When an individual decides to move forward with a divorce from a spouse, especially after many years of marriage, it is not uncommon for her or him to experience an identity crisis of sorts. Although some might believe men typically experience less of an identity crisis than women during a divorce, the reality is it’s important for both genders to be prepared for the drastic changes to come.
“When you say I’m going to terminate (a marriage) after a long period of time, or at an older age, you look around and say my whole existence has changed dramatically,” said divorce attorney John F. Schaefer, who has offices in Birmingham, Grosse Pointe and Harbor Springs. “That causes a potentially identity crises. Because who am I anymore?”
Advice for women navigating a divorce
Think about it. From the day you were born, you were somebody’s daughter. Then you became someone’s friend and girlfriend and, finally, someone’s wife. After that, you may have emerged as someone’s mother. Your identity has primarily been connected to your relationship with another person. So what happens when that connection is broken, and how does this affect your identity?
The key to getting through this turmoil is to recognize it and then take steps to create a new identity — one that will withstand changes in a relationship status.
While the legal divorce consists of paperwork and a rubber stamp, there is an identity shift that occurs when you receive the judgment back from the court. You are no longer a wife. You check a new box when asked if you are married or single. You file your taxes differently. No longer do you qualify for the $500,000 capital gains tax exemption when selling a house (you can get a $250,000 exemption instead).
Running two households costs more than one. Depending on your financial circumstances, you may have less money to spend than you did while you were married, which can affect the way you live your life and see yourself.
At the same time, it is possible you will have more control over money in your new post-divorce life. You might now be a financial decision-maker, and this can be both scary and exciting. You will need to pay attention to what you are spending, as it is now solely your money.
“The average person who is going to get divorced in their 60s or 70s is going to find that there isn’t enough money to go around and there has to be a significant declination in lifestyle. We have people on pensions and social security, not really wage earners, who do great when they’re together, but when you separate them, the expenses do go down that dramatically. Two can live almost as cheaply as one,” Schaefer said.
Other changes could occur as well that involve your financial identity. For example, if your children go to a private school that manages contributions, you and your ex may each get separate calls soliciting donations, as you are now individual households (include it in your budget).
The parental divorce is often one of the most emotionally charged areas of divorce. This identity deals with how you co-parent with someone who is no longer in your home and is outside your control.
The social divorce is probably one of the parts of divorce that receives the least attention, but it is meaningful and has a huge impact on your social identity. This is where your friends choose a side (even though they may pretend they have not), and you may need to find new single friends to socialize with. There will also be married friends who distance themselves from you because they believe divorce is contagious and do not want to catch it.
During the social divorce, your identity takes a real shift as you now may have to find some new friends. You are not always part of the same social circles anymore, and realizing you are not invited to events you looked forward to in the past could be disheartening and upsetting.
To survive this, you need to make decisions about how you want to move forward socially. Are you comfortable spending time with your best friend and her husband, even if it is at a table for three?
Some experts suggest that women going through divorce having something in their lives in addition to their parenting or wife duties, whether it be a job outside of the home, working with a charity, or whatever. You should also have some place where you can go and people know your name and do not know you only as Jamie’s mother or Todd’s wife.
You cannot connect all your identities to another person; otherwise, you will be lost if that relationship is ever severed. It is imperative you have something in your life that, no matter what relationship ends or changes, your name remains the same.
Advice for men navigating a divorce
For men, there is a change experienced related to your identity when you receive the divorce judgment from the court. Suddenly, you are no longer a husband, and unless you decide to become one again in the future, that will not be a title you hold. Moreover, you can no longer check the “married” box on medical forms, you are single or divorced, and you even have to file your taxes differently.
Some of the perks of being married have also disappeared. For instance, you no longer qualify for the $500,000 capital gains tax exemption when you decide to sell a house (you can get a $250,000 exemption instead).
It is entirely possible for your identity to be impacted in the financial divorce. For instance, you may have less discretionary income to depend on. After all, running two households will cost more than running one. If you had a double income when you were married or if you were the primary breadwinner (who now must pay alimony and child support — though the rules will change for divorce agreements entered into after December 31, 2018, due to the 2017 tax law), your lifestyle might change considerably, and this could change the way you see yourself.
Other changes could affect you as well. For example, if your children go to a private school that manages contributions, you and your ex may each get separate calls soliciting donations, as you are now individual households (include it in your budget). However, it also may be nice for you to be in control of your budget and what you are spending.
In the social divorce, a couple’s friends will usually choose a side (even if they say they are not going to), and in turn, you are sometimes left alone. You need to either adjust to this new reality or find new single friends, and either can be hard.
During the social divorce, there is a real shift — and it can be good or bad. You may have less in common with some of your married friends, and while many of them might want to play your wingman, it is probably wise to find some single men to hang out with or even some divorced dads. Simply understand that you are no longer of the same social circle. It is OK to feel upset or angry if you are no longer invited to the events and parties you and your ex might have gone to in the past together.
In many relationships, the wife is in charge of the social calendar, and the husband shows up where and when he is told to show up. So, when the social coordinator is no longer in the picture, many men will not know how to, or will just throw themselves into work or alcohol or become isolated to fill the social void that is created upon divorce.
To survive this, you need to make decisions early on about how you want to move forward on a social level. Are you comfortable spending time with your best friend and his wife, even if it is a table for three? In time you will learn how to navigate this new social landscape.
Finally, about your spouse’s identity crisis: If you have a full-time paying job and your ex does not but will soon need to get one, her entire worldview has been turned upside down. Be aware and sensitive to this fact, and understand her fear and identity crisis. Do your best to relate to this pain and empathize.
You both have likely spent many years of your life connected to each other. It is no easy feat to figure out how to best disentangle in a healthy and productive way.