The Real Truth About How Divorce Works: 10 Rules You May Not Know

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Have you ever tried to play a game without understanding the rules?  If you have, chances are, the game did not go well for you. You probably lost big time. Going through a divorce is similar. If you want to have any chance of getting through it well, you have to understand how divorce works.

The problem is that no one – not even your divorce lawyer – is going to tell you all the rules before you start your divorce. And the rules are far from obvious. As a matter of fact, to the average human, a lot of the “rules of divorce” are completely counter-intuitive.

For example, it can be hard to wrap your head around the idea that your spouse’s affair (which caused the destruction of your marriage) may mean nothing in your divorce. Yet, the truth is that in most states your spouse’s “bad behavior” won’t affect the way your marital property gets divided at all. It may not even affect whether your spouse has to pay, or gets to receive, alimony.

Whether you think that’s “fair” or not, it doesn’t matter. Those are the rules.

Because the “rules of divorce” are far from simple OR clear, unless you’re a divorce professional, much of what you THINK you know about divorce is probably wrong. (Sorry!)

Unfortunately, if, in your divorce, you act based upon that wrong information, you are not going to get a great result. In gaming language: You’ll lose.

Cute baby with glasses and quote: It's not what you know that will hurt you. It's what you know that just ain't so!

The Truth About How Divorce Works

The reason people get messed up in divorce is NOT because divorce is rigged to favor one gender or the other. It’s NOT because divorce is inherently unfair (although it can certainly BE unfair in some cases.)

The reason people get messed up in divorce is because they DON’T UNDERSTAND THE RULES.

They THINK that divorce works one way, when in reality, it works completely differently. Because they don’t know how divorce really works, their expectations about what they believe SHOULD happen are very different from the reality of what DOES happen. In that gap between expectations and reality lies misery.

In order to begin to bridge that gap, here are 10 rules about divorce that you need to understand … hopefully BEFORE your divorce starts!

Lots of roads with different road signs cris-crossed over each other in the shape of a heart. How divorce works: it's confusing!

10 Divorce Rules You Need to Understand

If you want to get through your divorce with the least amount of damage to yourself, your future, your finances and your kids, you have to understand how divorce works.

You might not like these divorce rules. You might not agree with these divorce rules. But if you ignore these divorce rules, you will pay a price. 

1. Divorce is not fair.

Nothing about divorce is fair. It’s not fair that your marriage didn’t work out. It’s not fair that your kids will have to deal with your divorce. It’s not fair that you are going to lose half – or more than half! – of everything that you own. It’s not fair that you are going to be alone.

I don’t mean to be cruel, but the longer you torture yourself with thoughts about how unfair your divorce is, the longer you’ll suffer.  Divorce truly is unfair. The key is to recognize and admit that fact right from the start. The sooner you stop expecting your divorce to be fair, the sooner you will start making better decisions in your divorce.

Close up of confused young woman thinking about divorce

2. Divorce laws don’t always make sense.

Divorce laws are “one size fits all.” That means that they usually don’t fit anyone well. But railing against the divorce laws at the same time you’re going through a divorce yourself is a waste of energy. What’s more, just because you might not agree with the divorce laws doesn’t mean that you can ignore them.

Violate the law and you will have some judge getting all up in your business and forcing you to follow rules that don’t even apply to married people. Child support formulas tell you how much money you must pay for your kids. Visitation/parenting schedules dictate when you can see your kids. You no longer have complete control over your family and your life because the law dictates what you have to do. I know it’s not fair. See Rule #1.

3. Going to court is the riskiest decision you will ever make.

Do you really want a total stranger in a black robe, who has never met you, your spouse, or your children, deciding when you can see your kids, what you are going to do with your house, and how much money you will get to live on for years?!!! I don’t think so.

No matter what your divorce lawyer tells you, divorce litigation is risky.  You can never predict what a judge will do. Unless your spouse is being a complete butthead and you have no choice but to fight your divorce in court, settle your case yourself. Go to mediation. Use Collaborative Divorce. Negotiate your own settlement with your spouse at your kitchen table. Avoid litigation like the plague.

Construction hat, gloves and blueprint on a table with the saying "Divorce is Like Construction" over them.

4. Your divorce will take longer and cost more than you expect.

Most people think that their divorce will be different. They believe that they will be able to resolve their divorce in a few months for a few thousand dollars.  Most people are wrong.

Divorce is a giant untangling of everything that you have been building with your spouse for years. It won’t be done in a few weeks – and that’s okay! It takes time to separate your finances, and deal with your emotions, and transition your kids into a different life. It takes money to do all that, too.  While divorcing fast and cheap sounds great in cheezy ads on late night T.V. and on the internet, the reality of divorce is that it takes time and costs money.

5. Unless you are one of the 5%, your standard of living will go down after your divorce.

When you divorce, you are taking the income and assets that used to support one household and stretching it to support two. That means that everyone’s lifestyle is going to take at least a temporary hit. The key is to position yourself as best you can now to get back on your financial feet as soon as you can.

As you’re going through your divorce, take a good, hard look at your lifestyle. If you were living above your means, it’s time to change that now. (If you don’t know whether you were living above your means, look at the financial affidavits you prepare during your divorce. If those documents show that you spend more than you make every month, you’re living above your means!)

As painful as living on a budget can be, it’s the only way to right your financial ship if your divorce leaves you drowning in debt, or unable to pay your bills each month.

Man and woman watch each other while playing with puppets of themselves: the woman controls the man and the man controls the woman.

6. You’ll Never Be Able to Control Your Ex.

Like it or not, once you’re divorced your ability to control your ex’s behavior will diminish dramatically. (… not that you were ever able to control your ex anyway!)

For the most part, you won’t be able to control how your ex parents your kids after your divorce. You won’t be able to control who s/he sleeps with, or how s/he spends money (even if you feel like it is your money s/he is spending!) The more you try to control your ex’s behavior, both during and after your divorce, the more miserable you’re going to be.

That may be frustrating and infuriating. But it’s also reality. If you want to keep yourself from going crazy, the best thing you can do is learn to deal with that reality sooner rather than later.

7. The biggest mistake you can make is to try to go through your divorce alone.

It doesn’t matter how much money you have. It doesn’t matter whether you are the kind of person who thinks you can take care of yourself. When it comes to divorce, don’t even think of going it alone.

No one (not even your lawyer!) is an expert at everything. The best way to navigate your divorce is with a team.

At the very least, you will need legal advice and emotional support. Getting a divorce coach to guide you through your divorce can keep you from making rookie mistakes that you’ll regret once your divorce is over. You may also need financial advice, or help with your kids. Finally, you will need a strong network of supportive friends, family, and maybe even a divorce support group. Having people on your side (and on your team!) will make an enormous difference in how you get through your divorce.

Young, handsome man depressed about being divorced

8. You need to get a handle on your emotions as soon as possible.

Getting divorced is a full-time job. You will be expected to gather information, analyze your finances, make a budget, change your living arrangements, divide up your stuff, make a schedule to see your kids, learn how to be a single parent, and help your kids deal with their new reality. You can’t do all that – AND make sound decisions in your divorce – if you can’t think clearly. That’s why getting a handle on your emotions needs to be a priority as you go through your divorce.

Think of it this way. If your spouse had died, people would tell you not to make any major decisions for at least the next year. They’d say that because they know that for at least a year, you’ll probably be too fuzzy-headed and emotional to make good decisions.

Divorce is like death, only worse. In divorce, you don’t have the luxury of putting off making big decisions for a year. On the contrary, you will be EXPECTED to make more major life decisions during your divorce than you will at almost any other time in your life. That’s why you need to manage your emotions so that you can make those decisions with confidence.

9. If you care about your life and your kids’ future, you will stay actively involved in your divorce.

Divorce is not a spectator’s sport! Even if you don’t want the divorce, you can’t close your eyes and pretend it’s not happening. You also can’t just turn everything over to your lawyer and hope that your life turns out okay. Divorce doesn’t work that way.

If you want to get the best result possible for yourself and your family, you need to stay involved in your own divorce.

That means you need to research your options and make your own decisions. You need to stay in touch with your divorce lawyer and make sure your case isn’t sitting on a shelf somewhere. Finally, if you have kids, you need to work on your emotional control and your communications skills so that you can create an effective co-parenting relationship with your spouse after divorce.

Divorcing African American couple arguing with each other

10. You will not necessarily stop fighting with your spouse/ex just because you are divorced.

This is the secret that most divorce lawyers never tell you. If you start a war with your spouse during your divorce, you are almost guaranteeing that you will continue to battle long after your divorce is over – especially if you have kids.

The divorce courts are packed with people fighting in “post-decree” court.

Even if you don’t end up back in court, who wants to spend years arguing with your ex every time you exchange the kids, or want to switch parenting days, or have to split an expense for your kids? Once you understand that divorce will CHANGE your relationship with your spouse, but will not necessarily END your relationship with your spouse,  you will immediately understand why you need to bite your tongue so often to keep the peace during your divorce.

Understanding How Divorce Works Will Change the Way You Divorce

Divorce is not a game.  It’s your life.  But, if you think of life as a game just for a moment, you can understand that not knowing the rules before you start to play can have serious, and often unintended, consequences.

If you are going through a divorce, you have to understand the rules – especially the ones that the professionals know, but you don’t.  Once you know how divorce works (i.e. how it really works!), you will be able to get through it with much less pain, and a lot fewer problems.


This article was originally written in March, 2018, and updated in April, 2021.

Head shot of Karen Covy in an Orange jacket smiling at the camera with her hand on her chin.

Karen Covy is a Divorce Coach, Lawyer, Mediator, Author, and Speaker. She coaches high net worth professionals and successful business owners to make hard decisions about their marriage with confidence, and to navigate divorce with dignity.  She speaks and writes about decision-making, divorce, and living life on your terms. To connect with Karen and discover how she can help you, CLICK HERE.


dealing with divorce, divorce advice, divorce blog, divorce tips

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  • Thanks for all you share, Karen. I am inspired by your dedication to help people navigate this process with as much grace as possible. Please let me know how I can support you!

    • Thank you for your comment! I really appreciate it!

      The best way you can support me is to share with others. If you know anyone who is looking for divorce information or help, send them here to my website. You can also like my Facebook Page, and follow me on Twitter at @KarenCovy. The more people we can help, the better!

      Thanks again!


  • I found a DIY divorce site and paid and filled out the paper work. I received the papers in the mail but my husband wont sign them. We are an older couple with one grown son but we don’t own anything or have money of any kind so this divorce should be quick and easy. My spouse wont sign the papers but I have discovered in my state which is Oregon I don’t need his signature for me to move forward. What would you suggest?

  • going on 6 months into this divorce, my husband decides he needs to take my truck ,says his is unreliable.
    i’m 60 i live in his home ,he walked out on me,moved and changed his he wants (3 weeks before we go back to the divorce judge)
    to had over the keys to the truck he bought me 4 years ago..i will be left with no transportation. what should i do?

    • What should you do? Talk to your attorney about this! I can’t give you legal advice online and, without knowing a WHOLE lot more about your case, I couldn’t begin to tell you what to do. Sorry!

      If you don’t have an attorney, it would be wise to at least talk to a lawyer in your area. S/he would know the law in your state and the facts and circumstances of your case.

      I wish I could be more helpful. But this is a question I can’t answer for you.


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