One evening in mid-March 2020, I told my then-husband that we needed to talk.
It was no secret to either of us that our marriage was profoundly troubled. In our 6 years of marriage, we'd been in and out of couples therapy, in and out of phases of trying to fix things (or learning to live with them broken), and through years of fighting and trench-digging to settle into a silent, bitter stalemate. We weren't on the same side, and we hadn't been in a long time.
After we got our daughters (then 3 and 5 years old) to bed that night, we met in our kitchen to talk, sitting at opposite ends of a long black granite island—an almost comical amount of distance between us.
I told him that I was done—really done this time—and that we needed to start moving toward divorce. Final answer. No takebacks.
In another marriage there might have been tears, or pleading, or fighting. But we were already strangers to one another. All he said was "OK," and we each quietly went to our (separate) rooms to process what had just happened.
For my part, I felt relief—relief from speaking my truth and from the prospect of real change on the horizon—but also deep anxiety. As fraught as our marriage was, it provided undeniable financial safety. At the time, I was in a creatively fulfilling but financially precarious job. I relied on my then-husband and his job for our family's financial ballast (not to mention health insurance).
My financial future looked foggy. But I at least felt confident that whatever it held, I was tough enough to handle it. Sure, news coverage of this "novel coronavirus," as it was then called, was getting more dire by the day. But the world is always uncertain, right?
There may be no perfect time to kick-start a divorce. But you could argue that March 2020 turned out to be the worst. Just 2 days after my big announcement, my husband's office shut down, which meant we were both working from home indefinitely (I was already fully remote pre-COVID). The next day the kids' preschool closed—then the library, restaurants and shops, parks and playgrounds (you remember). And as we all learned the meaning of the phrase "social distancing," my normal social outlets suddenly shut down as well.
We were stuck in the house together 24/7, with no one to talk to other than the one person we couldn't bear to talk to.
On top of that, those early COVID days plunged the world into an alarming state of uncertainty, which only magnified my financial anxieties. On the mild end, I worried about losing my job. On the severe end, I worried about global economic depression. It looked like my future life as a divorcée might be less Sex and the City and more The Grapes of Wrath.
That period wasn't pretty. But like everyone else facing lockdown, I found ways of coping. My ex-to-be and I agreed on a makeshift custody schedule even though we were still living under the same roof, so I started having more "me time." I reconnected with old friends by phone and over Zoom, and felt real relief when I finally told them the truth: No, my married life wasn't actually the perfect picture I'd tried to project on holiday cards and Instagram. Despite being trapped in my house, I felt freer than I had in years.
We ended up quarantining together for 3 months. First, there were negotiations over who was staying and who was leaving (ultimately, we agreed he should move out). Then there was the simple fact that no rentals were turning over in the middle of a lockdown. But finally, the world started creaking back into gear, and he found a house to rent about a mile away.
Some 2 weeks before his moving day, we sat our daughters down and gave them a carefully crafted talk (based on our own research, and consultations with therapists) about how we were going to become a "2-house family." The day of his move, I watched him and a friend—who'd been his best man at our wedding—load his stuff into a U-Haul. And then he was gone.
The move to living apart did wonders for my baseline stress level. But that relative tranquility was regularly punctuated by Zoom sessions with our mediator, to do the ugly work of haggling through a divorce agreement.
Going into those sessions, I'd imagined that the process would look like a precise surgery: carefully separating our conjoined finances penny by penny, making sure that each party was made whole.
In reality, it felt more like buzzing a chainsaw down the middle of our assets. He took a little more Roth IRA money. I took a little more home equity. We bumbled through who would pay what when our kids went to college in 15-odd years. We wrangled over exactly what counted as "income" for each of us in calculating child support.
It was stressful as heck. I called my mother after each session to vent. I went through many a pint of ice cream in single sittings. By late summer 2020, a couple of months after he'd moved out, I noticed my hair was falling out (not a reassuring development when you're contemplating reentering the dating scene).
Yet little by little, we got through it all, and life started to settle down. We filed our agreement and received a Zoom court date. I found a much better job. Our kids got used to switching houses. After a couple of legal hiccups over technicalities in our agreement, our divorce was finalized. (And mercifully, my hair stopped falling out.)
None of it was easy. All of it was worth it. Today, my ex and I have a healthy, respectful coparenting relationship. Our kids have 2 households full of love, not tension, and 2 parents who are able to bring their best selves to the task of raising them.
I may not have as much money as I would if I'd stayed married. But I have a life that I love, which is worth so much more.
5 tips to survive and thrive through a divorce
- Find an outlet for all the hard feelings. Divorce can bring a lot of fear and anger. Whether it's talking to friends or a therapist, joining a support group, or journaling, find ways to process your feelings that don't involve your ex or attorney.
- Get organized. This can be painful if you took a backseat on financial matters in your marriage, but the effort is worth it. Knowing the details of your finances can not only help you make better negotiating moves, but also help you feel more in control during a scary, uncertain time.
- Let go of the power struggle. Nobody ever "wins" in a divorce. Don't use the mediator's room or courtroom to settle old scores.
- Focus on what really matters. You can't die on every hill. Of the contentious issues you're facing, figure out the few you really care about. Then, make peace with the idea that you may have to compromise on others.
- Get the legal and financial guidance you need. The details of your divorce will affect your finances for the rest of your life. Make sure you're crystal clear on your rights under the law, and how any decisions will impact your finances.
Elizabeth Leary, CFA, is a director and thought leadership editor at Fidelity Investments.
She lives in the Boston metro area, where she’s raising her 2 children in partnership with her coparent.