So you’ve left a relationship that doesn’t serve you. May I be the first to say: congratulations.
I recall those first few months after having left a marriage, when I shared my life news with friends and colleagues. My favorite response was from those who – with vim and vigour – would slap me on the arm or give me a hug and say ‘Well done! Congratulations!’. I loved the tacit acknowledgement that the choice I had made was difficult, and it was an achievement to have walked away from something that wasn’t working.
Whilst it might appear a bolt from the blue to outsiders (and often to your newly-minted ex), the process of a woman leaving a marriage is a lengthy one with lots of time spent waiting in the wings, hoping and coping. The average duration of a marriage is 12.2 years. Women typically divorce at a younger age than men, and women are also the main initiators of divorce. Did you know that it takes an average of 7 attempts to leave an abusive relationship? Indeed, it is very hard to leave any marriage (abusive or otherwise); all those years of shared history, of children, of homes and promises made, of familial connection, of joint contribution to investments.
In this blog, I mean to tell you what to expect in those critical first two weeks of leaving a marriage. I’d like to think that the harrowing nature of this experience is particular to me, but it is not. I remember being astounded that my lawyer and psychologist could guess so accurately the road that lay before me on my journey out of a marriage. Wasn’t I unique? Wasn’t there something special about the person and union I had invested most of my adult life in? No. Unfortunately, there was nothing unique about my experience; it is sadly textbook. My hope is that by sharing my experience, you’ll hopefully be prepared to make a safe and sane exit into the next chapter of your life. I say in advance to you: congratulations.
Here’s key happenings that you can expect in the first two weeks of leaving a marriage. Be safe, be smart and bon courage!
The Tipping Factor
Every relationship breakdown is precipitated by an event. In my case, I understood that my marriage was over and I was waiting for my ex to leave the home (as had been threatened and promised time and again). I was under extreme stress, I was in early stage grief and shock, and I had been referred to a psychologist for transition support. My visit to the psychologist was the precipitating event that catapulted me into action. She identified to me that I was clearly physically sickened by the situation I found myself in, and that I would need to leave the home and find a place of safety. And by golly, I heard her. On that day I was ready to listen; I heard her loud and clear, and I went straight home while I knew I’d be alone. I was scared, but I was determined to get out. I remember putting Lizzo on loud and I gave myself about 10 minutes to pack and go. Heart pumping and full of adrenaline, I stuffed two gym bags full of my belongings and makeup, patting the remaining clothes and belongings and the very walls that had housed me, telling them to take care and that I would be back soon. In reality, it was nearly four months before I returned.
Just as most women initiate divorce, most women also need to leave the family home. It is typical for their partner to refuse to leave; by staying in the home the status quo remains and they retain the semblance of a relationship and control or knowledge of their partners’ whereabouts and life. It is in the leaving that the process of dissolution commences, which is why it is typically the most dangerous time for women. This is made additionally difficult if there are children in the mix, or financial abuse or privation are at play. If you need to make yourself safe and draw a line in the sand, physically leaving may be what you need to do.
White Ribbon Australia has a great list of support services to aid you in this process. Doing this alone is too hard, and there is help at hand. I resourced myself thoroughly with help, and attribute my ability to have processed much of the separation to support services and professionals.
Why Do Women Initiate Divorce?
Clearly, there is no single answer to this question; the core reason could be anything from having grown apart to having endured abuse or infidelity. It is more valuable to understand the emotional rollercoaster that eventually takes women to their tipping point, which can be many years after the relationship itself has functionally broken down. My lawyer and mediator – Susan Hamilton-Green of Creative Family Law Solutions – explained this rollercoaster elegantly to me when I arrived on her doorstep for counsel just days after having left my home.
During a dysfunctional relationship, women (please note the postscript regarding my focus on the subject of this article as women) are on a rollercoaster. They’re on a low dip where they have been disappointed, or lied to, or treated poorly. Then they rise to a high should their partner ‘make good’, giving them hope in the relationship and their future. “Perhaps he will change! It will be different this time!” Their partner will make good, and it will appear as if things are improving until they are again disappointed and dip down on the rollercoaster into despondency and hopelessness. They look to improve the relationship through any means possible, as they careen from lows to highs over potentially many years until finally, there is no hope left and they are able to look reality squarely in the eye. The time has come to leave their marriage.
Often, the partner who is being ‘left’ is shocked by the woman’s departure. Unlike the woman, they have not been on the emotional rollercoaster of highs and lows for years; oftentimes, theirs has been a more stable position of passive control or non-participation. The surprised party then begins on their own emotional rollercoaster of highs and lows, going from denial and acceptance. The two individuals are in very different emotional states at the point of relationship breakdown; the woman has already done her emotional bargaining and has come to a place of relative stability, whilst the other individual is often in a heightened state of anger, depression or denial. This disparity does not lend itself to good decision making on behalf of either party, which is why interim agreements via a mediator can be so valuable. It takes some time for the surprised party to come to terms with their new reality, and a fair financial settlement can be drawn up.
Threats and Love-bombing
When you finally leave a relationship, your ex-partner will potentially use every emotional lever they have available to re-engage with you (particularly if you have physically left and they no longer have control of your person). They may initially love-bomb you, attempting to woo you back as might have worked previously. If this does not work, they may call your family and friends, or they may appear at your workplace (or threaten to). They may threaten self-harm, or threaten the safety of those in mutual care. Make no doubt about it; this can be a very scary time – especially if you have been in a co-dependent or abusive relationship. Please call the Police on 000 should you need their help.
Your ex’s behavior will become amplified around key structural events in the formalisation of your separation, which is why an AVO (apprehended violence order) may be relevant. For me, those structural elements were an alert he received from the bank after I requested a limit on mutual withdrawals, and a formal communication from my lawyer. Formalising the separation was terrifying for me, as I thought it would send my ex-partner into a cataclysmic rage. I remember shaking and sobbing as my lawyer told me that everything would be OK, and that these structured steps were so important for me to take. They were the very foundation of wresting back control of my life.
The kind of boundaries you’ll decide upon post-separation depends on the nature of your relationship with your ex. If it is a respectful separation, then you may be able to communicate and negotiate with some ease. If the union involves children, you’ll need to be strategic around the best way to keep yourself and any dependents safe, while remaining in contact with your ex partner. In future blogs as part of The Divorce Project, I’ll be interviewing women who have children with their former partners. Their insights into what to do and what to avoid on the road to divorce will be invaluable. My own experience did not involve dependents: it would have been significantly more complex if it had done.
I decided that I could not have any contact with my ex partner. I felt at intense risk of being dragged back into the relationship, and I felt scared. Both my psychologist and lawyer recommended that any communications be formal (i.e. through a third party) and that I should block calls and emails. I did so, and the psychological weight that lifted was significant. Remember that you are under no obligation to engage in the prior dynamics of your relationship with your ex-partner; that relationship is now over and you are free to set new boundaries.
When it comes to separation there is so much to discuss and share (which is why The Divorce Project will be multi-chaptered, and include both articles and podcasts). The first two weeks after leaving a marriage are full of big emotions and big decisions; I encourage you to gather your family, safe friends and talented professionals around you. Structure and boundaries at this time are critical to the success of beginning your new life.
Postscript 1: When referring to marriage in this piece, I am also referring to any long-term relationship. I have chosen to focus on the female experience of divorce because a) I understand it first hand and b) I am most concerned with women’s health and wellbeing in relationships.
Postscript 2: If you’re particularly statistics-minded, you’ll love these factoids on marriage and divorce via Damien Greer.