Hindsight's 20/20, so there's no one better than ex-wives to tell you what to do (and not to do) if you're going through—or just contemplating—a divorce. Here, real women share what they wish they'd known when they split from their husbands and divorce professionals weigh in on how to combat the most unexpected, yet most common, mistakes they've seen clients make. Rest assured, these 10 lessons can get you through the end of your marriage, both financially and emotionally.
1. It may take a long time to recover—and that's okay. Julie, 50, from Denver, thought she'd be able to handle her divorce. "I'm a strong person, I own my own business and I'm a professional speaker," she says. But she admits she could barely function for a full year after the split.Her divorce recovery classes helped her realize everyone bounces back at their own pace. Psychotherapist Pandora MacLean-Hoover, who's divorced, also suggests finding a therapist who knows firsthand how vulnerable you are. "Therapists who haven't experienced divorce often create false hope," in regards to recovering quickly. "It's important to have support that's educated as well as therapeutic."
2. Choose your counsel wisely. "I used a criminal attorney and got a poor settlement," admits Christine K. Clifford, CEO of Divorcing Divas. On the other hand, a lawyer who's well-versed in family law could get you a better settlement because she knows the state-law nuances and local judges and lawyers, says Jacqueline Newman, a partner at a boutique New York City law firm specializing in divorce. If you and your husband have complicated combined assets, you may need additional pros. Kira Brown, 34, from Phoenix, AZ, owned a business with her ex-husband and wishes she'd also hired a financial planner for help negotiating her settlement.
3. Dig deeply into your joint finances. According to financial analyst Sandy Arons, a divorcee herself, 40% of divorce proceedings are about money. So get as much information as you can about your shared accounts to be well-informed before court. Specifically, "learn all of the online passwords to bank accounts, which accounts had automatic payments and where money is invested, including the names of all accounts, the account numbers and the investment advisors," says Newman. Ask your attorney when and how it's best to gather this info first, though.
4. Figure out your future living expenses ASAP. Your financial well-being should be your top priority, says divorce financial expert and mediator Rosemary Frank. "Raw emotions will heal and legalities will be completed, but the financial impact of poor decisions, or default decisions due to lack of understanding, will last a lifetime," she warns.Step one: Thoroughly understand your current cost of living before the divorce proceedings start. "If you don't know what you'll need in the future, you won't be able to ask for it and you surely won't get it," she says.
5. Anticipate unexpected costs. Even with carefully planning out your future expenses, something surprising may pop up. For example, your husband may be able to boot you from his health insurance plan, leaving you with an added cost of as much as $1,000 per month. Caitlin, 55, from Tarrytown, NY, recommends requesting a one-time payment, separate from alimony. "I asked for, and got, a check 30 days after my husband left," she says. "Too many men dodge their financial responsibilities, so waiting for that first alimony check is unwise. Try to have money available—like $5,000—within days. You'll need it."
6. Trying to hurt your ex usually backfires. Newman says that a client of hers told her husband's boss about his affair with his secretary and ended up getting him fired. "It not only 'showed him;' it also showed the wife—and their children—what life is like on a lower salary," she says.Simplybadmouthing your ex is likely to hurt your kids more than your husband, even if you don't think they hear or read what you say. "Anything written online about an ex-spouse will exist forever—when the children are old enough to read," cautions Newman.
7. Being divorced doesn't mean you're a failure, less competent or less desirable. "Divorce used to be something people didn't do, and many considered divorced women to be 'loose' and 'scandalous,'" says two-time divorcee Jennifer Little, PhD, founder of Parents Teach Kids. Some of those stigmas still exist, she says, so remember that divorce doesn't define you. "Divorcing just means that the relationship didn't work out," she says. "You haven't been rejected as a woman or a person, nor are you incompetent at being a wife, a partner, a lover, a friend."
8. The holidays will be harder than you expect. Amanda, 29, from Albuquerque, NM, was married for over six years until her divorce. "I wasn't prepared for the loneliness that accompanied Christmas," she says. "It amplified the concept of a broken home." She wishes she had made plans to see her mother or a friend—or taken a vacation—to take her mind off spending the holiday by herself. So make sure you stay busy during that difficult time of year.
9. Your kids won't tell you how they really feel about the divorce, but their behavior will. "Children feel a sense of responsibility for the breakup no matter how much the parents state it wasn't about them," says marriage and family therapist Lesli M. W. Doares, author of Blueprint for a Lasting Marriage. So monitor your kids' actions to understand how they're dealing.Watch out for little ones regressing in their behavior—acting younger, wanting to sleep in bed with you—or showing anger toward siblings and peers. Adolescents tend to act out by drinking, skipping school or disobeying curfews. To get things back on track, Doares suggests addressing issues as a family so everyone can talk about the changes together. Also, inform your child's teacher of the new situation, but don't automatically put your kid in therapy. "It can leave him feeling stigmatized or reinforce that the divorce is his fault," says Doares, though therapy's a good option if the behavior change is extreme.
10. Divorce can be freeing—and totally worth it. Annie, 47, from Boston, felt like she didn't have any talents, besides caring for her kids, before divorcing in 2007. She now has a blog, PlentyPerfect.com, and sees new directions her life can take. "Divorce can be the beginning of a good next chapter, even if you don't know how the book's going to end," she says. "Maybe you don't know what the options are yet, but they're out there."