HOW TO SURVIVE DIVORCE AND FIND HAPPINESS
The splitting up bit is horrendous of course, but the outcome can be way better than you ever imagined.
There’s been a huge increase in the number of women divorcing in midlife. And if you’re not happy, why stay? If, like many women, you feel ready for the next adventure and your other half wants to do his own thing, there’s no point in sticking together for the sake of it. This all makes divorce sound very simple, which of course it is not. Divorce is one of the most painful things we can go through. Even harder, in some ways, if it’s not you that wants out of the marriage, because your partner is already way ahead of you in terms of moving on and planning for the future. How can you navigate your way through? Linda Lamb, family lawyer and mediator, shares some expert advice.
See the bigger picture
Nobody gets married with the intention of divorcing, and the anger, guilt and anxiety can sometimes be overwhelming. It’s vital to focus on the eventual outcome – you being happier and rediscovering your mojo. Maybe even a whole new career. “When I see clients initially they never imagine that they’re going to rediscover themselves and be much much happier in the long run – but many do. Think about your own interests, things that aren’t just about the marriage. How can you develop them? You feel at the bottom of a very steep hill when facing divorce and can’t see how you’ll ever get over the other side – but you will,” says Linda.
Ideally you both want to make the split as painless as possible, but be aware that this doesn’t always happen – whatever your intentions. Often divorces start out amicably, with both partners being reasonable. But then it can get nasty, says Linda. “Sometimes people are dishonest and only being amicable on the basis that it goes their way. Some have an agenda. Or things can get nasty when one partner finds their expectations are different to the reality and they’re not going to be as well off as they’d thought – or when one of you starts dating. Because a new partner has an impact on the children and on your emotions and things can spiral downwards from that point”.
When you first decide to divorce, get legal advice on what the possible outcomes might be and then go away and think about it. “Don’t do anything rash, unless there’s any indication that your ex is not going to be completely honest and start moving money around, in which case you would need to take steps to protect that – but that tends to be the exception,” says Linda. “Most people facing divorce are sad that the relationship is breaking down”.
The partner who’s made the decision to divorce has the guilt and the other one has the anxiety. “Whatever the case I advise my clients to see a counsellor at the very beginning and not to make any quick decisions about what they’re going to do,” says Linda. “A counsellor will help you deal with the emotions away from the divorce. Friends get fed up and don’t always have your best interests at heart, so counselling gives you neutral support and enables you to look at how life might be different afterwards. If you’re still brewing about your divorce 20 years afterwards, something went badly wrong”.
“Women going through divorce never imagine that they’re going to rediscover themselves and be much much happier in the long run – but many do.”
Find a divorce lawyer who’ll look at what the likely consequences are going to be and act on your behalf to protect your interests in dissolving the marriage. “I always advise people to go for the cheapest and most painless way. Not many couples manage to reach an agreement over the kitchen table, simply because emotions come into it. People find they can’t stop going back over the relationship, when in fact it’s crucial to keep looking forwards to where they need to get to. Mediation is best for this,” says Linda.
If you have children the priority is to establish between you how you’ll handle things with them from the very start, especially when it comes to telling them you’re splitting up. “Ideally find a way to tell them together and agree what to say. In the future you want your children to say ‘It’s sad they broke up but they did it the best way they could’ and you don’t want their big life events – graduations, weddings etc – being ruined by worrying about strife between their parents,” says Linda. Doing your best to remain amicable after the split is important for your own sanity too. And remember the kids love both of you. “So if the children hear you say horrible things about the other parent, the way they read that is ‘You don’t love 50% of me’”.
The days of being supported for life by your ex are gone and divorcees now have to generate their own income. If you haven’t been earning much, the expectation is that you’ll need to step this up in order to make enough income to live off. Equity is, of course, divided fairly and both partners have housing needs, while the children need somewhere to live. But ultimately you have to get good at managing your financial affairs. “I’m surprised at how many women – especially older ones – have no idea about mortgages or buying a house, because their ex always did that. But in the end these women become really savvy, have their own bank account and manage their own finances – and that’s empowering,” says Linda.
Think about retraining
While divorce can be incredibly sad, it’s also an opportunity that can be genuinely transformative. Especially if you parked your ambitions for marriage and family. Says Linda: “If you compromised your career during the marriage and there’s something you’ve always wanted to do, you may well be able to get financial support to retrain if your ex has enough funds. You’d need to show the court a reasonable plan to retrain and include the anticipated income. Financial support so you can retrain could well be part of the settlement”.
If your ex has a pension and you don’t, the court may well split his fund so that your share becomes your own pension. “If the pension scheme he’s in is attractive you need to get an Independent Financial Adviser to help you work out what to do with it. Rather than cash it in you may well need to keep your share where it is, but as your pension – in your name. Or you may need to transfer it to another scheme. Get advice on what’s best for you”.
It’s not a great idea to rush straight into dating while you’re still feeling battle-scarred. “But some men can be quite needy and have to be in a relationship – which means they start dating very quickly. If they start a new relationship and introduce their partner to the kids only for it to end soon after, it can be unsettling. The children are then meeting another new partner, so they’re forming sort of attachments only to lose them again. The children are already going through a lot, so I get divorcing couples to agree not to introduce new partners to the family until a relationship’s been ongoing for a good while. Try to anticipate those stress points and work out how to handle them,” says Linda.
“If you’re still brewing about your divorce 20 years afterwards, something went badly wrong”>
“Children are vulnerable because have no say in what’s happening,” says Linda. Happily their lack of power is changing. A report called the Voice of the Child recommends that every child who’s 10 or above gets to have a say in mediation sessions. “It’s very powerful because children are so savvy and parents can learn a lot from them. The children are going through all this trauma as well and are pulled in all sorts of directions, so it’s right that they should have a say”. But beware of making your whole life about the children. “Get them settled and happy, but remember they aren’t a crutch. You can’t keep them forever and need to get your own life”.
There are different kinds of support available to help resolve your family situation, depending on your specific needs. “There’s mediation, with one trained mediator and the two partners in the room, or hybrid mediation where lawyers are involved as well. Or there’s collaborative law where you both sit round a table with the two lawyers and a family consultant, a trained relationship therapist who helps with the emotional dynamic and does some work with both partners outside of the meeting to keep them emotionally on track. Family consultants are usually counsellors who have their own practice.” All of this costs, of course. But it’s worth getting the right support in the long run.
If you’re going through divorce it can all feel a bit desperate, like you’re in a long gloomy tunnel of misery and stress, day in day out. While you’re in it you can’t see the rainbow at the end, only backwards to all the pain and resentment. Get lots of support and do things logically, making the wellbeing of the children a priority. Surround yourself with the right kind of friends who will help you manage your emotions, rather than stoke them up. Most of all remember that once you’re out of the tunnel – or over the mountain – there’s a whole different life for you. You may be surprised at what you’re capable of once you’re free to start afresh.
Words: Marina Gask
Linda Sutherland Lamb is a solicitor, accredited family lawyer, accredited family mediator, collaborative lawyer and children arbitrator.