You can never tell what lies beneath a person’s exterior. My friend Diana is a great example of that. I’ve known her for years and while I can’t quite remember how we connected, I can tell you that from the very beginning it felt like we’d known each other for years. Simply put, she is positive, engaging, grounded and very strong. To be around her is to experience laughter and animated conversation. You’d never guess what she’s been through.
If anyone is equipped to deal with nonsense it’s Diana. As I discovered, Diana’s toughness is the result of trial by fire and long experience. When she heard that I was working on a book to help women, she told me to grab a glass of wine, sit down and listen; she had a story to tell.
Jeffrey was a firefighter, an optimist and a ladies’ man throughout his twenties and early thirties. As I understand it, there was quite a revolving door of women entering and exiting his life in quick succession. His sister eventually decided that since Jeff was doing such a poor job of picking women, she would select a great girl for him. At his age, it was time for him to calm down and grow up. She introduced Diana to Jeff in 1994 and they instantly clicked. Both were happy, independent, social people and it worked out brilliantly for a number of years. He loved to cook, she loved to entertain. Neither of them liked conflict so when issues arose, they would cool off and calmly discuss the problems afterwards. To everyone’s delight, Jeff seemed to have settled down into a happy life with Diana, who had moved into his house within the first year.
As Diana came to know Jeff, she learned of his horrific childhood. His mother used to beat the kids and if that weren’t awful enough, when Jeff was eight years old he witnessed his father kill his mother and his grandmother. His father was sent to prison for the double murder but after five years he was released for “good behaviour”. As far as Diana could see, Jeff seemed to have dealt with that terrible past since he now was a very positive person with a successful career.
Roughly one year after they became a couple, they decided to invest in a business together with a few other partners. Diana already had a health services practice but she felt that this would be a great opportunity for growth and thus she became a minority shareholder in the enterprise.
In the early days, cash flow was a significant issue for the business and there were several cash calls. Jeff took out a second mortgage on his house and he asked Diana to sign the papers, claiming that this would give her partial ownership. According to Diana, this is where she made her first critical mistake: She signed the documents without reviewing them carefully or questioning Jeff. Of course she trusted him – he was her life partner. Why wouldn’t she trust him?
By the year 2000, things were beginning to change for Diana and Jeff. Diana’s father had died and left her some cash and his Lexus. Diana used the money to buy a cottage at a ski resort, a place that would become a refuge for her. Jeff used the car as collateral for one of his loans.
Around the same time, Jeff’s father died. Given the family history, Diana expected that this news would bring some closure for Jeff but instead it seemed to trigger a deep, emotional reaction. Jeff began to withdraw and become reclusive, just as he had done in his early 20s. He would disappear for as long as one week without any word or indication of his whereabouts. Colleagues and family alike were beside themselves with worry and they couldn’t believe that he hadn’t said a word to Diana. Diana was shocked.
When Jeff would return home, he’d refuse to discuss where he had been, what he had done and why he had left. When Diana got upset and insisted that they needed to talk, he’d disappear again. This was clearly an untenable situation so Diana suggested that they needed counselling. “I don’t have a problem, you’re the one with the problem,” was Jeff’s reply.
Diana returned with, “OK, so I’m the one with the problem. Let’s go to counselling to see what “I” can do about it then.” Jeff refused and kicked her out of his house when it became clear that Diana wasn’t going to leave things alone.
Diana was very reluctant to leave despite the fact that Jeff’s family and friends were telling her to go in order to protect herself. She was in shock and in denial. “It will get better. He needs help,” she’d argue but they had long experience in dealing with Jeff and they insisted that it would be best for her to leave.
As Diana explains, she didn’t plan her departure very well because she believed that they still had a chance. At first she slept on the sofa at a friend’s house until she could get her head together, then she moved four times in a period of one year. Since her health practice had been located in Jeff’s house, she now had to relocate her business; the disruption had a big impact on her clientele.
After Diana left, Jeff became nasty and vindictive. He stopped paying the loan for which the Lexus was collateral, and eventually Diana’s father’s car was repossessed. Diana then faced another shock when she discovered that despite nine years together and a document which she believed gave her a share of the house, she in fact owned 50% of a second mortgage and other business loans. It didn’t stop there: Jeff went after her for half of the cottage, Diana’s sole place of refuge and at the time, her only residence. Thankfully a judge rebuked Jeff for the latter move and suggested that if Diana took the matter to trial, she would walk away with a lot more than just her cottage. Jeff quickly backed down.
It was clear that Jeff was out to destroy her and since she had signed on the dotted line for a variety of loans, she was stuck. A lawyer recommended that she get a loan to pay out her share of the debts and thereby get Jeff out of her life officially. By the time the matter was resolved, Diana had lost her father’s car and had incurred $60,000 of debt. But, at last, Jeff was out of her life.
The hardest part of all of the above for Diana is the fact that she lost her profession. “How could I go on pretending to be a healer when I was completely broken inside? Jeff had destroyed my soul. I needed to repair and rebuild myself before I could conceive of helping someone else. I also desperately needed money to live, so I had no choice but to find a job in another industry.” Diana found a job with a government policing agency as their communications specialist, a field she works in to this day.
“Oh Doris, I’ve learned so much over the years. I’ve got a long list of advice for women:
1. Never sign a document that you don’t understand. It’s fine to trust someone but always verify anything that you’re about to sign. Have a lawyer review it and explain it to you. It’s much cheaper to do that than to pay for it afterwards.
2. Do not tell your spouse that you’re leaving until you’ve discussed your situation with a lawyer and friends, and you’ve found yourself a place to live. Ensure that you are secure and that you have your circle of experts and support.
3. Go for what is fair and fight back to defend what is rightfully yours. Be strategic.
4. Don’t assume that a break up will be amicable. I made that mistake and I got burned. Protect yourself.
5. Choose a lawyer before you leave, before you’re desperate, and choose the lawyer you want. I took what I could afford and that hurt me. In the end I would have been better off to get a better lawyer, one who understands psychology.
6. Always review your own documents! Jeff did my taxes for years and afterwards I discovered that he had lied about a number of things to the government for his benefit. My accountant and I went to Revenue Canada to declare the problem afterwards but it caused me a ton of stress and worry about what the repercussions would be. Take responsibility for your own documents.
7. Never stay angry or sit at home wondering who your ex is with. I learned that Jeff had been having an affair at the end of our relationship and within three weeks of my departure someone else moved in. If you stay angry and bitter you’re allowing them to control you. Go for therapy, go dancing, do sports, do creative things – whatever you need to do to allow your strength and clarity to surface once again. Leave the past in the past and embrace the freedom that comes with that.
8. Forgive yourself for any mistakes you made. I was so ashamed that I had “lost” my father’s car, that I had not taken better care of it. It felt like I had betrayed my parents. My sister put it into perspective for me, “It’s just a car.” I needed to forgive myself. We all make mistakes. Move on, learn and never let it happen to you again.
A very great friend of mine once told me during the darkest time, “One day, you will become what he’s always wanted to be, and then surpass it by becoming who you truly are.” That was my mantra for years. She was right.”
Many thanks to Diana for sharing the above with me, and now with you. If you know of a woman who has experienced divorce or loss, please connect her with me. I’d love to hear her story. Thanks for reading.