How I survived divorce

Real life secrets of financial success.


From the July 2006 issue of the magazine.

Part of the reason I stayed so long in my 15-year marriage is that I’m a self-employed interior designer, so it’s feast or famine for me. I was afraid that my daughter and I wouldn’t be able to manage financially, that we needed my husband’s income to survive. I was probably caught up in societal appearances too. The whole idea of becoming a single woman, a single parent, someone who is not part of a couple any longer at 44 years of age, was very hard. You feel like you’re losing your place in society.

Eventually, though, it got to the point where I felt I didn’t really have any choice. My husband was verbally abusive towards me, and in the spring of 2001, I discovered he was cheating on me as well. Although we tried counselling, in the end I think we were just too different. My heart ached for my eight-year-old daughter Charlotte, but I couldn’t go on with the marriage.

We didn’t rush into a separation. Part of the reason we held off for over a year was that we faced so many family crises, including the death of my mom. As well, I was determined to make the most of the assets we had, and that meant making our three-bedroom home ready for sale. I couldn’t afford to buy my ex-husban out, so selling was the only option. But I knew from experience that a fresh coat of paint and some attention to the little details can make the difference between a lengthy show period and a solid offer. We made sure that house was perfection every time we held an open house — I’d wipe the sink out with a towel to make it sparkle, and believe me, that’s not the way I normally live. But it paid off. We got our asking price.

When it came to dividing the assets, we tried to put our feelings aside and take a practical approach. We recognized that we would be foolish to set the lawyers on each other — there wasn’t the money. We had accumulated a lot of debt over the years of our marriage because we were not like-minded when it came to spending. We had credit card debt, a line of credit, and although I didn’t have a car payment, John did. He kept his car and assumed his car payment, but kept the equivalent in workplace RRSPs. Because I wanted to start with a clean slate, we paid off the rest of the debts with the proceeds from the house, walking away with about $20,000 each. I took that money and invested it in energy stocks, which worked out well for me.

As for child support payments, I had been to see a lawyer, so I had the chart that tells you how much a non-custodial parent should pay according to income. It’s not rocket science. John started off paying $120 a week for Charlotte, but a few years ago he became self-employed, so we dropped that to $80 a week. I kept the small inheritance I received when my mom died and used a portion of it to buy a newer second-hand car.

Emotionally, that first year was a bit of a roller-coaster ride. At first, I felt a tremendous sense of freedom. Charlotte and I moved into a three-bedroom apartment in a town close to our old home in Belleville, Ont. Although I couldn’t afford to buy a house, I wanted our place to be as much like a home as possible for Charlotte, so I chose the upper floor of a townhouse in a neighborhood with a good school. In the meantime, John moved to Toronto.

From that point on, we were officially over in my mind. I have never ever allowed John to stay overnight here. If he comes down on a Saturday, he stays with his parents who live close by. I don’t want any false hopes for anyone. Still, it took Charlotte a long time to accept that we were split up for good. For the first while when John came to visit, she would wail and beg me to let him stay. I just had to say to her kindly but firmly, “No, we’re not going to get back together.” That was emotionally overwhelming for me and after the euphoria, I went through a period of depression. You do sort of mourn the loss, not so much of what you had, but of what you hoped for from your marriage.

I got through it all by focusing on Charlotte. I was such a basket case and she was my guiding light. I think that, because I was so overwhelmed with everything — the loss, the anger, and all the upheaval — I made every decision in terms of what would be best for my daughter. When it came to deciding where we would live, and where she would go to school, or even how I would communicate with her father, I tried to put into perspective how my actions might affect her and her relationship with her dad.

Financially, Charlotte and I had to make some adjustments — I guess it’s a given that everybody is poorer after a divorce. We were living on one income and I was self-employed. At first I was in survival mode, fuelled mostly by fear. But over a few months a plan began to emerge. I upgraded some of my skills and became more computer literate. I put an ad in the local phone book. I got new cards printed and my friends and clients came through for me with jobs. I think women kind of network together in a way that is almost unspoken.

I’m more careful with money than I used to be. I drive back to Belleville to buy my groceries because I’ve calculated that, by shopping at No Frills, I can save about a third. We don’t eat out that often, but I try to make it a special treat once a month, and we wait for most movies to come out on video. We go for long walks, we swim, we check out junky antique stores, play cards and games and go tobogganing. We always shop sales for clothing, although I like quality, so I tend to frequent warehouse outlets or pick up end-of-season markdowns. I went to the Jones of New York sale and got about $400 to $500 worth of clothing for $100.

Because we economize in small ways, we can afford special trips now and then. We went to Ottawa during Spring Break; I found a deal that included two nights at the Delta, with breakfast, for less than $179. Overall, I think that I’ve been able to provide a rich and rewarding life for both myself and my daughter.

I began to get counselling after I found out John was cheating on me. It has helped me re-establish my identity, and separate emotions from logic so I can make wise choices. After three years, I’m feeling good about myself. Now I’m focused on rebuilding my life. I’m taking university courses and that has been wonderful for my growth as a person.

Things have settled down between John and me. I wouldn’t say that we’re the best of friends, but we manage to keep from squabbling in front of Charlotte. She sees her dad every Sunday and I recognize that, for that to happen, I have to cut him some leeway. He makes the drive down and he doesn’t always have the money to take her out somewhere. At first there was absolutely no way I would have left him with Charlotte in the apartment, but we’ve worked through that. Sometimes the two of them will just rent a movie and I’ll do my own thing. If I feel like joining them I do. He, in turn, respects my privacy. It’s kind of a weird situation, but we’re just trying to make it work, for Charlotte’s sake.

My greatest satisfaction on coming through this? I know that I can do it all on my own. I don’t have to count on anyone for anything. There was a time when I thought I couldn’t, and that affected my decision to remain in a relationship that wasn’t good for me. I know now that I made the right decision when I ended my marriage. My biggest regret is that I didn’t do something sooner. I watched years of my life vanish before me. But I can’t worry about that now. You can only look forward.

(Anonymous lives in Southern Ontario.)

Five rules for keeping it together through divorce

Every situation is different and you can’t always avoid going to court during a divorce, says Maureen Murdoch, a family law lawyer from Jasper, Alta. But by following these simple guidelines, you should be able to make the process of separation and divorce easier.

Rule #1

Separate your emotional state from your financial state: “I have seen people fight over everything from the joint funeral plots to who gets the color TV,” says Murdoch. But continuing to bicker and fight in court over small details of a settlement prevents you both from moving on with your lives. “Be big about things,” advises Murdoch. “It pays off in the long run.”

Rule #2

Recognize that you’re likely to be poorer after a divorce. Once you have an idea how the assets will be divided and whether you will get, or pay, support, examine your budget and figure out a way to make up any shortfall, either by working more or by taking a more frugal approach to life.

Rule #3

Consider mediation. Too often couples who once lived together in harmony find themselves pitted against each other in court. Mediation — during which a couple comes to a compromise with the help of a third party — can provide a gentler, less hostile environment for attaining an agreement. Some provinces, like Alberta, offer it free. But even if you have to pay, mediation is often cheaper in the long run, says Murdoch. “If both spouses have input into the settlement, then they’re more likely to follow it.”

Rule #4

Focus on the kids: Research shows that the more conflict there is between divorcing parents, the harder it is on the kids, says Murdoch. And yet, people often become hyper-critical of their fellow parent after a divorce. “They’ll get bent out of shape over something, like whether he is allowed sugar after dinner. But they fail to see that what really causes lasting damage to a child is trashing the other parent.”

You can’t change who your co-parent is. So find a way to cooperate for the good of your child, advises Murdoch. Her rules of thumb: keep the lines of communication open; don’t use your child to send messages or spy on your spouse; use mediation as a way to resolve disputes about the kids; and get your child counselling, if needed.

Rule #5

Look to the future: The steps people go through during a separation or divorce are similar to grieving a death in the family, says Murdoch. Despair and bad feelings are part of the package, and it may take several years and some counselling before you’re able to move on emotionally. “You have to realize that divorce is a process,” she says. “And those feelings of sadness or anger are normal.” The good news: eventually they fade. “I’ve seen some people who have been totally devastated by a divorce. A few years later I run into them and they’re like different people. You have to try to look at this as a chance for a new beginning.”

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