Each couple develops their own set of roles within their relationship, particularly in a long-term marriage. A dynamic that worked well for spouses while they were an intact couple, however, may become a real obstacle if the marriage breaks up.
An example of this I often see when a long-term marriage ends in divorce is one spouse’s need to remain dependent and “vulnerable” and the other spouse’s desire to be accommodating and protective. Such a dynamic frequently results in mutually dysfunctional dependency that diminishes both parties’ ability to reach closure, settle their issues in a constructive and cost-effective way, and best position themselves for the future.
For instance, as the separating couple tries to work out their post-divorce finances, the dependent spouse is often adamant about being able to maintain the exact same standard of living as during the marriage, despite the fact that the cost of maintaining two households will always be higher and require both parties to make adjustments. The dependent spouse is also insistent that it is the other spouse who is responsible for ensuring his or her continued lifestyle after divorce.
Some of the feelings of the dependent spouse that make the divorce more emotional and potentially contentious include a feeling of betrayal, anger at the other spouse and their attorney, and profound fear of the changes ahead.
The protective spouse, who was used to being the problem solver in the marriage, then tries to accommodate what may be the dependent spouse’s unrealistic or unreasonable demands. The protective spouse is often reluctant to provide an honest reality check for the other party and has difficulty recognizing their own enabling behavior. In such a situation, the protective spouse is more worried about “keeping the peace” with the dependent spouse than focusing on his or her own goals and interests.
A key objective of each spouse in this type of situation is to find the best attorney who will help them achieve a positive result in the divorce. The dependent spouse will need an attorney who understands the fear of uncertainty posed by life after divorce and will empower the client to take control of their finances and plan for the future. The dependent spouse should steer clear of the attorney who professes to know what’s best for the client and promises to take care of the client – this is just trading one dependency dynamic for another, leaving the client without new skills once the divorce is over.
The protective spouse, by contrast, needs an attorney who will help him or her establish appropriate boundaries and develop the ability to focus on their own interests while being discerning about what to agree to.
Patience is going to be important for both parties because it will take time for them to move beyond their mutual dependency roles. The dependent spouse must adjust to the new reality and independently plan for their future, while the protective spouse ought to shift from taking care of the other spouse to identifying and pursuing their own interests in divorce negotiations.
In my practice I have seen spouses who were deeply entrenched in their marital roles make successful transitions to a new and healthy dynamic. Choosing wise and perceptive counsel for each personality type is an important step in enabling the spouses to break the cycle of dysfunctionality and move forward independently.