Welcome to our series, The Divorce Diaries. Today we talk to Katie*, who found herself experiencing financial abuse when she told her husband she wanted a divorce and we speak to a divorce coach about how to protect yourself financially when separating.
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.
One of the realities of a divorce is that by the time one person announces they want one, it’s usually a decision they have been thinking about for some time. That was the case for Katie*, who had known that she and her husband had grown apart but wanted to spend a lot of time making sure that she really was sure before she made any moves.
“Out of respect for both our daughter and the many years we had been together, I wanted us to get relationship counselling as a first step,” she says. The pair had met in their early 20s and in the years since, had grown in different directions.
But after six months of weekly counselling, things weren’t getting any better. In fact, they were deteriorating at a more rapid rate. “A lot of women may find this – there was a huge expectation that, being the person who had said ‘there’s a problem and we need to work on this,’ there was almost an expectation that if I had the counselling, I would get ‘better’,” Katie says. “A lot of people said that to me. The question ‘Are you fixed yet?’ was used quite a lot.”
The timing also coincided with the pandemic, so they were all locked down together just after Katie had said she wanted to separate.
It felt like her ex wanted to sit there and allow Katie to fix everything – which had been exactly the problem in the first place, she says. “It got to a point where I’m not sure if it was age or life experience, but I’d just turned 40, our daughter was young. I was a stay-at-home mum and I was starting to think about what could be next for me, in terms of my own personal growth.”
As well as having a lawyer, Katie had also enlisted the help of Kimberlee Sweeney, a divorce coach who helped her through the ‘should I leave’ part of the process, encouraging Katie and her husband to see the relationship counsellor, and then the ‘how to leave’ section, particularly in helping Katie set up her post-separation life.
“Not only did she help with all the little bits and pieces you don’t know you don’t know until you get a divorce, to checking in with me when I hadn’t seen her for a while,” Katie says.
Kimberlee also helped Katie plan her financial future throughout the process, helping encourage her to turn her passion for fitness into running her own company that was specifically aimed to help women recover from child birth.
“She gave me a journal where I was not only writing down my emotions and feelings each day, I was also writing ideas of what would bring me peace or bring me security,” Katie says.
This daily task helped her with what Katie says where her two biggest obstacles to leaving: 1) How is this going to affect other people and what will society think of me and 2) How am I going to support myself financially?
“I felt like I was stuck and writing helped me get out of that feeling, that I could see a next step,” Katie says. “It takes courage to believe in yourself, to believe that things can be better. I knew that I needed to become financially independent, so it was a slow plan of: find something I’m passionate about, retrain, and eventually start my own business.”
As part of that, Katie retrained herself as a personal trainer, specialising in post-natal support and pelvic floor rehab. “I’d always been passionate about fitness and I wanted to help other mums feel the same way, in terms of finding their identity and self-worth after having a baby,” she says.
It was also a step Katie needed to become financially independent, but it became clear that was seen as a threat to her partner, who made it clear there was no money for her to retrain and also no money to cover childcare.
“It got to the point where he didn’t like me leaving the house to train as a personal trainer, because I might train men. There was no good reason for this – there had been no affairs, there was no close friendship he felt threatened by, there was nothing like that.”
Once Katie told her husband she wanted to separate officially, he cut her off financially overnight even though they were still living in the same house.
“I had to borrow money from my parents so that I could buy necessities like tampons,” she says. The timing also coincided with the pandemic, so they were all locked down together just after Katie had said she wanted to separate.
Her ex moved into the spare room and Katie and her daughter stayed in the main bedroom, sharing the bed because their daughter had outgrown her cot and Katie’s ex refused to pay for money for a new bed.
“I had to borrow money from my parents so that I could buy necessities like tampons.”
When her ex’s lawyer got involved, they then made formal statements to the court that it was “unhealthy” for their daughter to share a bed with Katie. The lawyer also asked Katie that ‘did she know that girls from broken homes are more likely to end up with unplanned teenage pregnancies?’
For 12 months, Katie lived in a limbo of wanting to start her own business but being unable to, because the only money she could access was that which her parents could lend her. “I didn’t qualify for any help from WINZ, because I was living under the same roof as my ex-partner.”
A while after lockdown, Katie’s husband moved out and shifted cities. For the first year after they separated, he kept visiting their daughter but has stopped regular visits since. While he has maintained child support, he has since refused to pay an extra costs, despite the parenting agreements they had signed on during their divorce. “I could take him to court, but it’s just another drawn-out legal process and I don’t want to involve our daughter.”
When Katie looks back now, she can see how slowly threatening her ex’s behaviour had become. When she would go out to dinner with friends, he would wait at home in the dark and leap out at her, yelling “where have you been?” when she got home. One of the scariest moments came during lockdown, Katie says.
It was after the tragic case of Kiwi father Rowan Baxter, who poured petrol on his estranged wife and children while they were in the car and set them on fire, killing all of them. Katie’s ex called her into the lounge, from the bedroom where she spent her time in lockdown, to make her watch the news report. “I took it as a threat and told my lawyer,” she says.
“There were many incidents like that where I could see the crazy. He would start drinking at midday and go to 3am, almost every morning. It was horrible having to sleep in the same house as him every night, because every night when I went to sleep, I thought, ‘is this going to be the night when he loses it?’”
Katie’s big advice for anyone in that ‘stuck’ phase is to build your support network. “Whether it’s your family, someone like Kimberlee or a group of women who have been through the same thing,” she says. “Being able to tell my story and ask for advice gave me the confidence, as did knowing that other women had been through it and survived – and that I could too.”
She also kept her daughter in mind, long term, to find the courage to leave. “I wanted to show her that I was strong and, also, what a healthy relationship was. If I had stayed in that unhappy marriage, where I wasn’t treated well, she would have seen that and thought it was okay.”
That feeling of empowerment is also one of the big messages of her personal training business, as well. “I wanted to show my daughter, and my clients, that just because you’re a female, just because you’re a mother, it doesn’t mean you have to put your happiness behind everybody else’s. That you are worth having happiness.”
How To Protect Yourself From Financial Abuse When Separating
Divorce Coach Kimberlee Sweeney, from Degrees of Separation, says that finance abuse like Katie’s can be common when it comes to ending a relationship and it’s a form of control that needs to be taken seriously.
Kimberlee encourages clients to seek advice from their family lawyer and provide family budgets to show the standard and cost of living during the relationship. Their lawyer can also help insist that their client has access to joint funds, or that a payment schedule is set up, until there is a settlement agreement in place.
“This can be one of the biggest mistakes people can make when separating – not engaging the right lawyer to fit your needs,” Kimberlee says. “A good family lawyer would not allow financial abuse to happen to you, and this can be one of the biggest concerns for woman who are coming out of a long-term relationship.”
As Katie said, ‘You don’t know what you don’t know’ and it’s one of the reasons seeking the advice from a divorce coach can be so helpful when it comes to leaving a relationship.
“With the right support, you can have a good divorce. It doesn’t have to be contentious or litigious if you handle yourself well in the process AND get good advice from the get-go.”