Just about everyone who marries wants a happy and long-lasting union. But not everyone gets that. And, when divorce raises its ugly head, most people—especially women—are unprepared. I want to help people—mainly women—understand the land mines that they may encounter through the separation, divorce and dating again experience and how they can rebuild their lives with self-reflection, self-help and the grace of God. Even though I had handled many divorces before I went through my own about ten years ago, I was unprepared for the land mines that blew up in my face. Then, as my friends started going through their divorces I saw the same thing. Now that I am back in private law practice, I see it with my clients.
I’ve also done pre-divorce counseling, when one party comes in because she is thinking about a divorce or because she thinks that her spouse is. She wants to know how to protect herself.
One common thing that I have seen is that it’s not just enough to prepare yourself for what might be ahead if you are in the early stages of a separation or divorce. The best thing to do is to prepare yourself before you even get to that point. I have seen many women who basically had their heads in the sand about many issues during their marriage then scramble for information, and often money, when their marriage falls apart.
So, I offer this article of ten things every married woman—whether happily or unhappily—should know.
1. Your husband can always change his mind. You may be in a happy marriage and think that this article doesn’t apply to you. But it does. Your husband can always change his mind about his desire to be married to you and, if he does, your life can change in an instant. Often, women in happy marriages think that the woman who is in a divorce situation did something wrong. And, they think that they are doing everything—or at least most things—right. And they think that divorce can’t happen to them. But, divorce can happen to anyone, no matter what you do. The fact that you have been married a long time does not insulate you, either.
2. Know your family’s finances inside and out. It is very important that you have a clear picture of your family finances at all times. Many women let their husband pay the bills and manage the family finances. There’s certainly nothing wrong with letting him do this, but at least know what those bills and finances are. Keep a record of the name and address of every savings, checking, retirement, and investment account that he has and that are in joint names. Even if you don’t open up the mail, write down the information in the envelope’s return address. In a divorce, you would need to know where he has accounts, and, if he doesn’t tell you, you at least have an idea of where to look.
Keep a record of all income and expenses. This will help you understand what it takes to maintain your household at your current standard of living. This is very important if you ever have to file for child or spousal support or alimony. Also note any expenses that look out of order. If your spouse is dissipating, or wasting, marital assets on expenses that have no relationship to the marital estate, you might be able to get the value of those expenses added to your property settlement.
3. If your husband ever mentions separation or divorce to you, put your plan in place because you are playing catch-up. I’ve seen it enough times: the husband, usually the chief breadwinner, has already taken steps to protect his finances and put in place a plan to live his post-separation life with minimal damage to himself by the time he tells his wife that he’s ready to move on. Often, a spouse may mention separation, and then the parties go to counseling to try to save their marriage. I’m all for counseling and believe that couples should try to save their marriages. But, protect yourself just in case. While you and your spouse go to couple’s counseling, get yourself some pre-divorce counseling from a financial planner or attorney. Try to save your marriage, but don’t think that there’s anything wrong in also trying to save yourself.
4. Protect your credit. Keep your credit rating up. If you find yourself in a divorce, you will need good credit to rent an apartment or buy a new home or a car or any of the things that you will need when setting up a new household. If you don’t have money saved up or income coming in, you may turn to your credit cards to pay attorney’s fees or living expenses. But, that can dig you deeper into a hole if you find yourself unable to pay your credit card bill or only able to pay the minimum balance. Large credit card balances keep you tied to the past through those past expenses, and you want to be in the best position possible to move on with your life without being dragged down and limited by debt.
5. You must have your own money somewhere. That is money in your own name that your husband cannot touch. Your husband probably does, whether you want to believe it or not. If you are in a divorce, when certain income levels are involved, you will need money for attorney’s fees to even give yourself a chance to get the money that you are due for such things as child and spousal support, let alone a fair property settlement.
6. Mental illness in high-achieving men often doesn’t manifest itself until mid-life. A woman in a high income marriage once told me that no one at her level walks away from a marriage unless there is something seriously, seriously wrong. She said that in every divorce she knew, the husband had some type of mental illness that manifested itself, that basically went untreated, and that he took out a lot of his frustrations on his spouse. That is no wonder given that the National Institutes of Mental 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older — about one in four adults — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Health estimates that These mental illnesses can be of many types, such as depression, bipolar disorder, or sociopathic behavior. What happens is that normal coping strategies fail as life becomes more complex or a traumatic event occurs. Many people do not want to believe that their spouse has a mental illness because of the stigma that is sometimes attached, and many people don’t know the signs. But, you should be aware of the changes in behavior or behavioral characteristics that are attributed to certain mental illnesses. If something doesn’t seem right with your spouse’s behavior, it probably isn’t. Suggesting that your spouse gets help may help you save your marriage.
7. Encourage your husband to put as much money as possible into his company retirement plan. Yes, even in this challenging economy. Contributions to a company retirement plan leave a paper trail and generally cannot be hidden. Part of this money could be yours in the property settlement because a company retirement plan is considered marital property to be divided among the parties should the marriage end. This retirement plan may be the only, or at least the largest, pot of money available to you because your husband can spend down or hide other accounts.
8. Infidelity is not about you. If your husband cheats on you, don’t beat yourself up or think that it’s your fault. Infidelity is about him and his choices, so don’t internalize his choices. Infidelity may leave you feeling that you are undesirable, but don’t. There are plenty of men out there who would love to have sex with you if that’s what you wanted. If you doubt it, go on any on-line dating service or walk into any bar.
9. You deserve to be treated with kindness, respect and dignity at all times. No one is perfect, but….mental abuse almost always comes before physical abuse. If you think your husband is disrespecting you, you’re right because only you know how you feel. Little slights are not insignificant, especially when they happen frequently. Don’t ignore your inner inklings.
10. The only thing certain about alimony is that it’s certain to end. Many women believe that they will get alimony. However, alimony is discretionary, awarded by the court or in a settlement between parties based largely on your ability to provide for yourself at a level that the court determines is fair compared to your spouse and your married lifestyle. Alimony will end; it is only for a limited number of years. Keep your resume and skills up to date, because if you have not been working outside of the home, you will most likely have to do so after the divorce.
Hopefully, you will never have to face a divorce. But, if you do, I hope that that ten things mentioned in this article will make you better prepared.
About the Author: Sheilah D. Vance, Esq. is an attorney in private practice in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She is also the author of the new book, Land Mines, which is about how a woman copes with the land mines of separation, divorce and dating again and rebuilds her life and that of her children. You may read about it at www.TheElevatorGroup.com and contact Sheilah at info@TheElevatorGroup.com.