In my work as a family law attorney and as a woman who has gone through divorce herself, I've had considerable opportunity to observe thousands of women going through the process. I've seen some women who are emotionally and physically devastated by their divorce, while others emerge stronger and more empowered. I'm frequently asked what accounts for these differences and more important, what can women do to help themselves during what is for many of us the most difficult time in our lives?
The following are six key strategies for surviving divorce whether you're a woman in your 20s or your 70s.
Reset your mind-set. You can let the process take over you or you can resolve to take a proactive role in the process. While there are some elements beyond your control, there are many aspects to your divorce where you can be in the driver's seat. This starts by your selection of an attorney. Look for someone who demonstrates empathy in speaking with you and who you sense will be supportive through what can be a long, painful process. Of course it is also important that your attorney is competent, assertive and savvy both in and out of the courtroom.
It's very likely you are confronting a wave of negative emotions from loss and anger to shame and guilt -- most of which are tied to things that have happened in the past. My mantra is to shed the past, live in the present and envision the future. Begin exploring where you are now, so you can grow in the future.
Become a money manager. Far too many women, even highly successful professionals and entrepreneurs who earn a lot of money, don't have a handle on their family finances. If your husband is the one who has taken on the job of paying the bills and managing your investments, chances are you're in the dark. Perhaps you dislike dealing with money, so over time you've abdicated control to your husband. Or you have a controlling spouse who actually wants to keep you uninformed and uninvolved.
Whatever the situation, facing divorce without knowledge of your finances is incredibly frightening. Many women who find themselves in this situation begin to doubt their ability to take charge of their financial lives. The first thing you've got to do is to learn the good, the bad and the ugly of what's been going on with your money -- whether that means there's credit card debt you didn't know existed or that your husband has been gambling with misappropriated family funds. Nine times out of ten, what you imagine is worse than actually knowing the true state of affairs.
My advice is to take baby steps by peeling away the onion of your finances. Start by unraveling the paper trail: Review bank records, credit card statements, tax returns and other financial documents. Remember the purpose is to assess the state and extent of marital property, not to uncover details of your husband's possible philandering. Talk to the professionals involved with your finances such as your accountant, broker and business lawyer.
Go from passive to active and become more financially assertive one step at a time. If you don't know how to use QuickBooks or to balance a checkbook, this is the time to pick up these skills. You'll be amazed at the confidence boost you'll get from managing these tasks yourself. You'll also feel more in control if you learn how to budget yourself and understand what and how you're spending. Also start reestablishing your individual financial profile by getting credit cards in your own name.
Don't let your husband drive the bus. Be the one to file first. Because it's so powerful from a psychological standpoint, I counsel women to initiate the divorce process. This is also the time to assert your rights. For example, if you want to run the family business or go back to school, make your wishes known. These actions often result in the husband feeling renewed respect for his spouse. In fact, I've seen a lot of reconciliations at this point, but with a better dynamic between the spouses.
Shift your focus from your husband to yourself. All 50 states have no-fault divorce, so it's unproductive and unhealthy to obsess over your soon-to-be ex having a girlfriend. Combing through his phone records or searching his emails -- which is illegal, by the way -- looking for evidence of infidelity only serves to make you feel bad. You need to channel all the energy you have into positive activities.
Be present. I always advise clients to show up for depositions and court proceedings. This can be very difficult for many women, but the attorneys in our office work to make it as easy as we can. We tell clients they can come into the deposition after it starts and leave when they want to. We remind them that they'll be sitting right beside us and that during their spouse's deposition they don't have to say anything. Being present for these proceedings, women are able to let go of a lot of negative thoughts and come out feeling as though they've accomplished something they didn't think was possible. In fact, one attorney told his client in preparation for her deposition to envision herself hosting a dinner party for her intimate friends. The message here is to take control and enjoy.
Love yourself. Redirect the love and energy you put into your marriage and renew your relationship with yourself. As women, we tend to be caregivers putting the needs of our husbands and children before our own. You are entering a new phase of your life in which it's essential to treasure and honor yourself. Start by taking really good care of your body. If you are not doing so already, begin eating healthier foods, make sure you are getting enough sleep, and find time to meditate and exercise. Feeling better physically will help you feel mentally stronger.
Get in touch with the things that make you happy. Take time to enjoy simple pleasures like walking in the park, indulging in a leisurely bubble bath, gardening or watching a favorite movie. Rekindle interests and passions that may have been put on the back burner during your marriage -- whether that means going back to school, getting a new job, traveling, renewing old friendships or getting closer to your family.
A final thought: While divorce is inherently about change, you have the power to direct that change in ways that put you on the path to peace of mind and personal fulfillment.
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