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San Diego Divorce Expert Has A Web Full of Heartache

Just in time for the holidays, a few tips for you, Mr. and Mrs. Married in San Diego. If your union is strong and healthy, toast your good fortune and prepare for some quality mistletoe time. You deserve it.

And if your marriage is shaky, take heart. You might be embarking on the Most Miserable Time of the Year, but at least you’re not alone out there.

“The second the Christmas tree comes down, our phones are ringing,” said Nancy Fagan, founder of The Divorce Help Clinic LLC in Carmel Valley. “A lot of times, people think, ‘I want to try through the holidays.’ But once the holidays are over, it’s like, ‘I tried, but I just can’t do it anymore.’ ”

In her years as a divorce mediator, Fagan has learned many things about getting unmarried in San Diego. She has learned that we spend more time mulling over our divorces than the cut-to-the-chase clients she had when she worked in Boston. Our extended-family safety net is not as strong as it is on the East Coast, and the issue of pet custody comes up a lot more often than you’d think.

Now that Fagan is the new divorce columnist for the Huffington Post website, her frame of reference is bigger, but her findings can be distilled into one sentence: It’s a marital jungle out there.

“A lot of the responses I’ve gotten have surprised me by their emotionality and anger and denial,” Fagan said of the feedback she has gotten from the popular website’s readers. “It’s like I’m an enemy for posting these things.”

Which is ironic, because as an expert in divorce- and marriage-mediation, Fagan is very much a woman of peace.

Marriage mediation helps couples find solutions to ongoing conflicts before they lead to divorce. In a divorce mediation, couples reach a divorce agreement without using a lawyer or going to court. Mediation is an alternative to what can be a long and painful legal process, but that doesn’t make it easy.

“Let me put it this way,” the 48-year-old Fagan said, sliding a full tissue box across the desk in her sunny office. “We go through a box of these a week.”

In the latest U.S. Census, 8 percent of men and 12 percent of women in San Diego County listed their marital status as “divorced,” almost the same as the national average. And what does a San Diego divorce look like? Fagan sees a lot of baby boomers who want to escape a tired marriage while there is still time to find a soul mate. She gets marriages crumbling under the stress of military service.

Because relationship challenges are not limited to heterosexual couples, Fagan has added a mediator specializing in LGBT matters and domestic partnership mediation. And while San Diego is full of people, she sees a lot of clients who feel totally isolated.

“People move here for their careers or for school,” said Fagan, who was amicably divorced from her first husband 17 years ago (they have a son who is 22) and has been married to her current husband for 10 years. “Then during a divorce, they look around and think, ‘I don’t have anyone.’ ”

Fagan’s columns — which started running in September at huffingtonpost.com/nancy-fagan — are filled with no-nonsense advice designed to keep marriages from ending in divorce and to stop divorces from ending in flames.

How do you cut the emotional cord attaching you to your ex? (The sooner, the better.) What does your spouse’s choice of Halloween costume say about the future of your marriage? (Beware of a sudden interest in the sexy.) And after a divorce, who gets custody of the friends? (Men keep the male friends, women keep the female friends, and married friends run for the hills.)

And what can a San Diego marriage and divorce expert learn from strangers from the great Web universe?

After writing a column expressing her concerns about the married hosts of the Discovery Channel’s “Man, Woman, Wild,” Fagan learned that loyal TV fans have thin skins and creative imaginations. (“She’s nothing but a coconut crab,” one fan posted.) She has learned that people do not always read her columns all the way through before firing off a furious response.

She has also learned that there are a lot of sad people out there, and just because she can’t hand them a tissue doesn’t mean she can’t throw them a lifeline.

“I try to do what I do here. I try to make it personal,” said Fagan, who tries to respond to all of the online comments. “You can’t grasp the level of despair with divorce until you’re going through it. I’m just trying to take what I have learned and use that to help people through it.”

karla.peterson@uniontrib.com (619) 293-1275 Twitter@karla_peterson