Several weeks ago I posted the story of my divorce and how it impacted me financially and emotionally. The positive feedback was overwhelming and I thank everyone who reached out to express their appreciation for sharing my story. This inspired me to learn more about what other women have gone through in the hopes of spreading more knowledge, and today I’m beginning a series of posts about women’s experiences navigating the financial and emotional ups and downs of divorce.
I posted in several of my Facebook groups asking for women who would be willing to share their stories and I was astounded at the number of friends and relatives of friends who are willing to tell me about their journeys. What I’ve learned is that financial miscalculations during a breakup have implications that extend indefinitely. The common threads I’ve heard are feeling guilty, ashamed, embarrassed, scared and intimidated. This is not about bashing men – the responsibility lies on both sides of the gender divide. Men tend to fight for what they believe is best for them, but women tend to give in financially to get out of the relationship with as little conflict as possible. This is not a judgement of either sex, solely an empirical observation. The lesson I’ve learned, however, is that if women want to protect their financial futures they need to be willing to stand up for themselves. “I just wanted it to be over” is the sentiment in the heat of the moment, but “wow, I regret walking away from what I should have gotten” is the message that resonates for years later.
This story is from a mother of two who has been married three times. I’m changing names to protect the innocent, so I’ll call her Patricia. Patricia got married when she was 19 after a long-distance romance and quickly had two babies. Once they were married he started drinking more and staying out until the early morning. He was rough with her when he was drunk, criticizing mundane details like how she made his sandwiches. Patricia never thought of it as physical abuse at the time, but looking back that’s exactly what it was. She left once but went back to him – this was a long time ago and divorce still wasn’t that common in her small town so the decision wasn’t clear cut.
The final straw came when concern for her 18 month and 3 ½ year old children took center stage. She didn’t want the abuse to extend to them, so she left with $45 in her pocket and had to rely on her parents as a stay at home mom. A friend helped her move the baby’s crib, but she walked away from everything else. The divorce was contentious. They fought about every detail down to who would keep the laundry basket.
She hired attorneys but didn’t feel like they fought for her, constantly questioning what she needed. Obtaining a steady income from her ex was complicated by the fact that he didn’t work consistently. Patricia agreed to terms that were not beneficial given her custodial burden. She agreed that she would claim the kids on her income tax returns only every other year even though her ex only paid support for 3 months out of the year. She ended up bearing the bulk of the financial burden for the children.
Patricia’s most recent marriage lasted 14 years. She knew he was cheating, but had failed at marriage before and didn’t want to chalk this one up in the loss column as well. She was determined to make it work and turned a blind eye to what she didn’t want to see. He grew more controlling of Patricia over time despite his own affairs. She couldn’t receive phone calls after 9:30pm or else he became suspicious, projecting his own deceitful behavior onto her. He steered her into self-serving investment decisions regarding her job’s retirement plan. He assured her, trust me, we’ll live off of my retirement income.
The Timing Will Never Be "Right"
She had reached a point of no return and knew she had to leave, but the timing was never right. It was always close to a holiday or a birthday. She second guessed whether she wanted to be alone as she got older. She started seeing an attorney before she definitively decided to leave, and this time she did think about putting money away. On every trip to the grocery store she cashed a few extra dollars to accumulate some money, but despite her small nest egg, she still didn’t know where she’d go the night she left.
Finally, she pulled the plug and filed for divorce. This one began no more smoothly than the last. She rang up $7,000 in fees to her attorney without him gaining any temporary support for her. Once she got to court to fight for support, however, she could no longer afford her attorney. Patricia even lost some of her assets in the final settlement. Despite her ex’s assurance that they’d live off of his retirement income, he ended up with half of her retirement fund when they split. She now receives some monthly income from his retirement as well, and to protect herself in case of his death, she is the beneficiary of a life insurance policy. She has to trust that he will continue paying the premiums every year, and annually has to chase him down to make sure he’s doing so.
Patricia always wanted to be fair, but in hindsight she doesn’t believe this approach served her well. Guilt and uncertainty led her to concede terms that have had long-lasting consequences. She believes that many women never recover financially from a divorce so it’s important to plan ahead. These are her main points of advice for women going through similar situations:
- Inventory what you have in your home. Take pictures and say it’s for insurance purposes. You won’t remember what you leave inside once you walk away, and it’s imperative to know what on the negotiating block.
- Build up some cash to tide you over during your transition. If you have a joint account and you’re afraid it will be noticed, get extra cash back at the grocery or drug store on every visit. If you work, then direct some of your income into an account in your own name only.
- Make a plan for where to go before leaving. Relying on family and friends for help is ideal in the short term, but obtaining support can take longer than expect so make a longer-term plan as well.