Midlife divorces bring unique challenges

Story and photo by DANIELLE MURPHY

The Community Legal Center houses the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, as well as other non-profit legal aid organizations.

The Community Legal Center houses the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, as well as other nonprofit legal aid organizations.

Monica never had to work during her 32 years of marriage. Then her husband told her he wanted a divorce and she suddenly found herself thrust into the workforce.

Sometimes she wishes things had turned out differently. “When you are more than 50, you are thinking about retirement, not just starting to work,” said Monica, who asked that her real name not be used to protect her safety.

As a wife, Monica stayed home with their four children while her husband worked. But problems at her husband’s job caused stress in their relationship and eventually drove them apart. When he moved out, Monica needed to start working.

Monica and her husband had been living with their daughter, Jill, and her family. “My mom having to start from zero, that was hard to see,” said Jill, whose name also has been changed to protect her identity.

Monica initially began work as a nanny with some housekeeping on the side. Her years of being a mom, as well as her work and training as a midwife before marriage, aided her in this. Recently though, she acquired a new set of skills.

“I will do whatever I need to, to be financially independent,” she said. This self-reliance led her to train as a certified nursing assistant. She recently passed her tests and has started a new job as a CNA.

Nicholas H. Wolfinger, associate professor of sociology at the University of Utah, outlined some of the issues unique to middle-aged people getting a divorce.

He cites the following specific challenges that some divorcees may face: being accustomed to higher standards of living, being less likely to have living parents, having a more difficult time dating and remarrying, and being more used to being married. He also said people who have not been working typically earn a lower salary because they do not have the consistent employment that their spouses did.

The top 3 reasons for postponing divorce. Source: AARP The Magazine.

Graphic by Danielle Murphy. Information source: AARP The Magazine.

According to a study conducted in 2004 for AARP The Magazine, 37 percent of divorced women between 40 and 70 said financial concerns postponed their decision to divorce. This parallels the 37 percent of women who were concerned about the effect their decision would have on their children, which was the top reason for men to postpone separation. Of men surveyed, 58 percent prolonged getting a divorce because of their children compared to only 6 percent of men who were concerned about their finances.

Eventually though, many people do decide to divorce. Despite her husband asking for the divorce, Monica officially filed first. Soon after, she found out her estranged husband had been legally remarried before their divorce had even gone through.

Stewart Ralphs, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake and Monica’s attorney, confirmed the marriage. “Even though it’s technically bigamy,” he said, “it’s hardly ever enforced.”

Ralphs and the Legal Aid Society helped Monica with all the stages of her divorce, from the initial filing all the way through mediation and to the finalizing of the decree.

The LAS was established in 1922 and assists almost 3,000 low-income individuals in Salt Lake each year with domestic violence and family law issues. Legal Aid Society’s fees for family law issues are on a sliding scale based on the client’s income.

Ralphs discussed issues like Monica’s. “[These cases] really pull at your heartstrings. A middle age housewife whose husband left them with no marketable skills … they do their best, but there isn’t enough money to go around. Even with alimony they won’t a have enough to maintain their current lifestyle … that’s a harsh reality check,” he said.

Monica described what she was thinking before the idea of divorce was brought up. “We had some goals to have a life together like normal. For me, that is a normal thing and I always thought that, that was his normal thing too. There wasn’t any reason to think something different, the idea was to be together as a family, as a couple,” she said.

Women like Monica who are concerned about their financial situation because of a divorce have options available for training and education. Many states have developed programs in an attempt to remedy these situations. Utah is one of them.

The Utah Displaced Homemaker Program was created to provide services for displaced homemakers who are having trouble finding employment. Jeff Webster, program specialist for Utah’s Department of Workforce Services, said eligible individuals include people who have been out of the workforce for at least eight years, have stopped receiving assistance from a spouse or family member and are returning to the workforce.

The services offered by the UDHP are composed mostly of workshops that cover topics including resume writing, financial management and using homemaking skills in the workforce.

However, as more and more women enter the workforce during marriage, stories like Monica’s occur less frequently.

Alan Hawkins, professor of family life at Brigham Young University and the chairman of the Utah Commission on Marriage, said, “The situation in which one spouse has devoted herself to … the non-compensated functions of the home and family, is a much less common experience than it was 20 or 30 years ago.”

One theory explaining why more women are working outside of the home involves advances in technology and business. In a study published in 2007, “Marriage and Divorce: Changes and their Driving Forces,” Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, both assistant professors of business and public policy at the University of Pennsylvania, suggest that greater numbers of females work because of the emergence of labor-saving technology, such as kitchen gadgets, and more businesses providing services that have traditionally been preformed by a woman in the home, such as daycare.

Working outside of the home provides some women with emotional stability. Jenn Palacio, a clinical lab assistant at Intermountain Medical Center, dealt with her middle-aged parent’s divorce as a teenager. Her mom, however, had steadily worked throughout the marriage. “My mom always loved working. She was so dependent on my dad in so many other ways that I think working really helped her to be able to move on,” she said.

Getting assistance from programs like the Utah Displaced Homemaker Program after a divorce, or already having recent work experience may make the financial aspect of a divorce easier, but it often doesn’t change the emotional aspect most people deal with when they go through a divorce.

Monica acknowledged that she felt hurt, but didn’t see any other options. “You can’t make anyone love you. They have to want to do it,” she said.

Since divorce is usually unplanned and unexpected, both Wolfinger and Hawkins offered suggestions about ways to avoid divorce from the beginning of the engagement stage.

Wolfinger’s advice to people thinking about getting married is to wait. “The older the better,” he says.

Hawkins’ tip for young couples getting ready to wed involves more active participation.

“Take the process of preparing for a marriage seriously, educate yourself about the knowledge and skills needed to form a healthy marriage and carefully examine the qualities of your relationship,” he said.

Hawkins believes most couples spend too much time on the wedding, what he refers to as the “window dressing,” and not enough time in self-evaluation and formal education.

Monica echoed this sentiment. “When you are in love, during your courtship, everything is pink. Marriage is a commitment that two people who are different have to make. You need to stand up for yourself in a loving, gentle way,” she said.