- Author Margaret Atwood once said divorce is like an amputation - you survive, but there's less of you.
- However, everyone's journey of divorce and life after it, is different.
- Genevieve Gannon speaks to three women about the bruising process, thriving afterwards, and wisdom for those still finding their way.
Had Megan Holgate's first love story been made into a film, the opening scene would have been set in a dingy pub in Sydney's eastern suburbs. She, the young heroine, is a reluctant guest at a hen's party who slips next door to an Italian restaurant to eat dinner.
Twenty-two, blonde and dressed in palazzo pants with a halter-neck top, she looks every bit the stylish young finance graduate as she unenthusiastically eats her breadsticks. It was, she says, “one of those nights when you don't want to go out but you have to".
Then, a Hollywood-style encounter. Across the dining room a handsome man can't take his eyes off our heroine. As Megan pays her bill and returns to her friends, he follows. He taps her on her bare shoulder and holds out a business card. “It would be a real shame if we don't meet up," he says.
He has the cockiness of a rising director at a prestigious firm, because that's just what he is. Megan, confident and beautiful, says she doesn't call men. She gives him her business card instead. Within 18 months they are married and working in highly paid corporate jobs in London.
“Everything was great. We were on the trajectory. Life was golden," Megan, now 52, says.Little did she know in a few short years she would be on a plane back to Australia, an eight-week-old baby in her arms, alone and completely broke. The marriage had crumbled and with it all the agreements about money, property and parenting responsibilities made in the safe bubble of young love. Megan was crushed, confused and lonely.
"I can never forget that plane trip," she says. "And when I saw the Harbour Bridge, I just sobbed. I thought: Oh my God, I'm a failure. I felt like my life was over."
Megan's fairytale turned out to be a cautionary tale, but not an uncommon one. In 2017, 49 032 Australian love stories ended in this way. Divorce is regarded as one of life's most stressful events, and recent Australian research suggests the effects can last for decades. One study published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) found divorced people were still in a weaker financial position than their married counterparts 15 to 20 years after their marriage ended.
Another study, also produced by AIFS, found social, health and life satisfaction levels were lower among divorced people than people in couples, “most pervasively for women".
Society greatly underestimates how stressful and traumatic divorce is on individuals, according to Relationships Australia NSW CEO Elisabeth Shaw.
"There's a whole constellation of practical and very concrete ways that your life can be impacted," Elisabeth says.
Divorce can fracture community bonds, friendships and family ties. People who take a hit to their finances find this reverberates through other parts of their lives. The division of property can affect custody arrangements, and few separating couples can afford two family homes.
"The potential to get two equal properties is quite a rare thing," Elisabeth says.
“I routinely see couples who end up with a studio apartment and the family home. As soon as you do those concrete arrangements it has flow-on effects for kids and who goes where."
"Divorce and separation research commissioned by Westpac found the average separation in Australia takes 2.8 years to finalise, made harder by the fact you're trying to navigate a legal minefield at a time when you're hurt and vulnerable."
Understanding where you stand in terms of your money is an important first step to help you positively move forward financially," says Westpac financial expert Kate Holloway.
As Megan explains, the shock and trauma of your relationship ending makes it harder to act rationally. “If you get done over in a business deal, that's hard. But when you're duped by someone who was meant to love and protect you ... I could not comprehend that he could do that to me.”
As a professional from a loving family, Megan never thought she would find herself in the position of being a single mother living back home with her parents." I was a highly paid corporate woman who was absolutely done over because I gave my power to my husband," she says.
When she and her husband lived in London, she was working hard, travelling and putting a little cash aside. They bought an apartment in Putney - their first home - and soon after moved to Hong Kong when her husband accepted a promotion. His salary trebled. Megan was also able to get a transfer and they continued their ascent up the ladder of life.
"I just loved Hong Kong and thought life couldn't get any better,” she says. Megan's husband was “really generous”, not to mention good with money. He was the chief financial officer for a global business. “I was working 16-hour days and he said, 'We'll do investments, we'll do this and that. I'll just do it and I'll tell you how we're going.' So it was fine. I trusted my husband," Megan says.
“Life was amazing."
Then, the marriage started to falter. Megan accidentally fell pregnant, then had a miscarriage. Follow-up fertility tests revealed some irregularities that led her husband to put pressure on her to try for a baby again.
“When I did fall pregnant, that was the beginning of the end," she says. Megan suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum - the same extreme morning sickness that resulted in the Duchess of Cambridge being hospitalised throughout her pregnancies.
"He was never there. I didn't know what was going on. It was the loneliest time of my life," Megan says.
The pregnancy was tumultuous, but the arrival of their beautiful daughter was a ray of hope. “Everything was golden and I hoped it was all going to come good," she says. But just eight weeks later they had a huge fight. Megan's husband told her he wasn't attracted to her anymore and she should return to Australia so he could sort himself out.
"I was numb. I was kind of in a catatonic state. I felt like I'd been absolutely duped," she says. She blamed herself. “I was thinking, 'What have I done? I've ruined my daughter's life by picking the wrong man to be her father. I just couldn't see any light ahead."
But things were about to get worse.
"Once it was over, I became the enemy," she says. "He fought me for everything, even though I was parenting our child." All the money they had saved as a married couple disappeared. “For a stage, we were saving my entire salary," Megan says.
“The money was going into a joint account and straight off into another account. I didn't keep an eye on where the money was going because I totally trusted my husband."
Both parties lawyered-up, but Megan couldn't match her husband's resources. He made her an offer, and said that if she didn't accept it he would fight for custody of their daughter. Megan's father stepped in and told her she should accept, and be done with her ex-husband. "He said: 'Tell him you don't need his money'."
Which is just what she did, but it wasn't easy. Years later, she started counselling other women going through divorce so they could avoid the mistakes she made.
"When I help women, I say, 'Leave emotions at the door'. There's no point going 'he did this' or 'she said that'. It's over. What matters now is your future. The more emotionally calm and stable you can be, the brighter your future is.”
It's a sentiment Elisabeth echoes. “The trouble is, when you're separating, you need your best skills. And for a couple who are separating, the reason they're separating is often because they haven't had those skills even in the best of times.
"So to suddenly say, 'you need to communicate, you need to not be mean, you need to fight fair,' you're actually asking people to do things they know they can't do."
No one is immune
You don't need to be divorcing a chief financial officer to find yourself at a financial disadvantage after a marriage breakdown. Sally Madden (her name has been changed for privacy) thought her marriage was stable until everything fell apart. She and her husband had been together for 17 years, married for nine, and she had built a life around him.
“I'd known him since I was two," she says. "He was my best friend and my husband. He was my world."
The pair had grown up together in a regional NSW town where their parents each ran businesses. Sally and her husband each entered partnerships with their parents and when she moved into the house on her husband's family farm, it remained in his parents' name. "We didn't have a big history of bank statements or anything," she says.
During the time the couple lived in the house, they renovated it and amassed a collection of antiques. They had three children, and Sally devoted herself to turning the farmhouse into their dream home.
She was a little uneasy with the arrangement, but like so many women, she put her faith in her husband. "I'd have conversations with his mother," she says.
“I remember, when I was putting a fair bit of money in, she said, 'What do you want for Christmas?' and I said, 'Well, put the house in my name,' and she said, 'Don't worry. It's all yours - you know that. Don't worry'."
The children were all still under five when the marriage ended. “It felt like someone cut my arms and legs off," Sally says. Adding to the emotional stress was the realisation that she was in a very precarious financial position. I had no chance - absolutely no chance - of getting a fair settlement," she says. "I didn't have the strength. I have it now. But I wish I had it four years ago."
As can often be the case with adversarial divorces, the gloves came off. They went into mediation and she fought for a fair share of the marital assets.
"His claim was that I lived there rent free. Rent free? I didn't know I should have been charging you for cooking and washing if you were providing me and your children a house.
"We had shared so much together, our entire life, and had our entire future planned together."
Sally spent thousands on legal fees.
"It's been hell, but I'm still standing," she says.
Even divorces free from recrimination and heartache leave scars. Gail Slater, 60, and her husband divorced amicably after 32 years, but 10 years later she's still feeling the effects of the life change.
“Money's not everything and I can't brood over things," she says. But it's hard and she worries. “I'm 60 now and I've got to keep working full time because I've got to maintain a roof over my head. It's totally my expense and it is expensive to rent in Sydney. That's probably the toughest thing - the financial side of it."
Gail's marriage had started when she was just a "baby” of 22, but after three children and a failed business, the union faltered. They lost the family home and had to move into a rental property. She and her husband were still living together but the marriage in effect was over."We should have split up then," Gail says. “I couldn't kick him out onto the street because he had no job, he had nothing." And she couldn't afford the rent on her own. “We were living in the same house for some years, it was quite horrible," she says.
Eventually, Gail's husband moved out and they divorced, so he could remarry. There was no ill-feeling between them, but Gail was marooned.
“The hard part was being 50 and having nothing," she says. “I have worked my whole life.”
A redundancy package gave her the financial breathing room to take a step back. She joined a gym, and changed her eating habits.
"I felt I wanted someone to look after me, show me what to do and make me feel better about myself," she says. “I wanted to feel more attractive for me. Not for anyone else, but for me. Because all I've ever done is look after my family and husband and work. I wanted to find out about me. Who was I? I wanted to discover myself again."
She says it was a scary but liberating time. “I felt like I wasn't just someone's wife or someone's mum anymore. I was Gail. I could see myself as a new person.”
On the path to recovery
Even The narrative of recovery can be deceptive. The media loves stories of facing adversity, finding strength and emerging stronger and happier, but these aren't universally applicable. While the pain and confusion of divorce diminishes over time, life after a marriage break-up has challenges.
Sally is candid about the fact she still struggles. “We've come a long way, me and the kids," she says. But she has to work at happiness every day. “I'm a really determined person. I feel like I've been burnt. I keep crashing but I keep rising."
Sally started collecting antiques again and with each new find, feels like a piece of her old self is being restored. “I just refuse to give up," she says.
Megan says finding a hobby or a passion to channel your energy into can help the recovery process. “The anger was going to eat me alive so I started running,” she says. “And I wasn't a runner. But the endorphins calmed me down. I say that to everyone - put the wine down and go for a run."
It took a long time for her to feel like herself again. One critical thing she did was forgive - not just her ex-husband, but herself too. “I did have to forgive him because I just hated him so much."
Gail has a similar mantra: "You've got to take your focus away from what's bad in your life and look at what's good.” As she was going through her journey of self-discovery, her first grandson was born. "He was my little light at the end of the tunnel," she says.
“When I needed something to focus on that was good, I was able to focus on him."
What's your divorce story? Tell us about it here.
Sign up to W24's newsletters so you don't miss out on any of our stories and giveaways.