Separation and divorce puts strain on us as people, and that strain magnifies our strengths, as well as our weaknesses.
One such area I see as a family lawyer is how people embrace the decision-making that goes with resolving financial issues after family breakdown – the myriad decisions, big and small, which must be made to get from separation, to the point of entry of a final financial ‘deal’.
We all make decisions in different ways, and I’ve seen all types. Some will immediately weigh options, and make a decision, from which they will not shift – the decision is made, they commit permanently to it, and they live with that decision without ever looking back. Others wax and wane, making a tentative decision, but then retreating from it, getting so tied up in knots that they become held back by what’s going around in their minds.
We’re all different, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you are struggling to make a decision about your divorce, you’re certainly not alone – high stress situations trigger the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism in our brains, and when we’re in ‘flight’ mode, our brains are wired, through millions of years of evolution, to do the bare minimum to remove ourselves from danger – shutting down the parts of our brains which helps in making complex decisions. So, don’t beat yourself up about it – indecision is really part of our physiology.
The important thing is deciding what type of decision maker you are, and how you can help yourself come to a decision. Why? Because if you become paralysed by indecision, it could hold you back in your divorce.
Decision making paralysis can have many impacts. It can see settlement opportunities missed – a good deal that passed you by because you could not make a decision about it. It can add time and legal costs to your case if decision-making is put off time and again. And, counter-intuitively, it can make decision making harder – as time goes by, settlement options can become fewer, making the decision harder (as, for example, you get closer to a Court hearing, or closer to some important event such as the sale of a property), forcing a decision on you when options are narrower. Importantly, it can mean that you are left with that ‘buyer’s remorse’ feeling, in the pit of your stomach, after you’ve signed on the dotted line.
If you find yourself making, but then retreating from, a decision, and being left with that hopeless ‘I don’t know what to do’ feeling, here’s what to do to get through the paralysis, and take control:-
- Embrace it. Short-term indecision is okay. You are feeling this way because it is an important decision, and you want to get it right. So give yourself a break, and instead focus on how you are going to get to a decision. Tell your family lawyer that you are struggling – they will be able to drill down to why you are feeling debilitated by decisions, and pinpoint what you need to be able to make a decision.
- Don’t look to others. I regularly hear – just tell me what to do! Ultimately, this is your decision. You can’t get your lawyer to make it for you, as that’s not their job (their job is to arm you with information, advising you about options, and the pros and cons of those options). And you can’t get your family members or friends to do the job for you either. For you to feel totally at peace with your decision, you, and you alone, will need to make it. After all, it’s your future at stake. So instead talk to your lawyer, and those around you, about how you are going to do that.
- Empower yourself. Ask yourself, what is holding you back from making a decision? Is it that you don’t have enough information? Is it that you don’t want to make the wrong decision? Is it that you don’t want to be taken advantage of? If you know what you need to make a decision, you, and your lawyer, can get to work on those things. For example, if it is that you do not know whether the settlement proposal you’ve received is a good one or bad one, your lawyer will be able to simulate the range of outcomes you might expect in court, so that you can compare. If you are unsure about the value of property X, then your lawyer can pull in an expert valuer to clarify that. If it is that you do not know how much income will be generated by investment Y, then a financial planner can help with modelling. Information is power, and building information around the deficits is to put you in a position where you can make a decision.
- Workshop, analyse, and refine. Accept that the right answer is not going to leap off the page. It will likely take some care and consideration. Accordingly, assemble all of the information you have. Make a list of the options (including the option of accepting a settlement proposal you have received from your former partner). Look at the advantages and disadvantages of each of those options (including how close it is to the advice your lawyer has given you about likely court outcomes; how much money you might save in legal costs; the benefit of having a settlement ‘today’ verses after a wait, etc). Project what life will be like today, and into the future, with each of those options. Your family lawyer will be able to help, including by introducing other experts (such as a financial planner). Your options will initially be a large list, but through this process, you will be able to whittle them down to a few which are attractive to you, and which achieve your goals. If one of those option is the settlement proposal you’ve received from your former partner, then, hey presto, you’ve made a decision! If not, you have created your own settlement proposal.
- Be open-minded. I always remember that saying ‘There are no ‘wrong’ answers, there are just answers with different consequences’. There can sometimes be a difference between theory and reality in legal situations. While, theoretically, the law might deliver a particular outcome, if you can be happy with a different outcome, then you’ve made your decision-making easier. While you can and should always use the law as a guide, it is okay to paint outside the lines, recognising that there can sometimes be a difference between what is ‘right’, and what is ‘right for you’. So don’t limit yourself – your decision might lie other than where you thought it would be.
If you complete this process, and repeat it as necessary, you will come to that ‘zen’ moment – you’ve considered your best case and worst case, you’ve weighed all the options, you feel at peace in pulling the trigger on a decision, and you are prepared to live with that decision without ever looking in the rear vision mirror.