For Lucy, one of my clients over 50 going through divorce, the world seemed like a fast trip down the rabbit hole. Everything had changed. What was once the warm and loving home she had worked hard to create was now a threat and a burdensome expense to her soon-to-be ex. What was once a life that had revolved around her beloved children was now threatened with loss, destabilization and the reality of raising her three teenagers mostly by herself.
Lucy had spent the past 23 years doing all the right things, things she and her husband had figured out together. Now her husband was leaving her. She was heartbroken, worried about her kids and panicked about her financial future. She was 54 years old and felt her world was, quite suddenly, disintegrating. She had given so much, had invested her identity in the world of her family, and was now being asked to move along and deal with life as a single woman. She was now being told by her husband that she must get "re-educated" and "start working". She had never expected her life to turn out this way.
Lucy is not alone. In my divorce practice I have seen increasing numbers of men and women in their '50s and '60s whose marriages are dissolving. For women, divorce over 50 can present unique challenges: financial, emotional, social, medical. These women are entering their new lives often on particularly treacherous ground.
For women who have stayed home, these challenges are even greater, heightened by the need for retraining or entry into a new career. Personal resiliency may be challenged -- there may be health issues, depression or feelings of regret and resentment that don't seem to go away. The fear of growing old alone may prevent a woman from thinking clearly about moving forward and her future needs. Having to sell the house and downsize may be particularly destabilizing. And how to fund the fast approaching retirement years, which a woman may have taken for granted during the marriage, looms as a gigantic and anxiety-provoking unknown.
In many states, spousal support, or alimony, is designed to act as a bridge to becoming self-supporting. This means that for a woman in her 50's who has been out of the work force, the likelihood of a finite term of support, rather than support for life, is high. When this term of support ends, the reality of finding a job that will support her needs, never mind her marital lifestyle, is difficult and, in the current economy, likely impossible. It's a tough situation for these women.
It is all the more critical for women to be realistic about their support needs when going through divorce. Careful planning is necessary to avoid an outcome that will leave a woman on the edge of a cliff in a few short years. These steps will help to ensure stability and security in the divorce outcome:
• Get the financial help you need. Work with a financial expert to educate yourself about what you'll need now and in the years to come. Be clear about the future impact of the financial decisions you must make now.
• Get the emotional support you need. Divorce is a complex emotional process -- for most, the death of something hugely important in their lives. Feelings of grief, anger and fear are the norm. Processing these emotions and reaching a place of greater self-understanding is possibly the most important work you will do in divorce.
• Consider which divorce process will best support your needs. Collaborative divorce, for example, offers comprehensive legal, financial and emotional support and keeps you out of court. You will be able to focus on what is important to you, and your children, in a personalized and in-depth way.
• Give yourself time. Marriages, particularly long term ones, cannot unravel overnight. You need to give the divorcing process the time it deserves. As one 58-year-old client said to me, "We were together 30 years -- we're not going to figure out our entire divorce in a few months."
• Be compassionate to yourself. Allow yourself the space to repair the pieces that have been bruised in divorce. The courage to be self-forgiving and self-loving is a gift to yourself during and after divorce.