While many New Zealanders relax in January, divorce lawyers head for the office. Divorce spikes across the developed world as the new year begins. People see January 1st as an opportunity to analyse their lives and change what no longer makes them happy. Sometimes that's their spouse or partner.
Unsatisfactory relationships can drift along during the year, but any unhappiness is highlighted when couples spend a lot of time together over the Christmas break. Travelling can be stressful and spending time with in-laws is not everyone's idea of a great end to the year; spouses can end up feeling tired and resentful. It's sad but true that for some couples having limited time together keeps them together, and being in close proximity 24/7 over Christmas/New Year is the last straw.
If you think you're heading towards a separation, here are a few things you can do to make it go a little better:
Talk to someone
This is really important. Friends and family members can be a good source of support, but consider counselling too, either for yourself or as a couple. There was a time when it was almost considered a sign of weakness to seek counselling, but now it's mainstream. Lots of couples go, and I totally recommend it. Many relationships can even get back on track once lines of communication are opened. Even if you still decide to separate, at least you've started talking about it. That often makes the separation easier, and assists the process of healing afterwards.
If possible, try to stay in the house together while you're sorting everything. In my experience the relationship stays more amicable while couples are still cohabiting. Once you're living apart, people tend to start moving on with their lives, which can create new issues. It can be a strain financially too, as many living expenses are doubled. It can delay lawyers being involved when you possibly could reach an agreement living in the same house. On the other hand, if the situation is intolerable to your physical or mental wellbeing, then moving out may be the best thing for you.
Think of the children
If you have children, you'll have extra decisions to make around visitation, responsibilities, and how everything will work financially. You might need to change your work hours to accommodate new arrangements. In any case, you'll need to make sure your separation is as easy as possible for your children. If you can, break the news to them together. Try to figure out some of the logistics of where everyone will be living and when you will see each other, before you tell them. If you have very young children, 'bird-nesting' can be an option. This is where the children live in the house full-time, but the parents take turns at living in as care-givers.
Separation is hard enough. Avoid anything that will put extra pressure on you. This may not be the best time to be travelling long-distance or taking on a massive project. Take care of yourself: get more sleep and exercise, drink less alcohol. Schedule time away from your partner if that is going to help keep the peace.
Don't sweat the small stuff
Focus on the big things: your children, your living arrangements, and the larger items of relationship property. Don't worry about the smaller chattels at this stage.
Start thinking about the future
It's a good idea to get professional advice on your legal rights and options early on, to make sure you're protected in a separation. You should also change passwords on your computer and bank accounts. At some point you and your partner will have to document all your relationship property, so you could start gathering details of shares, pension funds and anything that's not already at your fingertips.
Be aware of social media!
Try and keep social media posting to a minimum. We know that social media often gives a false impression of reality, I often advise clients to cease posting at all. You're better to spend your time connecting with close friends and family, then with people who barely know you at a time of stress. It is unwise to seek validation from all your followers on social media following a divorce. Posting a photo of you with your new partner drinking is unwise. It is not likely to help you to resolve your dispute. Change all your passwords.
Try to stay on good terms with your partner
This is a big one and is often easier said than done. Emotions run high and people are not always reasonable; but if you can, take deep breaths and try to maintain a good relationship. This will enable a faster settlement, with less lawyer involvement and less expense. You'll be better off in the long run.
It can be a horrible way to end the year. For most people, our summer break is a time of rising expectations and diminishing stress. When the opposite happens it's not pleasant, but handled properly a January divorce can still result in a new beginning and new hope.
Jeremy Sutton is a senior family lawyer, specialising in divorce cases where there are significant assets, including family trusts and complex business structures.