Been Through It/Going Through It: Divorce
When it comes to stressful life events, divorce is high on the list. Even if yours is an amicable split, there are so many complex emotions involved (and even more paperwork). We can’t help you with the volumes of documents, but we can offer support and empowerment by sharing the stories of other women who have gone through the process. In this edition of our Been Through It/Going Through It series, two women shared their experiences with divorce—one who has been divorced for many years and one who is in the middle of it.
Jessica, 32, is a mom-of-three living in Newnan, Georgia. She has been married for 14 years and is currently going through a divorce. Paulette, 56, is a mom-of-three in Atlanta, Georgia and a divorce coach. She was married for 21 years before getting divorced 10 years ago and has been remarried for three years.
On how much they knew about divorce beforehand
Jessica: My mom went through a divorce when I was 12, and that was really the only experience that I had firsthand of it. It was pretty traumatic for my mom—my dad left and didn’t have a lot of involvement with my sister and me. And so, my mom kind of took the bull by the horns and just took on the responsibility. I watched her work three jobs and move us back to Jacksonville. She had a little bit of depression and I just tried to be there for her. That was really my only experience of divorce.
Paulette: My personal experience also was zilch, nothing. I met my husband when I was 17. We were married for 21 years and I knew nothing. I was so green that when my attorney said there’s an affidavit, I said, ‘Wait, who’s David? I don’t know a David.’ And he laughed and said, ‘No, no, no, it’s Latin.’ And that was how green and naive I was about divorce. I knew nothing!
On their decision-making process
Paulette: Nearly 70 percent of divorces are filed by women, but the average amount of time that women contemplate this position before sharing it with anyone is two years. But that’s the average time—I happen to be one of those people that contemplated it for at least ten years. I remember in our tenth wedding anniversary, I had a 1-, 3- and 5-year-old and I was living in a crazy large house and the song ‘Once in a Lifetime’ came on the radio. And there’s a line in it that’s: And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife. And you may ask yourself, ‘Well... how did I get here?’ And I remember feeling that. It was like I was watching a movie about someone else’s life or a TV show or some sort of surreal painting. But I didn’t file for divorce until ten years later!
Jessica: I had a similar experience where for years I was like, we’ll make this work, I’m in love with him. I just figured that this was my life. And then about six months before I actually made the decision, I started talking to close friends and family about what was going on. And that made me realize that I needed to get out. I started telling myself, I don’t deserve this. And it was the best decision I could have made for myself. Even when people don’t agree with it, you know, I’m the one who lives it and I’m the one who would have to live it for the rest of my life.
Paulette: But there’s a tipping point, right? I was starting to go down this slippery slope of prescription medication, drinking like a fish, being really stupid and irresponsible. I started feeling really apathetic. But the tipping point was not being allowed to look at the tax returns for 17 years. When I finally said that I wanted to sit down and go through them one night before signing and he said no, that was my tipping point.
Jessica: For me, the decision-maker was when my kids started coming to me and asking if we were going to get a divorce…when they started voicing what I had been thinking about.
On What It Felt Like to Make the Decision to Get Divorced
Jessica: There was a lot of relief. Paulette and I have very similar stories in the sense of the apathy that kicked in and feeling like you were kind of spiraling before making the decision. For so long, I had kept everything to myself—it was like this silent monster. But I remember when I finally told myself that I was getting a divorce, I felt relieved. This was about a month or two after I left, because at first, I swear it was like a fog.
Paulette: I can relate to so many things that Jessica said: the liberation, the empowerment, the inspiration and that sense of freedom. There is so much of a disconnect to who you are, and all of a sudden there’s this awakening. It’s like someone splashed cold water on you or turned the light on but it’s not one of those night lights in the hall, it’s a blinding flashlight that you just can’t ignore anymore.
Jessica: Yeah, exactly.
Paulette: But I also have to say, there was also a moment of complete terror. Feeling an overwhelming sense of responsibility and risk. What if I mess this up? How will I get through this? Should I have stayed and sucked it up? Maybe I just gave up too early and should I have made more of an attempt to save the marriage? Where do I find the right help? Do I need a lawyer? What do I do first? How am I going to tell the children? How do I minimize the damage to the kids? How do I overcome this? But, you know, no matter what, you can do it. You can handle it. You are worthy and you’re valuable and you are loved, and you deserve to live the life you desire. It’s scary but it’s also incredibly liberating and validating.
Jessica: Yes, to piggyback off of what Paulette said about the fear—there is that fear and feeling numb, but then once you wake up, it’s like you don’t even know who that person was anymore. You can’t go back.
On the Importance of Reaching out to Other People
Jessica: Talking to other people is so important. When I started telling people it was like this, you know, this freedom. Like an enlightenment came over me and I was like, other people have gone through this! And even people at work that I’ve been able to connect with—people that I previously felt like I couldn’t level with because I always had this wall up that was like, my personal life was my personal life and work was work. But I remember one day, I had a really emotional day at work. And this girl came up to me and she was like, ‘Hey, what's going on in?’ And I started telling her and it turns out that she went through the exact same thing as me. We talked for hours, and for me to be able to connect with her like that has been amazing. It’s phenomenal. And even if it’s just somebody I can vent to or, you know, ask them for advice because they’ve gone before me…it’s amazing.
Paulette: Yes, you can do it alone…but it’s a disaster if you do not have the right community and support to go to. It’s scary, and it's so easy to make bad decisions that are reactive. Either to throw in the towel or say no, I'm going to stick to this for ten more years if I have to. You know, neither of those scenarios are usually in your best interest. It’s very important that you’re able to delineate and discern and decipher who truly is on your team and has your best interest and loves you unconditionally and is there to support you and who is, as they say, a fair-weather friend.
On the Staggering Amount of Paperwork
Paulette: Marriage is a legally binding contract—it’s a business arrangement. As young girls we have fantasies of the dress, the cake, the ring, the wedding, the honeymoon and getting carried over the threshold and the whole Cinderella complex. But of course, what really should happen when you walk down the aisle is that there should be a priest or a minister or a rabbi or whomever, and an attorney. Someone to say, ‘Just so you know, this is a legally binding business arrangement and everything you do and own is commingled. And if this doesn’t work, it’s going to be trauma…and expensive.’ Not to say that things can’t be mediated—I have many, many cases where that happens, but it takes both parties to cooperate. Divorce is a process, and it is so utterly overwhelming, confusing, expensive and very, very procedural. Once you’ve made the decision, you've really got to get organized, gather your evidence, have a budget and understand lawyer-speak. You have to choose your advocates. You have to document everything. You can’t be blasé. You’ve got to learn to manage your stress, how to communicate with your friends and family. You have to be very knowledgeable about the law and the mental health, financial, real estate aspect of it. But also, there’s the child centered aspect: you’ve got custody, co-parenting, alimony, child support, division of marital assets. Just understanding who is in charge of medical, extracurricular, religion and education is a big-ass deal. And what about the physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, mental aspect of it? It’s a lot and sometimes you’ll take two steps forward, and one step back. I've also seen clients take a step forward and two steps back. It isn’t just, get in the car, put in the GPS of divorce and ready, set, go… it’s not quite that simple. Jessica can elaborate because she’s living it right now!
Jessica: No, it’s really not that simple. The other day I sat with my attorney for three hours going through all my interrogatories and all my answers, because there’s so much paperwork and yes—document, document, document! I can't stress that enough. And thankfully, I’m very wired to naturally do that, whether in my personal life or keeping track of expenses at work. So, for me, this documenting stuff is super easy. But seriously—keep track of everything.
On Divorce Misconceptions and Mistakes
Jessica: If it’s a high conflict situation, each side is going to be bringing their best foot forward to protect themselves and what their next step in their life is going to be. Just don’t assume that they have your best interests in mind. And I hate to say that, but it really is what it is. Whatever you may have talked about before…don’t assume that that things can’t change. Things will come up.
Paulette: Oh yeah, well that is true. But just to bring a bit of normalcy to this conversation—there is a divorce every 13 seconds in the U.S.
Jessica: That’s so sad!
Paulette: And think about that—that’s basically 2.4 million divorces a year in the U.S. I'm sorry. And that’s a freaking lot. Now, as far as there being misconceptions, yeah, there are a lot of mistakes that people make. They trust their spouse to do the right thing. They confide in the wrong people. They hire the wrong attorney—this can be an expensive and a lengthy mistake. They hope, wish or wait for their spouse to change. They downplay or accept abuse. They’re in the dark about their financial assets and liabilities. They get involved in a new relationship too soon. They share details or spousal talks with the children. They engage in what I call text warfare (it’s so easy to fall into that trap). They throw in the towel on any outcome just to be done with it. They think social media is harmless fun. And lastly, they ruin their health and wellbeing as a result of mismanaging a stress.
Jessica: Yeah, confiding in the right people is so important.
On What to Say to Someone Going Through a Divorce
Jessica: The people who finally heard my story and said, ‘That’s not OK,’ even when I was like, ‘It’s fine, it is what it is,’ that was really validating. And then people saying, ‘I’m here for you.’ The ones who gave me kind of a kind of pep talk, letting me know what I was worth and what needed to happen. I had a close friend tell me, ‘You are enough.’ Because for so long, I was questioning my own worth. Was I good enough? I struggled with that because obviously I had a dad that abandoned me. So, you know, I’m like every man in my life that I’ve cared about and loved has abandoned me. So, it was really helpful to hear people validate what was happening. The best thing you can say for someone going through a divorce is ‘I believe you.’ And let them know that their experiences are valid.
And What Not to Say…
Jessica: There are a few things that people said that stuck with me, and you know, it’s basically the opposite of what the ones who helped said. People saying, ‘Well, they’ve never done that to me so it’s hard for me to validate that that’s happened to you,’ and ‘other people have gone through far worse situations,’ and ‘Jessica, you're living in a reality that’s not true.’
Paulette: Yeah, you know, it’s interesting. I was married for 21 years and you collect people in your life, right? But the people that I thought were going to be there for me, many of them just ran for the hills immediately. There was a lot of the rejection, judgment and validation that shocked me and made me question, just who was a friend and even a family member. On the other hand, there are some people that have been with me, hell and high water, regardless of everything. And they are holding your hands, walking through the fire with you, cheerleading with you, being there to support you.
On Their Advice for Other Women Going Through Divorce
Paulette: The first thing I would tell anyone to do is to make sure you do your research, you get organized, and you find a certified divorce coach or a consultant that knows anything and everything about the divorce journey to help you save so much time and money that’s wasted and to protect your children. And I’m not saying that to market business! It’s really easy to make bad decisions when you feel pressured to move forward. So, make sure that you don’t just act rashly, that you that you go through this methodically and purposefully. Regret is a terrible thing, and you never want to look back at your decisions and the journey with any regret. You want to look back at it with pride and dignity. Like, ‘It was worst thing I’ve ever gone through, but thank god I did and look at me now—I’m really proud of the way I conducted myself and the way I hung in there and just really understood that I am worthy of a better outcome.’
Jessica: So, I didn't even know that a divorce coach existed before I met a friend that introduced me to it. But yes, I highly recommend getting a divorce coach or somebody who can help you through the process. I literally don’t know what I would have done like without one. You need someone to help coach you through the process, because you’re emotional and you’re invested into it. But they’ve been through it and they can give you a very unbiased opinion on things that that helps so, so much. But I think the biggest thing for me was that I would offer the advice to someone walking through it is: Don’t be afraid to share your story and get help. Even if it’s not a high-conflict situation, find someone you feel comfortable talking to that can give you really solid, sound advice.
Paulette’s book, The Better Divorce Blueprint is out now.