Divorce & Separation: The Five Big Mistakes


Director James Pirrie of Family Law in Partnership outlines the top five mistakes to avoid if you are considering a divorce or separation. 

I have been working with separating couples for well over thirty years.

Some couples divorce and separate really well. This may be more luck than judgment. But I think it is also about getting the basics right. The successful ones are able to focus on what really matters – reaching sensible agreements in a cost effective manner and in realistic timescales. They then move on with their lives, with everyone’s dignity intact.

For others the process is long, hard, intrusive and expensive – and children are often caught in the cross-fire.

There are many ways to get it wrong. But here are what I have identified as the top five mistakes to avoid when you are contemplating a divorce or separation:

Just get out

Some relationships simply run their course and come to a natural end. Ideally each partner comes to that place at around the same time – but that is not the norm: usually someone is ahead and perhaps taking a lead in the separation.  If that is you, then take care in how you manage it. Because what you do next is sure to have a profound and lasting effect on how things unroll when the separation finally happens, notably:

  • How your former partner sees you;
  • How they talk about you to friends and family;
  • How they perceive your ability to parent your children (and how much freedom they are willing to give you in that parenting arrangement); and
  • The communication between you and the ease of having discussions and reaching agreements. This is much more than the immediate decisions around home, children, savings, divorce but also way into the future and the discussions about children’s choices and how you are involved in the major events in their lives (graduations/weddings/grandchildren etc).

But pause and draw breath; think about how it is for your partner and hunt down the resources to make sure that you manage this stage well.


Another way of getting things in a hopelessly bad place is to keep “putting off the evil day”.

If you know you need to end the relationship, then get on with it. My experience is that by and large children do not benefit from having their parents “stay together for their sake”.  When the relationship that the children see is an unhappy one, this is the model for the relationships that they themselves will have in later life. While you hang on, resentments are likely to build and problems become more impacted and harder to sort.

I am not advocating jumping today – I am saying that if you know that there is no way back then start planning your dignified and respectful separation and do it soon. And don’t plan for too long – many poor separations start with an argument when the plan to leave leaks out – another of the really poor first steps to take on this journey.

Assume it wipes the slate clean so you can start over

Mistake number three sees quite intelligent people thinking that separating will take them back to some earlier chapter in their lives so that they can re-run and do it differently this time.

Sorry. Things are going to be more complicated than they were:

  • You will be poorer than you were (but the money that you have will be all yours);
  • Parenting children across two homes is never an easy task (though as you are more able to be yourself, you may have better relationships with them);
  • Friends and family will all have views (some of them unexpected and some quite unfair);
  • You are a bit older, already busy – but now you are going to face the management of myriad things to get all of this sorted. It will be hard work and you are probably going to face having to make bigger concessions that you would assume would be remotely appropriate to get to an agreement.

So start out on this road with realism about where it is leading.

Go it alone unless things come properly off the rails

Lawyers are expensive and, anyway, where on earth would you start to look for one? An enticing option is see if you can sort things out solo (and leave the lawyer bit till later).

The thing is that the financial deal that you make has to be approved by the legal system to bind you both. Far too many people spend an age around the kitchen table telling each other what would be fair until one or other is beaten down into an agreement or each agrees that any agreement is quite impossible. It is all pretty pointless … at some point the conversation will have to be taken to the legal system when all the hard-won points are re-examined and all the concessions come back up to be reconsidered.

You would do far better to get advice and guidance on the system at the start. You can then get help on how to reach agreements that stick and use the early-stage energy and willingness to make progress within a system (for example, mediation) that is capable of delivering a conclusion that the legal system will adopt.

Otherwise you are quite likely to find yourself putting the finishing touches to a building that someone is going to tell you has to be knocked down and positioned somewhere else entirely to a very different design.

Get everyone involved

This strategy can cause you damage in up to three ways (and usually all of them):

    1. It is unfair to your kids;
    2. It will cause you grief down the road; and
    3. It may result in you not getting the support you DO need.

Your children (of whatever age) will have a whole lot of transitioning to do just making sense of your separation. You really need to avoid pulling them into the to-and-fro between the grown ups too.

We are social animals, hard-wired to share with our friends and family details of the hurt done to us … but this comes with a significant downside in situations of divorce and separation in the modern world. Having played out your story to family and friends, they are now invested in what happens next. The comfort and support that you may have gained over the early stages is very likely to shift to being a burden later on when everyone has their view on what you are doing and how you are progressing the situation. They will feel entitled to share it with you.  Friends and family will be well-intentioned but they will not be as well-informed and they are not the ones who will be living your future. Further, your children will need the overarching umbrella of friends and family intact as they go forward with their lives: a split and polarised context is really not going to help them.

Finally, by having friends and family around, you are likely to by-pass the help you really do need.

These will be tough times. You are likely to be engaging in a system that is enraging while negotiating with a former partner whose reactions you may quickly come to find unrecognisable and unpredictable.

There are professionals who provide support all day and every day to those going through divorce and separation. It is complex work and the value of helping you to make sense of the challenges you face is priceless (as well as saving a shedload in legal costs). This is not the stuff of deep analysis: it is short-term and pragmatic, perhaps no more than providing insights as to what your former partner is going through or what your children are experiencing enabling you to better manage how you deal with the situations you are encountering.

Get recommendations from those who have had successful therapeutic input or speak to your GP or your lawyer. Wait until you have found the face that fits (but don’t give up just because you haven’t found them yet).

Best (and rarest) of all is someone who will connect up with your lawyer and help the lawyer to manage progress in your case bearing in mind the counsellor’s insights too.

Pulling the strands together

Don’t waste the opportunities you have to do this well. The consequences of doing it badly can be large and long-lasting.

We take what appear to be short-cuts in life because we can’t see far enough along the path to recognise the consequences. For example:

  • The shortcut to ending a relationship may lead to long fights around parenting arrangements or the long march to court;
  • The shortcut to avoid legal costs or that strange unknown world of counselling may seem sensible until we find ourselves surrounded by failed discussions with the nightmare of more serious conflict drawing in.

This is why you need help to better understand the consequences of the choices you have.

At Family Law in Partnership we understand your worries and offer you expert advice and support:

  • We have lawyers and in-house counsellors available to talk through your situation and help you plan the early stages and anticipate what the future might hold;
  • Our in-house counsellors know the world of separation and divorce well. They will – at your request – link up with the lawyers so that yours can be a truly joined up and thought-through approach;
  • Getting in touch with us does not surrender control to professionals who take over: we are here to help with the questions and issues that you face at the time and you remain in control of what is done. We do a lot of efficient and focused orientation and guidance for people who, with the answers they need, take things no further or return only some time later;
  • We have vast arrays of information to provide detailed guidance around the specific issues you may face.

There is no denying that divorce and separation can be a challenging and complex time for couples. But if you can avoid some of the top mistakes outlined here during your divorce and separation, things can become so much smoother. Shall we get started?