The Divorce Diva is In – Part I
Now that I’m nearly eight years post-divorce, I thought I’d share my top tips for anyone new to this sometimes scary, often enlightening, frequently courageous transition.
In the Beginning
I met my future husband, Jon, in late summer. Four months later he asked me to marry him. By September we were married and had already been in couple’s therapy for eight months. Our problems were complex, but probably not all that unique. There was substance abuse involved, intimacy issues, and my need to try to control the fear. But even in those early years, we thought we would make it. Both of us truly believed we loved each other as much as a marriage would ever need. But after 13 years of marriage (and 14 years of therapy), Jon and I separated. Within two months, on his own accord, my husband checked himself into rehab. My son and I visited, attended meetings, supported his dad the best we knew how, and learned to live without him. It was the saddest time of my life, but I started to feel better than I had in years. Then, following a year of long talks, lots of tears, and trying to hold onto our marriage, my husband and I decided to divorce.
Does Anything Prepare You For Divorce?
People say nothing in marriage prepares you for a divorce. But I disagree. I think everything we worked on for more than a decade is what led us to finally be able to divorce, and to do it with grace. What I wasn’t prepared for was What Comes Next? There are practical steps you need to take right away, and sometimes it’s difficult to be sensible versus emotional.
I didn’t know how to talk to a financial planner, or even how to talk about money with my ex. Jon had been in charge of our bills and insurance and savings and wills and even our burial plots. Now I had to determine if I could keep my house, if our son could stay at his school, and if my single incoming salary could support my outgoing expenses. I was supposed to itemize our son’s expenses, from daycare to Legos, and this was nearly impossible to get my head around when I kept looking at the tree in our backyard and remembering how much love and hope we’d had when Jon and I planted it years ago in honor of his grandfather. In fact, I could not bring myself to call the house – the home — that we had re-modeled, re-carpeted, re-painted, and re-planted, an “asset.” But I took baby steps, and that is the most important tip I offer: no matter what you are delving into after your divorce, go slowly, even cautiously.
Who’s On Your Team?
I asked people I respected to recommend accountants, lawyers, insurance agents, mortgage lenders. Some of these turned out to be good matches for me. I hired a financial planning firm early on to help me budget, save for college, buy life insurance and revise my will, and this team is still with me today. My divorce lawyer, however, was a bad choice for me. I was not prepared to buy into his version of “wife versus husband.” I did not want to, as my lawyer suggested, “leverage everything the law would allow” because we were talking about the father of my child; a person I wanted to remain close to. My attorney viewed divorce as warfare, and that just wasn’t my philosophy. (If it’s yours, that’s fine – I’m not judging, it just wasn’t right for me. I can give you his number if you like.) If I had it to do over again, I would have fired my attorney and kept interviewing until I found someone who would handle the legal part of my divorce with the same care and character as Jon and I were handling the rest of it. Instead, I let myself be pushed around until I finally pushed back.
Now, you may want a lawyer who will fight for everything the law allows; you may be entitled to the highest level of child support; you may need a sizeable share of your ex’s 401K, stocks and salary in order to maintain your lifestyle or give your children what they’ll need in the coming years. You really do need to be smart about money; just make sure you engage an attorney whose goals match yours.
Tune in next week for The Divorce Diva Is In, Part II
The Divorce Diva is In, Part II
Thank God for Girlfriends and Family
Some things came much easier following my divorce. I found it a relief to be living authentically – no more pretending that everything was fine; no more struggles and resentment at home. I was able to talk with my girlfriends with a freedom and honesty that had been somewhat strained before. And they welcomed my stories and sobbing and even my loving support of Jon. Yes, they thought it was odd, but no one judged me or called me crazy – to my face, anyway.
How to tell my family was a little harder to figure out. I am the only person who has ever gotten a divorce in the entire history of my genealogy. I didn’t think they’d understand. I thought they would tell me to try harder. But when I told my sisters and brothers and my mom and dad, I received unconditional love and emotional support. Well, to be perfectly honest, my dad was not happy. He wanted someone to blame, and it’s taken many years for me to convince him that there’s really no one to be mad at. He still thinks it’s weird to be friends with your ex. That’s okay; it is. But all in all, everyone dealt with our divorce with care and kindness, and extended that to Jon as well.
A Child’s View
How to tell our son became the overpowering question. Jon and I spoke for hours about the best way to tell him (together), the choice of words to use, where and when … and how to explain his “why?” It’s worth spending a lot of time on this … after five years, my son still remembers the exact moment of the telling, the exact place he was sitting, his own perception of what we said, how we looked, how he felt. I wish I had a video camera to see how close to reality his version is! We also paid very close attention to see how our separation would affect his mood, his conversation, his schoolwork. We didn’t know if he needed a professional to talk to – hey, we’d been doing it for years! – so we took him for a session and learned that he was adjusting really well, but that he might feel the impact now and then, years from now, at different points in his life, and we should continue to check in with a therapist. We do.
The Evolution of Divorce
Like a marriage, a divorce evolves, too. It’s been five years, and What’s Next has turned into What’s Now. Jon is an involved, empathetic, loving parent, and a helpful and compassionate co-parent with me. And believe me, I’ve needed that during the teenage years! I am a strong presence and partner in Jon’s life, too. I believe I am a better person for knowing Jon, for having been married to him, and I feel honored to have created with him the kind of relationship we have … out of the divorce, a real friendship.
What I Know Now:
…that divorce is not always a tragedy. It does not mean that your child will automatically have a more difficult life. Sometimes it is the best, healthiest path for a family to take, especially when the marriage itself is unhealthy.
…that love does not conquer all. It is powerful, but no one can change another person; they have to do that for themselves.
…that you can disagree with – and even fire – your lawyer if you are not on the same page philosophically. Interview several lawyers, and find one whose practice matches the way you want to proceed with your divorce.
…that the people who love you will support your decision with kindness.
…that anger, resentment and hurt suck the energy out of you. The sooner we let those emotions go the healthier and more vibrant we feel.
…that divorce is one of those rare opportunities to use the highest character traits God has given you — the power to really forgive your ex and yourself – and the compassion to accept your ex for who he is.
…that if you have children, it will be SO MUCH EASIER if you can have an amicable relationship with your ex, for schedules, carpools, expenses, adolescent issues, graduations, weddings, grandchildren… in some ways, it’s still forever. Let go of the blame. No one person is responsible for what has happened.
….that I had everything I needed to be a good mother and co-parent in a divorced situation.
…that happily-ever-after looks different than Disney. Create the life you want; it’s your story.