When your marriage is ending, you’re usually not thinking about how to set goals for your divorce. Your primary focus is simply on surviving.
Yet, one of the biggest mistakes people make in divorce is NOT figuring out what they really want right from the start. They float through their divorce in a daze. Then a few months after it’s over they’re angry that they didn’t get what they really wanted.
The problem is that, while they were going through their divorce, they didn’t KNOW what they really wanted. Or they kept changing their mind about what they wanted. Or they wanted everything. They never got crystal clear about what truly mattered the most to them until AFTER their divorce was over. But by then, it was too late to go back and rewrite history.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20.
It’s easy to see what you should have done in your divorce once the dust has settled. But the key to having a successful divorce (if there is such a thing!) is to figure out what you want while you’re still in the middle of the storm.
If you’re really smart, you’ll figure out your divorce goals even before the storm begins. (Or, at least, you’ll set your goals as early on as possible.)
The question is: How? How do you set goals for your divorce when your head is spinning and your heart is shattered?
That’s a tough question. But before we can talk about how to set goals for your divorce, we need to start by discussing why goal setting is so important.
Why You Need to Set Goals for Your Divorce
As gut-wrenching and world-changing as divorce can be, it’s still a part of life. Fundamentally, it works the same way most other parts of life work.
Before you can get anywhere, you need to know where you’re going. As the Cheshire Cat explained to Alice in Wonderland:
“Which road do I take?” asked Alice.
“Where do you want to go?” replied the Cheshire Cat.
“I don’t know,” Alice answered.
“Then it doesn’t matter," said the Cheshire Cat.
If you don’t care where you end up, then setting goals for your divorce doesn’t matter. But if you DO care, not just about your divorce, but about your life after divorce, and what will happen in your kids' lives after divorce, then setting goals for your divorce is absolutely essential.
Getting super clear about what you want in your divorce also keeps you from getting sucked into a lot of pointless drama about stuff that doesn’t matter.
When you KNOW what you want, you can develop a strategy and a plan for getting it.
On the other hand, if you’re confused, if you don’t know what you want, you’re much more likely to spin in circles. You’ll worry about everything, accomplish nothing, and drive yourself crazy in the process.
That’s why setting goals for your divorce matters.
The Best Divorce Goals are SMART
While having any goals is arguably better than having no goals, not all goals are created equal. If you want to have the best chance of achieving your divorce goals they need to be SMART.
The term “SMART Goals” was first coined by business consultant George T. Doran in 1971. According to Doran, SMART goals were:
S – Specific
M – Measurable
A – Achievable
R – Realistic
T – Time-Bound
While SMART goals were originally applied to business goals, they apply equally well to many other areas of life, including divorce.
Having a divorce goal like, “I want to get everything I can possibly get,” or even “I just want what’s fair,” may be emotionally satisfying. But, they’re not smart.
Why aren't they smart?
They're not smart because they're vague. As a result, it's impossible to know whether you've achieved them, or not.
For example, what does getting "everything you can possibly get,” really mean?
How will you know that whatever you get is everything you could have possibly gotten? How will you know what "everything" is? More importantly, is getting "everything" even achievable? Courts aren't often going to give you everything and your spouse nothing! (Unless by “everything” you mean: your share of everything.)
Similarly, “I just want what’s fair,” fails the SMART goal test too.
While “I just want what’s fair” sounds good, it’s horribly vague. What’s “fair?” Who defines “fair?” You? Or your spouse? How do you measure what’s fair? How do you know you’ve gotten what’s fair? Is what you think is fair actually realistic? How do you know?
You see the problem.
Why Do SMART Goals Matter?
The reason that you want your divorce goals to be SMART is because goals can’t guide you toward anything worthwhile if they’re not SMART.
For example, if you set your sights on being “fair,” then every time your spouse does something that you don’t think is “fair,” you’re going to get sucked down the rabbit hole of drama. Given the number of things that happen in divorce that aren’t fair by anyone's definition, focusing on getting “what’s fair” is going to keep you chasing your tail most of the time.
On the other hand, if your goal is something more specific, like getting 50% of your assets, you have a much greater chance of success.
Assuming you have complete financial information, you can calculate 50% of your assets with mathematical precision. That goal is specific, it is measurable and, for the most part, it’s probably realistic and achievable.
It’s also time-bound: You will know you achieved your goal if you get 50% of your assets when your divorce is done.
What is Goal-Worthy in Your Divorce?
A big part of the trouble people have with divorce is that it’s so all-encompassing that it’s hard to wrap your head around it. That makes it hard to think of everything and to set goals. It also makes it all too easy to miss what really matters.
For example, when you’re thinking of what your divorce goals should be, it’s easy to think about the financial stuff. You KNOW you want at least 50% of everything. Most people do.
You know you need an income you can live on. You know you don’t want to be eating cat food for years while your ex is eating steak.
If you have kids, you know that you want to spend a reasonable amount of time with them after your divorce. You also probably want to do your best to minimize the disruption that your divorce will cause them.
But, beyond that, is there anything else you need to think about?
The answer is a resounding, “Yes!”
Divorce Goals You May Not Have Considered
While it may not be the first thing you think about, deciding HOW you want to divorce and what KIND of divorce you want can make a HUGE difference in how your divorce goes. Do you want your divorce to be amicable? Or are you expecting a fight? (Remember: your goals need to be realistic!)
Do you care how long your divorce takes? Do you want to limit the cost? Which divorce process are you going to use? Litigation? Mediation? Collaborative Divorce? Does your spouse want to divorce using that same process? Or are you going to fight about that too?
How much support are you going to need to get through your divorce? Do you understand your finances? Are you working with a therapist? Do you know everything you need to know in order to do the best in your divorce?
As overwhelming as answering those questions may be, THOSE are the kinds of questions you need to ask yourself when you’re setting your divorce goals.
How to Set Goals for Your Divorce
Once you’ve answered the questions outlined above and you’ve identified your (SMART) divorce goals, you have to take THE most important step in goal-setting.
You have to choose your most important goal.
I know that seems impossible. How do you compare prioritizing time with your kids to getting enough money to support them (and you!)? How do you choose between getting your divorce over quickly, and getting the best financial settlement you can get? Making those kinds of choices is hard – really hard.
But, if you want to give yourself the best chance of actually getting the life you want after your divorce, you need to focus only on the one (or maybe two!) things that matter while you’re going through your divorce.
That’s especially true in divorce, where your goals often conflict.
For example, you probably don’t want to spend a small fortune on your divorce. But if your spouse is being completely unreasonable, you’re going to have a choice. Either you spend more money on your divorce to try to get what you
want (or need!). Or you cave in and accept your spouse’s unreasonable demands just so you don't spend thousands more in attorney's fees.
Caving in will save you money in the short run. But it may cost you your financial security in the long run.
That's why knowing your most important goal is SO important.
Everything is a trade off.
NOTE: Just because one of your divorce goals doesn’t make #1 on your list doesn’t mean that you have to give it up completely. It just means that it won't be your primary focus.
The Final Steps in Making Your Goals Work for You
Once you’ve identified your goals, and chosen your most important goal, your final step is to USE that goal to inform every decision you make in your divorce.
Is your spouse dragging you into court over something stupid? Before you explode, ask yourself, “Will fighting over this issue get me closer to my goal or farther away?” Unless what you’re doing will bring you closer to your goal, don’t do it. (Yes. I know. It’s easier said than done! Try anyway.)
If you’re having a hard time keeping your goal in mind, try using visuals.
If making sure your kids are stable is your #1 goal, then put a picture of your kids on your phone. Whenever you’re arguing with your spouse, or negotiating with your spouse, and you start to get frustrated or angry – look at your phone! That will remind you of what really matters to you.
If you don’t want your soon-to-be-ex tipped off about what matters to you in case s/he accidentally sees your phone, put a picture that symbolizes what you want on your phone. Only you have to know what the picture means.
Will creating and prioritizing your divorce goals take time? Of course!
It takes time and it takes effort. But if you take the time and do the work to set your divorce goals from the start, you will have given yourself a valuable edge in getting through your divorce on your terms. You will be investing time and energy now to save a LOT of grief and aggravation later.
If you set your divorce goals with care right from the start, does that mean that your divorce will be a breeze?
Of course not.
But it will be better. And sometimes better is the best you can do.
This blog was originally written in January 2020 and updated on January 4, 2023.