It seems like an oxymoron – a lawyer asking their client whether they really need their services – but any family lawyer will tell you that we regularly meet people who, when introducing themselves for the first time, hasten to explain that they are “not actually separated yet”.
Those people have thought seriously about separation, and want some guidance about what will happen if they do decide to go on and end their relationship. But often their spouse does not even know that separation is on their mind, let alone that they are seeing a lawyer. In fact, the other party in that relationship may have no inkling at all that such doubts about the relationship have crept into the mind of the person now sitting across from a family lawyer.
While it is my job to answer those people’s questions, they are at the fork in what is a very important road for them. The first question out of any family lawyers’ mouth will therefore be – before you do this, is there anything that can be done to salvage your relationship?
While you should of course inform yourself about the law pertaining to divorce and separation if you feel you need that information to make such important life decisions, be sure to ask your family lawyer about the following:-
- Where can we get help? Family lawyers regularly work with counsellors, family therapists and other professionals. They will be able to refer you for expert assistance. That assistance might take a number of forms – some private counselling for you to isolate what is making you unhappy about your relationship and whether there is scope for change, and a separate therapist for you both to work on your relationship. There are really no ‘wrong’ answers, and referrals can be made based on what you think will work for you, and your partner. Importantly, that starts a dialogue about the things that have driven you to consider separation in the first place. If it is mutually resolved that there is room to work on relationship issues, then the experts you have been sent to will be able to help with that on an ongoing basis;
- Will a Financial Agreement help? I regularly hear from clients thinking about separating that money is a big issue in their relationship. Often that is due to a wealth imbalance – one party having more wealth than the other, often seen in second relationships, cases involving inheritances received by one party, and in cases where third parties (such as adult children from prior relationships) are involved. It can be seen in cases where one spouse insists upon assets being held in their sole name, leaving the other party feeling vulnerable and uncertain if the relationship were to ever fail. Sometimes it is because of a dynamic of financial ‘control’ – one party requiring the other to live under their terms. Whatever the issue at large, a Financial Agreement (often referred to as a ‘pre-nup’) can help take away the anxiety felt about them. That is achieved by the Agreement providing what is to occur, financially, if separation did ever become a reality, and about financial arrangements during the relationship. That clarity can help on a number of levels – it provides as much certainty about future finances as is possible under our law, and in that way, can take the subject of ‘money’ off the table.
- How can I hope for the best, but plan for the worst – Sometimes, to be able to focus on reconciliation, you first need to have a strategy in place to deal with any separation. In other words, you need to have the worst case scenario covered, before you look at any other options. Family lawyers can help with that. They can talk to you about practical things if separation were to ever become a reality, such as post-separation living arrangements, parenting arrangements, access to funds, preserving assets, and important documents to gather and put aside. Knowing what you will do if the worst happens, and that your interests are protected in the meantime, can be liberating. It may be that such things never become relevant, but to have an approach to them clear in your mind will neutralise your fears, and free you to commit entirely to relationship repair.
Having these questions answered, in your unique situation, can help you – I know this because I regularly hear back from clients saying that they have worked on their relationship, that it has been for the best, and that separation has been avoided.
If you find yourself sitting across the table from a family lawyer, not knowing whether you really want to close the book on your relationship, use the process above to get to the bottom of whether separation is what you really want before making that decision. Your family lawyer will help you with those things, and if, after giving it your all, it does not work out, then they will be there to help guide you through the next steps too.