Divorce is a much more than just the termination of a marriage. It’s a major financial event that can have repercussions in a person’s life for many years. Financially, a divorce is similar to the dissolution of a business. It’s a situation where a partnership has failed, and one result is that joined financial resources now need to be separated. This is why divorce is a major threat to financial wellbeing. Somewhat ironically, “money issues” ranks among the top three reasons for divorce, and, for most people, a divorce means a decline in lifestyle.
This was the case for a woman I’ll call Melissa. When she and her husband had a child, they agreed Melissa would put her career on hold and be a stay-at-home parent. This worked well until the couple divorced when their son, Ethan, was seven. Melissa had primary custody, her ex-husband paid child support, and she went back to full-time employment. This meant she was not as present in their son’s life as she had been previously.
This obviously presented a number of emotional challenges for her. In addition, one of the ingrained money scripts Melissa had formed as a child was a commitment to be independent and provide for herself. Because of this belief, being financially dependent on her spouse while she stayed home with Ethan was really difficult for her. After the divorce, the need to rely on child support as well as her own earnings still conflicted with her money script about being independent.
One day, when Ethan was eight, his father came to pick him up. As they were getting ready to leave, he handed Melissa a check for child support and told her, “Here is your check.” And Ethan looked up at his mom and said, “Oh, so Daddy pays you.”
This innocent remark cut deep for Melissa, triggering a complex mix of thoughts and emotions. Fortunately, she had been working with a financial therapist who was able to help her unpack and process what was going on. She discovered that a part of her was angry, hurt, and feeling shame that she could no longer be at home with Ethan because she had to work. She also processed the polarization around loving both her son and her work. She became aware of her anger around the deep hurt from her husband leaving the marriage, and the shame around her own contribution to the marriage failing.
Ultimately, she unpacked another part of her that feared being dependent on anyone and did not feel safe. This part really wanted to do well at her job, be successful, and make a lot of money so she no longer needed to depend on her ex-husband for child support. As she put it, “If I can make a lot of money, I wouldn’t even have to deal with him.”
Melissa also needed to deal with the part of her that interpreted Ethan’s comment to mean he thought his father was fully supporting them financially. This left her feeling minimized and unseen for her employment that was the major part of their income.
After processing her own emotions and uncovering the good intentions of her protective parts, she was able to make a plan to appropriately give Ethan some information around the checks his father gave her. First she explained that both she and his father loved him very much and they both contributed money to provide him with what he needs and wants. She did not get into details of who paid how much, just explained as neutrally as she could that the check he saw Daddy give her was part of his contribution. She also made it a point to reassure Ethan that she was sad not to be able to be home with him as much as she used to and neither the divorce nor her needing to work was his fault.
Obviously, depending on the age of the child and many other circumstances, there may have been other ways a parent might respond appropriately in this situation. What I want to emphasize is this: Melissa was given the gift of time to unpack all of her own reactions before she needed to respond to her son. And she didn’t sweep everything under the carpet. She did her very best to own her part, take a look at everything that was happening emotionally for her, and then have an appropriate discussion with her eight-year-old.
Check out The Financial Therapy Podcast by Rick Kahler concerning this topic.