Friday, December 8, 2023

The Divorce Diaries: “It Got So Toxic, So Fast, It Was Like My Wife Was a Completely Different Person”

Welcome to our series, The Divorce Diaries. In our past instalments over the last year we’ve covered everything from  the effect of lockdown on divorces  to whether they’re contagious and have now spoken to dozens of women – including one whose husband announced he was leaving her to have an open relationship with a 19-year-old and another who was quite literally ghosted  by her own husband.

Jeremy* had suspected his marriage of 18 years was over but every time he tried to broach the conversation with his wife, she shut him down. When they did eventually separate, Jeremy says he was unprepared for how toxic it got… and how fast. He talks about the importance of bringing in a divorce coach and what he wishes he had learnt earlier about trying to divorce in an amicable way.

Kimberlee Sweeney, divorce coach and CEO of Degrees of Separation, says that so many of the people who seek her advice are asking themselves the big question of should I stay or should I go and it’s never a light decision; in fact, she estimates that most of them have been asking themselves that for at least two years before they make a move.

That was exactly the case for Jeremy*, who had been in a relationship with his wife Madeleine* for 18 years. The pair had met young and had two children together, but over the past three years he had been all too aware that the relationship had broken down.

“Any time I tried to talk to my then wife about it, it was really difficult because she would change the focus of the conversation and we would end up talking about the problems that she had with me, instead.”

When they did eventually have the big talk, he was surprised at how surprised his wife was; despite the many times he had tried to broach the conversation over the years.

“I was feeling increasingly unwelcome at home and after three years of trying to talk about, I’d had enough,” he says. “She said that she thought I was quite happy with us living the way we were and then proceeded to tell me how screwed she would be, financially, if I left. And that’s when I realised that there was nothing there any more, it was over.”

Jeremy was very aware of the financial situation and had been to a financial advisor in order to come up with a plan that would be as easy and amicable as possible; he also had hired a lawyer who specialised in collaborative resolution. He also wanted to make sure the childcare was split as equally as possible, so both he and Madeline had equal amounts of responsibility. But things turned toxic, fast.

“Any time I would have to communicate in those early days, I would have a huge, physical stress response.”

Firstly, Madeline hired a lawyer that was “basically a shark”, Jeremy says, and no matter what financial solutions Jeremy presented, they were never good enough. Her language became more and more abusive and manipulative, he says. The childcare negotiations started off okay, with Jeremy seeing the kids for three days a week.

But after a conversation about the school holidays derailed into abusive language from Madeline, Jeremy sought help from a mediator to help with their communication. Madeleine refused to attend, but Jeremy was given good advice, which then matched what he had been told from divorce coach Kimberlee, who at that stage he had just started to work with.

Having a middle person when it came to the communication was invaluable, Jeremy says – at the beginning, he was running all his emails to his ex by Kimberlee, to make sure they were as straightforward as possible. In an ideal world, Jeremy and Madeleine would have reached a level of communication that was friendly now but as anyone who has been in that will tell you, divorce is rarely an ideal world. Case in point, Jeremy says drily that the last text message he received from Madeleine had her referring to him as a c**t.

But he said what was useful is that early on in his time working with Kimberlee, she picked that a peaceful resolution was unlikely, so it was more about working on his own reactions.

“She recognised really early that it wasn’t going to be about changing the situation, it was going to be about empowering me to be able to deal with it,” he says. “I was already reasonably okay at not escalating, I was trying really hard not to do the same thing back. But Kimberlee helped me find a structure and a way to communicate where – and it took a long time – I could write the same emails without needing to send them to her first.”

“It wasn’t going to be about changing the situation, it was going to be about empowering me to be able to deal with it.”

Having good plans in place – particularly with parenting – and sticking to those structures has been key, Jeremy says, in terms of reducing the opportunities for conflict. “Any time I would have to communicate in those early days, I would have a huge, physical stress response – almost like PTSD and I’d get almost paralysed by it,” he says. “I just didn’t know what to do. But the help that Kimberlee gave me got me to the point where that doesn’t happen as much anymore.”

It can be hard for the male partner in a heterosexual split because while women are more natural at wrapping around their friends, that’s not always the case for men and their male friends. Jeremy said he was well supported because he also had a close friend going through a divorce, but he says that’s another reason why having a divorce coach to download with is so key. “There’s a sense of validation that comes with a third person helping you understand what you’re going through, that I don’t think I would have got from my friends,” he says.

Jeremy also started seeing a therapist at that time, who he says was also invaluable in dealing with the brutal aftermath of his divorce. “It got so toxic, so fast, that it was like my ex was a different person, someone I’d never met before,” he says. “The person I was married to is not the person who I was dealing with, at that point. The person in my memory almost became a fiction to me.”

“The person I was married to is not the person who I was dealing with, at that point. The person in my memory almost became a fiction to me.”

“I’m not under any illusion that I was a perfect partner, I know that a marriage doesn’t break down because only one person has f**ked something up; that’s not how it works. And especially in a case like ours, when it was a breakdown over a long period of time.” Even though he had actively been wondering if they should separate for the last three years of the relationship, Jeremy says if he’s honest with himself, it was clear they had been unhealthy for each other for at least 10 years of their relationship.

“I can think back to the thoughts I was having then about ‘how would I handle separating from her?’ ‘How would I end up handling the financial situation so that I didn’t end up losing everything?’” he says. “And to be honest, in the end, basically the only way was for me to give up. I wouldn’t say I lost everything, but I lost a lot.”

“The first piece of advice shouldn’t be go to a parenting separation course, it should be find yourself a divorce coach.”

 For people in his earlier position, wondering if they should end a relationship, Jeremy says it’s important to try to keep things as amicable as possible and the people you hire can make a tremendous difference in that. “It’s only been through the guidance from people like Kimberlee and like the lawyers I chose, who are collaborative minded… I think it’s really important to surround yourself with people who are not going to make the process more destructive and more antagonistic than it needs to be,” he says.

“Having someone who can be an impartial voice of reason is really important. The first piece of advice shouldn’t be go to a parenting separation course, it should be find yourself a divorce coach. And preferably one who can work with both sides.”

The nature of divorce is that it is a process where people’s feelings can’t help but get hurt, Jeremy says, and hurt people rarely make rational decisions. “If you go too far down that path of acrimony, you end up not being able to talk to each other and that damages the ability to co-parent and really be there for your kids. That’s the thing I really regret. My kids are doing great – they’ve coped amazingly well through it, but they’ve coped amazingly well through it in spite of us. And that’s the really tragic thing.”

How To Feel Festive, Fast (Because Somehow It’s Christmas Again)

It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas (like... a stressful amount?) as we suddenly leave November and arrive, smack-bang, into the last month...

Ladies, From November 30 You’re Working For FREE: A Deep Dive Into NZ’s Gender Pay Gap

November 30 is #NoPayDay, where Kiwi women are effectively working for free for the rest of the year because of the gender pay gap....

Christmas Sorted: 30 Elf on The Shelf Ideas

Need some Christmas inspiration? We've got THIRTY different Elf on the Shelf ideas to help you survive December! There are few worse feelings in December...

A Tribute to Smokefree: Did This Clever Tactic They Employed Stop YOU From Smoking?

Smokefree (Auahi Kore, a government-run division of Te Whatu Ora) is one heck of an incredible driving force behind keeping our tamariki healthy. Sadly,...