My experience as a child of divorce had a profound and lasting impact on me. I was ten then and if I wasn’t already hard-wired to become the strong woman that I am today, dealing with my parents’ divorce would have made me one. It affected my choices in men, need for accomplishment and independence and, ultimately, it lead me to a career of championing winners in divorce.
My father was liberated in his newly-single life: he dated frequently and widely, learned to cook, grew his business into one of the most celebrated in its industry at the time, frequently took his boat out for a spin on the Chesapeake, and was even being cited as one of our city’s most eligible bachelors in Baltimore Magazine.
My mother, meanwhile, was so devastated by her divorce that she attempted suicide after the birth of my sister, with whom she was four months pregnant when my father announced he was leaving. Just 33 years old, my mom was attractive, smart, sweet, and capable, but she never recovered and died much too early of a disease that, I’m convinced, was brought on by a broken heart never mended and the inability to embrace life after her marriage ended. If ever there was a dichotomy between winners and losers in a divorce, my parents’ was a notable example.
There are winners and losers in divorce. At least that’s what the late Judith Wallerstein told us in her seminal book on the longer-term impact of divorce, Second Chances: Men, Women, and Children a Decade After Divorce. While such a dichotomy is now considered more a spectrum, I have spent much time since reading her book considering the question of what makes someone a winner or a loser in divorce.
So, what makes someone a winner in divorce? It’s really simple: being a winner in divorce is about deciding to be one. Do you choose to wallow in misery, cry the blues, dedicate your life to getting even, fold because you never want to be so hurt or vulnerable again? Or do you pick yourself up, stand tall and make an affirmative choice to create the best life you are now able? Winners accept the reality of the divorce, including the necessary changes to the most important elements of their lives—their relationship with their children, their home, career, financial status, and friends. Is it easy? Hell no! You are going to have to work really hard, persevere, be willing to accept setbacks, and most of all, get help—because it’s going to be hard to make good choices when you’re feeling so overwhelmed.
What kind of help are you going to need? If you and your spouse can tolerate each other and want an amicable divorce, start with a divorce mediator, preferably one with specific divorce financial training (a CDFA®). If your circumstances rule out mediation and you instead go the litigation route with lawyers, consider first working with a divorce coach. You may be thinking “who can afford an entire divorce team when I can barely afford a lawyer?” A divorce coach can, in fact, often help save you money by assisting you in working more efficiently with your lawyer and communicating more effectively with your (ex-) spouse to bring about quicker resolution—all the while at a lower hourly rate than your lawyer’s! A CDFA® may, too, help put more money in your pocket by avoiding costly and irreparable mistakes and getting you a better settlement than you might with a lawyer alone.
Even if you don’t have it in you to make the choice to be a Winner for yourself right now, do it for your children. Kids, no matter their age, need two strong parents, not one winner and one loser. The research strongly supports that children can only win in divorce when their parents are both stable and able to largely focus on their children’s needs. Conflict and despair take precious energy that could otherwise be spent on being a good parent to your children.
Being a winner in divorce starts with making the choice to get through your divorce with courage, emotional maturity, and integrity and, eventually, to thrive again in your un-coupled life. Look for a mediator who is a trained divorce coach or make sure your divorce team includes one. I so wish my mom had chosen to be a winner—it would have made all the difference in her life. And mine.
(Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in April 2017 and was updated in June 2019 for accuracy.)
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