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What to Expect When You Are Expecting a Divorce

Expect Hell—and your every expectation will be met.

Although divorce is epidemic, parents do not know what to expect when they expect a divorce. Mothers expect their lawyers to function as emotional confidantes and feel betrayed when that is not the case. Fathers are more business-like in their approach. If custody is at issue, mothers tend to be blinded by anxiety and outrage so that they do not think clearly, strategically, or flexibly. They feel their back is to the wall and that compromise is not possible.

One cannot compromise with a violent husband, an abusive father, or with a man who is intentionally impoverishing his family. And yet one must also understand the rules of the legal system and abide by them.

As a service to mothers, I interviewed Susan L. Bender, a leading Manhattan matrimonial lawyer. Here is what a mother needs to know before she engages a lawyer.

Even if the mother is in emotional free fall, she must become a hard-headed pragmatist. A women expects her husband to be her protector not her most dangerous enemy. But when war erupts, many women do not know how to fight to win. 

For example, Bender said:

“I have a case where my client discovered her husband removed her jewelry, her memorabilia, the children’s baby pictures and her grandmother’s wedding band. Without her knowledge he cancelled her credit cards so when she went to the gas station to fill up her car her credit card was declined. He even cancelled her credit at the local grocery store without telling her. Of course, the computer was wiped clean and there was not a single bill in the house. She didn’t even have the cab money to come to my office.”

A mother must learn everything about her family’s finances. According to Bender:

“Many women do not have an understanding of what the family expenses are, don’t know where the checkbook is, whether the bills are paid online, etc. They do not understand their health insurance coverage, tax returns, or investments. They are often shocked when their husbands block access to credit cards and bank accounts.”

Bender is talking about young, educated, and professional women, not just about older, traditional mothers. Bender describes a client who, even though she herself has an MBA from the Wharton School of Business:

“Naively depended on her husband to manage the family expenses. She never questioned him. She never looked at a credit card or bank statement, never questioned the expenses and was shocked to learn that her husband was a gambler and the family was living on credit. When she came to me, the co-op apartment was in foreclosure and the IRS had liens on their accounts. “

Next, according to Bender, a woman must educate herself about the law so that her expectations are realistic. She needs to know that her case “could take years; there is no instant justice” and that “her attorney cannot right any of the wrongs she suffered during her marriage.” For example, a woman may have fulfilled her maternal and wifely obligations full-time and for decades, after which her wealthy husband may leave and impoverish her. She may not be able to continue living at the same level. As Bender says: “What she wants and what she needs will be very different from what the law is going to provide to her. So she has to pay an attorney to get the best that the law can provide, knowing in advance that it won’t be enough.”

Third, a woman must make her peace with the fact that lawyers expect to be paid. This is often hard for a woman whose life has just been unjustly and dangerously upended. More, a woman must accept that she will have to pay top dollar for a time-consuming and torturous process that will, at best, deliver “imperfect justice.” She must downscale her expectations both of the law and of her lawyer. According to Bender: “Her attorney can only help her resolve the dissolution of her marriage and resolve the financial and custodial issues in her case."

Finally, mothers who have been traumatized and betrayed, must understand that lawyers and judges are not necessarily conspiring against her. While lawyers and judges belong to the same professional associations and attend or co-present at the same educational seminars, this does not mean that they are corrupt. While they—and courtroom experts-- may be biased, they do not usually cut “dirty deals.” Bender, who is valued as both honest and ethical states:

“Most of us know the boundaries of our relationships and very few of us violate those boundaries.”

Phyllis Chesler, Ph.D. is a psychologist and writes frequently for Fox News.com. This is based on an excerpt from an interview which appears in the 25th anniversary edition of her book "Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody," which features eight new chapters and a new resources section.

Phyllis Chesler, Ph.D is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum, the author of thousands of articles and of fifteen books, including "Women and Madness," and "An American Bride in Kabul." She archives her articles and may be reached through her website: www.phyllis-chesler.com