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Getting a divorce recession-style.

IN 2001, The New York Tunes published an article called "As Economy Sours, Divorce Rate Rises." According to the piece, historical divorce rates rose whenever the economy was in trouble. During the recessions in the 1980s and 1990s, for instance, there was an increase in divorce related services on Long Island, N.Y. During the toughest years, some lawyers saw a jump of up to 50%. Even during normal times, money issues often lead to arguments. Predictably, when money becomes scarce, the fights intensify.

The current economic downturn, however, has not followed that trend. A recent survey of divorce attorneys by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that 37% said they noticed a significant drop in business. One of the reasons is that the economic issues facing couples in this recession do not involve only tightening belts and downscaling; they also revolve around housing. A fundamental part of getting divorced is dividing marital assets, including the house, which often is the largest asset a couple holds. However, when the mortgage exceeds the value of the house, the only thing left to divide is debt In fight of this reality, some couples decide to postpone divorce. They stay in the same house, but in different rooms.

Another deterrent to divorce is its high cost. The typical complaint about divorce that I see in my office is: how am I going to pay for everything? Like everything else in our country, from health care to a college education, divorce has become financially prohibitive. Worries about jobs, bills, housing, and such make people want to hold onto whatever they have. In the best of limes, divorce is painfully expensive. In this tough economy, it is downright frightening to think of all the money needed for attorneys, accountants, mediators, and psychologists.

Many divorce lawyers are paid $350 an hour or more; hours that are charged even when you are talking on the phone. Some couples decide to be self-represented or pro se, to save money. Counterintuitively, this may lead to an even more expensive process, particularly if one spouse has the upper hand in intimidating the other. Good representation often is a wise move because, in competent hands, it can keep the playing field level. As Cindy Harari, a Florida-based divorce mediator and attorney, points out, "There is not a lot of information available to lay people to clarify and demystify the legal process so they can be in charge of their own decisionmaking." Faced with the prospect of high expenses and anxiety, it is easier to make the decision to wait out the recession before embarking on a process that can separate a person not only from his or her spouse, but from savings.

A third reason couples decide to stay together is one that continues to be at the forefront of our domestic politics--health insurance. Oftentimes, one spouse will have health coverage through an employer. If the couple splits, the other spouse might have difficulty obtaining an affordable individual policy. It can be more practical to stay together until the health insurance issues get figured out.

So, what are the consequences for families that stay together who otherwise may have split up? Unless a couple decides to work on their marriage, the issues that led them to considering divorce will not just go away. The question is, how will each couple deal with the challenge of making a family work despite the stress? How well a couple deals with stress will determine the quality of their relationship and family life. Some relationships continue to deteriorate, making life increasingly unbearable for everyone in the family. Yet, others step up to the challenge of making the relationship work.

Sometimes, the relationship is so damaged that sharing the same space becomes deleterious. I often hear parents asking, "How can I live with someone who betrayed me?' or "How can I stay in the same house with someone whose very presence brings me pain?" Quite often, it is the children who bear the consequences. They are used as middlemen, shuffling messages between their parents without truly understanding what is going on. They are bystanders to ugly yelling matches, insults, and sometimes, even violence. If the parents start dating other people, the situation can become awkward for the kids as well as the adults.

Living in the same house with someone who you no longer wish to be married to is difficult, but children should not be the ones to bear the brunt of it. If economics become an obstacle to divorce, couples should choose a lifestyle that allows dignity in the family. I advise parents to keep their marital issues behind closed doors, and perhaps get a therapist who can teach them how to stop triggering each other. Dealing with the issues of raising kids should be done when both parents are calm. I also advise parents to postpone dating other people until things have been worked out at home and the children have adjusted. Parents also should decide who will take care of specific child care issues, such as preparing lunch for school, taking a child to the doctor, and so on, in order that the children continue to feel well taken care of.

On the other hand, other couples that were planning on getting divorced but are postponing it because of the economy find that this decision actually brings them closer. The Huffington Post published an article earlier this year about couples that found that their marriage was stronger since the economy weakened, and I have seen this in my practice as well. Although some people seek divorce because an abusive situation has become intolerable, for most, divorce is about dealing with being unhappy. They want something better, or they just cannot stand the emptiness of their marriage. Most parents love their children and they probably do not hate their spouse. In good times, leaving the marriage to find a better life is a realistic option. It is affordable and not disastrous for everyone involved.

However, during economic hardship, financial self-preservation may trump looking for a better love or a more fulfilling life. Now is not the lime to divorce, and both spouses are better off deciding to make the best of it. This decision can change the dynamic of a marriage. If two people who were having trouble getting along choose to put their differences aside, they might find that these conflicts were small in comparison to the things that they have in common. They may discover that they can work together well when they have to. One spouse or both may seek counseling to help with secondary issues that might have caused the marital problems, such as depression. Hardship can bring a shift in behavior, it can bond people, often surprisingly.

Yet, for many, staying together is just too hard, and they need other options that are less expensive and hurtful than being served papers. They still can work together, even if they decide to break apart. One of the alternative forms of breaking up is nesting, which had been viewed by judges and lawyers as ridiculous in the past. As Baltimore-based matrimonial attorney Michael Mastracci puts it, "The ridiculous has become the practical."

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Nesting is the practice of retaining the family residence as a home base for the children. Instead of shuffling the kids between two households, the way that traditional divorce and separations work, nesting encourages the shuffling of parents. This is psychologically beneficial for children, because it provides a steady environment. There are no transitions between homes, no worries about where they may have left their homework or retainer. Meanwhile, parents can take tams staying in the house to take care of the kids on a weekly basis. When not in the house, they can stay with a family member or in a small apartment. Nesting often is significantly more affordable than selling the house and buying two family-size homes.

The concerns for making nesting work are the same as in every relationship. Harari gives some advice: "The nesting process can work well if the parents are committed to it and able to communicate, as well as respect each other's private space in the home they once shared."

For those couples who decide to get divorced anyway, the economy actually has had some positive effects on the divorce process. Couples are looking carefully at the cost versus benefits of litigation. Although it takes only one person to force litigation, the high cost involved in the process often compels even a combative spouse to think twice. Alternate forms of divorce have increased in popularity. Some of these are early and more frequent divorce mediation; utilization of a certified divorce financial analyst/planner; employment of a parenting professional; and collaborative divorce. Smart parents end up using these resources because they want to get value for their buck, minimize the hostility, and divorce in a more child-friendly way.

Divorce mediation is grounded in self-determination. The divorcing spouses are the ones who make any decisions. This can be a helpful way to get advice when spouses decide to go pro se. It is very important, however, to find mediators that are experienced and familiar with family law in their particular state. It is imperative that parents do research before signing up with a divorce mediator. There can be a very high cost if the mediator fails to realize that he or she unwittingly is empowering a manipulative spouse. This can lead to an even more expensive divorce down the road.

A certified divorce financial analyst or planner can make the process a lot cleaner and economically viable. This individual planner does not represent either spouse but is considered a third party. This is to ensure objectivity and prevent any economic hiccup. It is important to understand that, during this emotional period, finances need to be treated dispassionately. This is what the analyst or planner can provide for a couple.

Parenting professionals are considered third parties as well. They try to assist parents in coming up with a plan to help the children adjust to the new way of life. In some states, the court appoints parenting professionals for couples. In states like Florida, courts require parents to take court-approved parenting courses. Either way, guidance in parenting is necessary as mom and dad consider how to raise healthy children despite their divorce.

Collaborative divorce requires spouses to sign a "participation agreement," which is a commitment to work out money and custody issues outside of court. Rim Pollak, a collaborative lawyer, explains, "For the most part, everyone who comes to me is primed to be successful and strives to be collaborative. The reputation of practitioners relies on it being so." While collaborative divorce can involve many professionals and thus be a little bit expensive, the fact that the spouses really want to collaborate keeps it from becoming a drawn-out process and keeps the costs tinder control.

The economy is affecting divorcing couples the way it is affecting everyone--encouraging frugality and collaboration. As Pollak points out, some parents opt for the cheaper day camp instead of sending their kids to sleep-away camp in the summer. Mastracci indicates that divorcing couples find ways to raise accountability and teamwork by dividing activity, expenses, and health care.

Perhaps the most important effect the economy has had on marriage and divorce is a rethinking of values. Having economic restraints sometimes leads us to choose what really is important--the successful parenting of our children.

Mark Banschick is a child and adolescent psychiatrist in full-time private practice in Katonah, N.Y.
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Title Annotation:Economics
Author:Banschick, Mark
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2011
Words:1932
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