinations. For some couples, it might simply be a matter of deciding, "Will we ever see each other again?" Particularly for longer-term marriages, it is nearly impossible to turn a shared life into two separate lives without having to address concerns that fall under the category of 'family.'
2. What Will Our Finances Look Like After the Divorce?
For many people, divorce is the single largest financial transaction of their lives. Big ticket items such as a house, retirement plans, and savings must be valued and allocated between the divorcing spouses. There might also be joint bank accounts, collectibles, and other property to be considered. The less money a couple spends on divorce, the more there is left to be allocated between them.
Aside from property division, there could be lasting financial considerations also. If there are unemancipated children involved, one of the spouses might be required to pay child support. In some cases, if one spouse does not work or earns significantly less, the couple will need to discuss the possibility of spousal support (i.e., the dreaded "A" word, alimony), if only for a short period of time. Couples with children will also want to think about college expenses, medical coverage, and more. It is far better to address these issues clearly, at the time of separation, than attempt to raise them many years down the road when circumstances have changed.
Depending on your particular situation, these questions can be more or less complicated to answer, but you will need to answer them, whether you engage in divorce mediation, collaborative divorce, or take a more adversarial approach. What will your family look like after divorce, and what will your finances look like after divorce? It's up to you.