One question I am often asked is when a spouse should discuss his or her intention to divorce with the other spouse.  My response is usually that “it depends.” 

It is important for couples to try to cooperate during and after the divorce process, especially if they have children.  My experience is that most couples can do this.  Divorce is always an unpleasant experience.  If spouses can cooperate before, during and after the process, everyone will benefit.

If you can sit down with your spouse and discuss in general terms your expectations regarding the divorce, this is good.  You should not reach a complete agreement without consulting with an attorney however, because an unknowledgable spouse can make concessions that he or she would not have to make.  You cannot bargain fairly and effectively for your rights if you do not know what they are.

The law relating to divorce and the division of assets and debts is complex.  There are nuances to dividing property, retirement, and importantly, debts that most non-lawyers do not know.  Before reaching a final agreement, even if it is a “rough draft” agreement, you should talk with an attorney.  Its hard to negotiate for changes to an agreement once you have told a spouse that you will agree to something.

Generally, I tell people that it is okay to discuss a divorce with a spouse after they have consulted with an attorney an have an idea of what their rights are.  However, there are marriages in which couples cannot communicate fairly or effectively.  Often in these kinds of marriages, one should consider starting the formal divorce proceeding first and then discuss the outcome one would like to see.

There are marriages in which one spouse has a narcissistic personality disorder and, no matter what, insists on having his or her way.  There are marriages in which one spouse is a bully.  There are marriages in which one spouse is the victim of domestic abuse.  In these instances, talking beforehand about your expectations is seldom helpful and usually leads to conflict.  The conflict can be better managed if you are working with an attorney.

I am going to write about domestic abuse in greater detail in a future blog entry.  For now, I will just say that if you have been the victim of domestic abuse, you should seek the help of an attorney or other professional.  If your spouse strikes you or threatens to strike you, you should call 911 immediately.  You should also apply for a Domestic Abuse Order for Protection in the district court for the county where you live.

Domestic abuse includes actual physical violence, but it also includes assault (where no contact occurs) and threats of violence.  Sometimes people have difficulty admitting to themselves that their spouse is a domestic abuser.  But, violence is a crime, and one does not get a free pass just because he is married to the person he commits violence against.  More on this subject later.