What to Expect in a Divorce: 19 Things That Are (and ARE NOT!) True

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Beautiful woman with glasses wondering what to expect in a divorce.

Everyone knows someone who’s divorced. Most of us know lots of people who are divorced. It’s not surprising then that we all have our own ideas of what to expect in a divorce.

The problem is that we’re not sure whether what we expect to happen in our divorce will actually happen or not. We don’t know if our expectations are realistic. What’s more, because our expectations often clash with our deepest fears, we usually aren’t sure what to expect.

For example, without even thinking about it, we expect the judge in our case to be fair. But we’re still afraid we’ll get screwed.

We expect our spouse to act rationally. But, on some level, we’re still gearing up for the “War of the Roses.”

Or, maybe, given our spouse’s personality, we SHOULD be gearing up for the “War of the Roses!” But we’re not. We don’t want to believe our divorce will really be that bad. So, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, we expect our divorce to be okay. Meanwhile, we don’t properly prepare ourselves for what’s coming.

That’s the real problem with having expectations. They distort our perception of reality and they keep us from taking appropriate action in our divorce.

Quite simply, expectations make us see what we want to see, instead of what’s really there.

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Understanding Our Expectations

In order to get through a divorce with the least amount of damage, you have to start by managing your divorce expectations. In order to manage your divorce expectations, though, you first have to understand them.

By definition, an “expectation” is the act or state of looking forward to something.

An expectation is not something that’s already happened. It’s something that you expect will happen in the future.

One of the biggest problems with divorce expectations, though, is that you might not even realize that you have any. You may think, “I don’t know what to expect!” Logically, then, you think you have no expectations about what “should” happen in a divorce.

But even though you may not know what will happen in your divorce, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have no idea about what to expect in a divorce.  The truth is, when it comes to divorce, everyone has expectations!

Those expectations include everything from what you believe you are entitled to get, to how the divorce process is likely to go. You have expectations about what will happen with your kids. You also have expectations about what will happen with your money.

Whether you realize it or not, you have a lot of expectations about your divorce.

The problem with your expectations is that they may not be accurate or realistic. They also set the stage for how much drama you are likely to experience in your divorce.

Picture of cute, serious dog and cat

Are You Expecting the Best or Expecting the Worst?

People who expect the best think that everything (or at least all the important things) will go their way. They assume that they will get the support, custody arrangement, and financial deal in their divorce that they want.

Why? Because that’s what is fair! (Or, at least that’s what they expect.)

People who expect the worst think that their divorce is going to be a disaster no matter what. They assume that the system is unfair. They assume that they’re going to get screwed. What’s worse, they assume that they will be totally miserable throughout their divorce and probably for years afterward.

Not surprisingly, they usually are.

While you may think that expecting the best is better than expecting the worst (or vice versa) the truth is that neither one will serve you well in your divorce.

If you’re overly optimistic you’ll tend to dig in your heels unless you get what you think you deserve. That makes settling your divorce amicably way harder.

On the other hand, if you’re overly pessimistic you tend to assume that your spouse has an ulterior motive for everything s/he does. So, you over-analyze everything your spouse does, looking for the hidden downside. Doing that makes your divorce take much longer and cost much more than it otherwise would.

Either way, you lose.

So, what do you do? The key is to take off the rose (or grey) colored glasses, ditch your expectations, and try to be objective.

Beautiful serious woman with divorce expectations considering using the Collaborative Process for her divorce.

What to Expect in a Divorce:

9 Expectations That Will Serve You

1. No one will care more about your divorce than you do.

Your divorce involves your life. You’ve got to stay on top of it. You’ve got to get prepared for it. Most of all, you’ve got to manage it.

Sure, your lawyer, your therapist, and your accountant will all help. But if you think you can hand off the responsibility for your divorce to any one of them, you’re kidding yourself.

If you want the best possible outcome in your divorce, you have to be engaged in it yourself – even when you wish the whole thing would just go away!

2. Your divorce will take longer and cost more than you think.

Divorce is like construction. It always takes longer and costs more than you think.

If you’re smart, and you do your homework, and you stay engaged in your divorce, you may be able to keep your costs down. If you stay on top of things, and your spouse doesn’t drag his/her feet, you may be able to get your divorce done in a reasonable amount of time.

But, no matter what you do, you can’t control everything. You can’t control the court system or the divorce professionals. You can’t control your spouse. So, when it comes to time and money, the most accurate expectation you can have is that things WON’T go the way you want. (Sorry!)

3. You will divorce the same person you are married to.

People don’t get a personality transplant when they start a divorce. If anything, divorce tends to bring out the worst in everyone.

If you married a narcissist, you’re going to be divorcing a narcissist. That means that your divorce is probably not going to be amicable no matter what you do. (Sorry!)

Does that suck? Yes. But what sucks even more is assuming your divorce will be amicable and then getting slammed when your spouse plays dirty.

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4. If your spouse is self-employed, you probably won’t get the full amount of support the law says you should receive.

Regardless of what formula your state uses to calculate child support, that formula will be based to some extent on your spouse’s income. Like it or not, one of the easiest ways to distort income is by having your own business.

Getting an accurate picture of your spouse’s income starts with having accurate tax returns. Most business owners do their best to accurately state their income and expenses on their tax returns. But, if your spouse has been cheating the government for years, you can bet s/he is going to cheat you, too. (Sorry!)

Another difficulty with getting an accurate income statement from a business owner is that business income is not like having a salary. It often fluctuates year over year. Unless you income average over several years, you may not accurately capture your spouse’s true income in any single year.

Stack of documents

5. You’re going to need to put together a small mountain of paperwork. 

Divorce is a document-driven process.  Regardless of whether your divorce is amicable or ugly, you’re still going to need to gather financial information.

You’re going to need to gather income tax returns, bank statements, credit card bills and more. The sooner you start, the better off you will be. 

(NOTE: Having a good divorce checklist is one key to managing your financial information. CLICK HERE to find out why using a divorce checklist can be so helpful – and how to get your own divorce checklist for free!)

6. You will lose friends (Sorry!).

Something about divorce makes married couples nervous.

Many of your friends will start to avoid you because they don’t want to take sides. Others will avoid you because they are taking sides. Still others will avoid you because your divorce makes them think of their own unhappy marriage.

Another reason divorcing people lose friends is because they move, or change jobs. All of these changes can shake up your social network. On the positive side, your divorce can also cause you to make new friends, too.

7. You will need more support than you think.

Divorce affects every area of your life. It affects your friends, your family, and your finances. It can affect your home, your work, and even your identity.

Getting through all of those stressors, all at the same time is hard. You need support.

If you already have a strong support network, know that you’re going to need to lean on it hard. If you don’t have a strong support network, now is the time to build one. Get a therapist. Join a divorce support group. Get out and about. Trying to go through your divorce alone will make it infinitely worse.

8. If you have kids, you will have to make a detailed parenting schedule. That will be agonizing.

 It’s tough enough to deal with the fact that you won’t see your kids as much after you divorce as you do now. But seeing how much time you’re losing in black and white, is awful.

What’s worse is that you’re not just losing ordinary days with your kids. You’re going to be losing holidays and vacations, too. Because of that, it might be tempting to want to keep your parenting schedule open and flexible. You might think that you can figure out the details of your parenting time later.

Don’t do that! As horrible as it is to negotiate time with your kids now, doing it later will be worse. Plus, most courts will want to see a complete parenting schedule. So suck it up. Do it now.

9. The more prepared you are at the beginning of your divorce, the more likely it is that you will be in a good place at the end of your divorce. 

Knowing what to expect in a divorce will help keep you on track as your own divorce progresses. The way you learn whether your expectations are realistic is to educate yourself.

The more you understand how the divorce process really works, the better prepared you will be for what lies ahead.

If you know what’s coming, you’ll be prepared to make better decisions. If you make better decisions, you’re more likely to get a better outcome. So, in divorce, being prepared gives you a definite advantage.

Frog looking at camera with saying "Fair is the 4 letter "F" word of divorce."

10 Divorce Expectations That WON’T Serve You

1. Your divorce will be fair.

I’m not saying that you should expect to get screwed in your divorce. But neither should you expect that your divorce will be completely fair either. Why not?

What’s fair is always subjective. What you think is “fair” will be very different from what your spouse thinks is “fair.” Meanwhile, what the judge and your attorneys think is “fair” may be something totally different.

The bottom line is that “fair,” like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Because of that, don’t be surprised if you end up feeling like your divorce settlement is in some ways, unfair.

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2. Your spouse will support you forever.

Courts don’t favor lifetime awards of alimony. Even if you were married for decades and haven’t worked outside the home for just as long, chances are, your spouse will NOT have to support you until the day you die. (Sorry!)

Unless you’re independently wealthy, chances are you’re going to have to get a job at some point. If you’re lucky, you may get spousal support for long enough that you can go back to school, get a new degree, or brush up on your skills. If you’re really lucky, you may end up with enough assets that you don’t have to make big money to live a decent life. (That is, assuming that you don’t overspend your budget!)

But, if you’re like most people, sooner or later, you’re going to need to get a job.

3. You and your spouse will both feel the same way about your divorce.

It’s rare that two spouses mutually decide they want a divorce at the same time.

Even if you and your spouse both agree that your marriage is over, you probably have very different ideas about when and how you should get a divorce. That’s because you both have different divorce timelines.

One of you will want to get divorced yesterday. The other will want to take time to carefully analyze your financial issues and put together a plan for the future. Dealing with your spouse’s timeline will be frustrating. But once you understand that’s something you’re going to have to do, you will be better able to manage your frustration. 

4. Divorce court will work just like it does on TV.

In the television version of Divorce Court, Judge Toler deals with one case at a time. In real life divorce court, judges deal with hundreds of cases at a time. They’re busy.

That means that you’re not going to get a chance to tell the judge your story the way that you want to. Ever.It also means that your case will probably get continued … a lot! Those continuances are one of the main reasons why getting a divorce takes so long. Like it or not, dealing with a court system that doesn’t work the way you think it should is one of the biggest divorce expectations that you need to let go of.

5. You can get through it perfectly well without a therapist.

Contrary to what most people think, divorce is at least 80% emotional! If you want to get through it in the most healthy way possible, you NEED a therapist!

One thing makes divorces get ugly: emotions. Your emotions and your spouse’s emotions drive your divorce.

While you can’t control your spouse’s emotions, you CAN control your own. Working with a good therapist makes controlling your emotions much easier. Can you do it alone? Maybe. But if you want to optimize your chances for keeping your divorce amicable, step number one is getting a therapist on board to help you.

Lawyer at his desk pointing to a document.

6. Your divorce lawyer will take care of everything for you.

Divorce is way more than just a legal battle! It’s emotional. It’s financial. Divorce involves your house, your kids, and your social status. It involves your identity, your activities and more.

The ONLY thing a lawyer does is take care of the legal end of your divorce. S/he will help you protect your financial assets. S/he will help you reach an agreement about your kids. But that’s it!

Yes, that’s a lot. But your lawyer is not going to help you sell your home, move your stuff, or manage your money. Your lawyer isn’t going to have to deal with your ex on a day to day basis because of your kids. Like it or not, that’s all going to be YOUR job!

7. If your spouse is unreasonable, you can settle your case without fighting in court.

“Lawyering up” is NOT the answer to every divorce problem you have. As a matter of fact, getting a lawyer and fighting in court usually makes your divorce worse. BUT, there are times when NOT getting a good lawyer and going to court will hurt you, too!

If you are married to a high conflict spouse, or if your spouse is out for a pound of flesh, don’t kid yourself! You’re not going to have an amicable divorce!

While fighting in court is no fun, being in denial about whether you have to fight in court will hurt you more. If you know your divorce is going to be ugly, get a good lawyer, and get ready for a fight. If you can ultimately work things out without having to go to trial – awesome! But if not, you’re ready to deal with whatever comes your way.

8. The child support you get or pay will cover the expenses of raising your kids.

In most cases, what you get or pay in child support will only cover a portion of what it costs to raise your child. If you think that child support will cover food, shelter, clothing, medical insurance, medical expenses, extra-curricular activities, daycare, school expenses and more – you’re dreaming!

Most courts recognize that fact. Child support usually covers only food, shelter and clothing. That’s why, even if you’re paying child support, the judge may also order you to pay a portion of the other expenses related to your kids, too.

That’s also why, if you’re receiving child support, it almost never covers everything! In truth, it wasn’t meant to. Most courts recognize that BOTH parents have an obligation to support their kids. So, even with everything your ex is paying, you’re probably still going to have to contribute to support your kids as well.

9. Your spouse will pay your attorney’s fees.

Attorney’s fees will probably be one of your biggest divorce costs. If you didn’t want a divorce, or if your spouse is being stupid and driving your divorce costs up, of course you want him/her to pay your attorney’s fees!

The problem is, courts are typically very reluctant to make one spouse pay the other’s attorney’s fees.

Yes, there are laws that ALLOW one spouse to collect attorney’s fees from the other in a divorce. But, just because the law allows it, doesn’t mean that judges order it! Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. But expecting that it will happen in your divorce is risky.

10. You Don’t Need a Divorce Lawyer.

Unless you’re very young, have a very short marriage, no property, and no kids, you NEED legal advice in your divorce!

True, if you have nothing to lose it probably doesn’t matter if you have an attorney. You can get your documents done online. You can muddle through your divorce yourself.

But, if you DO have something to lose, not getting legal help is crazy. And, if your spouse has a lawyer and you don’t, not getting legal help is insane! You can hire an attorney just for a legal consultation. You can hire an attorney to review your documents. You don’t necessarily need full-on legal representation. But expecting

Green Welcome to Reality Sign

How Can You Manage Your Divorce Expectations?

The first step in managing your expectations is understanding that you have them.

Whenever you find yourself saying, “Oh, that will never happen,” or “Of course, I will get ….” STOP! Anything that you are discussing that hasn’t happened yet, but which you are predicting will, might, or should happen in the future, is not a fact. It is an expectation.

Once you know what your expectations are, step two is to find out whether they are realistic.

Take the time to talk to an attorney, therapist, financial planner, or a trusted divorce advisor. Ask them how the divorce system works. Ask them what to expect in a divorce. That way you’ll discover if your expectations are realistic or not.

The final step is to keep your expectations in line with reality. (That’s definitely the hardest step!)

No matter how realistic you might start out, it’s easy to get off track when your emotions take over (which happens from time to time in divorce!).

Have someone around you – a counselor, an attorney, or anyone else who understands divorce — act as your “reality check.” Whenever you are not sure if your expectations are getting out of line, check in with that person.

Managing expectations in your divorce may not be easy. but it’s definitely possible. Not managing them is a sure-fire way to add misery and drama to your divorce.

Is managing your expectations really possible in a divorce? I don’t know. What do you expect?


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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.


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  • Thanks for sharing the wonderful post. The points you shared may sound harsh but it is reality. The one who is going through the divorce process must keep these things in mind. Divorce is not easy, and it requires a lot of mental strength.

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