#1390: My wife wants a divorce but I don’t want to go to court.

Dear Captain Awkward,

My wife of almost 10 years blindsided me last month with divorce papers, moved out of the house and has barely communicated with me since. We own a small business together which brought some tension to the marriage but I never suspected that she was considering a divorce. This of course made the holidays very awkward and stressful, and now I’m dreading the reality of going to court. We don’t have any children and thankfully signed a prenup, but I’m still trying to weigh my options and hope to come to some sort of resolution with her. I’ve suggested working with a collaborative divorce lawyer who can help us reach an agreement that works for the both of us but she doesn’t seem too interested. Would you recommend that we see a counselor or mediator or other divorce specialist? Is this something we can work out together?

Friend, I think you most likely need a divorce lawyer, and more importantly, you and your wife both need your own divorce lawyers. What’s available is really down to your location, so search for “divorce” or “family law” attorneys where you live. Discreetly ask around to divorced friends or relatives. If you know a lawyer friend or have worked with someone you like and trust for business matters, ask that person for a referral to someone they know who handles divorces. If all else fails, call your local bar association for some names. Initial consultations to discuss the case and determine fit are usually free, and you could ask any lawyers you speak with about options like mediation vs. collaborative divorce (which still requires 1 lawyer per person).

If your wife has already given you contact information for her lawyer and asked you to direct all questions there, then your next step is clear: Have your lawyer call her lawyer.

Otherwise, ask your wife how she would prefer to handle communications and all the legal, financial, and logistical processes to make the divorce as seamless as possible. This was her idea, so what is her plan? If during your research you come across a well-reviewed mediator or collaborative attorneys that you think would make it work, you could make a specific recommendation to your wife vs. asking her about it as a general concept (and hoping she’ll pick up the ball.) “I would really like to try mediation, and ______ person comes highly recommended. Shall I make an appointment?”  But this is one of those “it takes two yeses and only one no” situations, so if your wife says no, it’s lawyer time.

You have a prenup, you have no children, and your wife has already sent you divorce papers, so maybe you’re wondering why I keep saying you need a lawyer. What is left to work out? And that’s precisely the question: What is left to work out? Why do you fear that going to court will be more than a quick formality where you both tell a judge “I don’t” and sign some papers? What is stopping you from signing the papers she sent and returning them already? Possible snags that come to mind:

  • Something in her proposed agreement doesn’t work for you, or the agreement is incomplete as it stands, and more negotiation is needed. A lawyer can help hash out the details!
  • Something embarrassing is going on (such as accusations of abuse/control, financial mismanagement, infidelity on either side) and you’d like to avoid discussing that on the record in court.You know who would know what to do to minimize fallout? A divorce lawyer, that’s who.
  • Seems like your wife has been thinking about this and planning for a while, whereas you’ve been “blindsided.” She hired someone to draw up those papers, why not hire someone to at least read them over before you sign? Someone who isn’t swirling in a maelstrom of feelings, someone whose literal job it is to take a breath, walk you through the process, and keep your best interests in mind.
  • Because you own a business together, more due diligence is needed to ensure that marital finances and business finances are fair, separate, transparent, and squeaky clean. Hiring a lawyer is the smart business move.
  • You. Operate. A. Business. Together. Most of what you assumed about how your life worked turned out to be incorrect, and assumptions are very bad for business. At minimum, you’re going to want to review every single written agreement that pertains to the business ownership, governance, management structure, financial control, and conditions for buying each other out or dissolving the thing. A lawyer can make sure that everyone involved in the business is maximally protected and that all assumptions are spelled out in writing.

You mentioned counseling, and I think that individual counseling, for you, is a wonderful idea. Give yourself the gift of a safe, supportive, structured environment for processing all the painful and messy parts of this and for taking the very best care of yourself. Sometimes just knowing that there’s one hour a week where you can ugly-cry and nobody will judge you for it can help you keep yourself together the rest of the time.

As for joint counseling, couples’ counseling, marital counseling, etc., no, I don’t think so. That ship sailed sometime in 2022 and I doubt it’s coming back this way again. Because you’re still in shock, I think you’re living in the liminal space called “If I could just get her to talk to me, maybe things would be okay.” You’d understand what happened. You’d work things out together. If you could just get her into a room, on the phone, by your side to sort things out, maybe you could still be a team, one last time.

This mix of anguish and hope that there’s some secret, overlooked solution is completely understandable, it’s just the most relatable, primal, human thing, and you have my sympathies. But it’s just not happening. I’ve never met your wife, but even I can tell that she is extremely done talking. That lady does not want to walk you through her thought process or her plans, and she does not seem particularly curious about yours. If she were, she’d have dragged you to counseling long ago. She didn’t. She has decided. She doesn’t live here anymore. She’s already gone.

When someone leaves you, sometimes the most loving thing you can do is believe them, let them go, and begin the hard work of taking care of yourself. Your best chance of getting through this in a way that “works for everyone” is to let some people who know what they’re doing help you through it.