Diane and John were an impressive couple living what appeared to be a great life. She had a management-track job with a large, IT company and he was a successful academic researcher. Both had strong salaries and promising prospects. The path ahead, both personally and professionally, appeared to be golden.
For the first six years they lived together as a common-law couple but despite outward appearances, all was not well. Diane soon discovered that John had multiple lovers. She comes from a deeply religious background in which commitment and forgiveness are central tenets of her faith so she stayed with him. Her willingness to turn the other cheek ended the day that she discovered that he had proposed to one of his lovers. She asked John to leave.
The year that they were apart, she made what she calls her first critical mistake. John had called and asked to see her again. His appeals sounded genuine and heartfelt, so she agreed to meet him. One thing led to another and they became intimate that evening. The next day she realized that this was not the path that she wanted, and she chose to carry on alone.
It had been a promising year for Diane. She had bought a house, pursued her own interests and continued to thrive at work. Financial security is a big issue for her and finally she was on her way to establishing the comfort and security that she so desired.
All that changed the day that she discovered she was pregnant.
The real problems begin
Scores of women around the world choose to raise a child alone; that’s not unusual. However Diane faced significant road blocks in trying to choose that path for herself. First, her deeply religious family pressured her to marry John “for the sake of the child” and, really, for the preservation of appearances. John’s family, also religious, did the same. To make matters worse, Diane’s employer made it clear that unwed mothers were frowned upon in that company and her management-track position would be at risk. One manager effectively told her that if she refused to marry the father of the child she would be relegated to menial work with no hope of promotion and her income would plummet.
In case you’re wondering if this happened in a third-world country, the answer is no. It happened in Canada in a large, well-known company in the 2000s. Today, Diane knows that she should have held her ground and followed her own heart, but back then she was afraid of losing her job and her financial security. She caved to the pressure and married John. Days before the wedding she miscarried the child. By then she felt stuck; she felt she had to go through with it.
Over the course of the next several years, Diane was pregnant 11 times: 9 babies miscarried, one child was stillborn and another only survived one month after being born premature. The toll on Diane’s physical and emotional health was enormous. After the heartbreak of repeated failure, they adopted a child from another country.
All this time John’s behaviour worsened, ranging from emotionally abusive to physically intimidating. Financially there was a lot of stress for Diane as well, because despite John’s excellent salary he was not contributing at all to household costs, including the mortgage. His attitude appeared to be that Diane’s money was theirs but his money was exclusively his. At one point he was involved in a lawsuit and he expected Diane to resolve it by paying $30,000 from her savings. She refused.
As Diane describes it, she spent her 30s paying off their home with the expectation that it would bring her some financial slack thereby allowing her to focus on raising their daughter. That was an exercise in futility for reasons which will become clear.
The breaking point came when Diane suffered a health crisis. In a fit of rage, John beat the family dog in front of their daughter as Diane lay helpless in bed, recovering from surgery. That was a defining moment for her. She was now afraid for their daughter and she realized that she had no future with this man.
Sadly the worst of John’s behaviour was yet to come, as Diane discovered after she asked him to leave. Now he was furious.
The difference money makes
It’s often said that money doesn’t make you a good or bad person, it just allows you to be “more” of the kind of person you already are. In the right hands, money can be trans-formative. The same holds true of money in the wrong hands.
In the last few months of the marriage, John came into an inheritance. This was before Diane asked him for a divorce. When it became clear that their marriage was over, John moved the funds over to a family member so that Diane could not go after it. As Diane points out, she had no designs on his inheritance. During their seventeen years together, she had never once asked him for money.
The inheritance, coupled with John’s strong income and the fact that he had not paid any household costs for years, provided him with a large pool of money with which to go after Diane. And he did. He engaged lawyers to fight every conceivable battle, forcing Diane to chew through her savings. Every conversation involved a lawyer at $350 per hour. To date, Diane has spent more than $100,000 on legal bills and the fight isn’t over. John keeps finding more issues to raise in order to drag her into yet another battle. Diane knows that these battles won’t end for many years until their daughter is an adult and can no longer be used as a pawn to get to her. He appears to be intentionally setting out to destroy her as a punishment for walking away from him.
The price that Diane has paid goes well beyond the fees paid to lawyers. First, the constant court dates have cost Diane her job. She has become a consultant in order to have the flexibility to address all these ongoing issues. Not surprisingly, her income has suffered. So has her quality of life. She can no longer afford many of the basics that she used to take for granted. When I asked Diane what she is doing differently as a result of her lifestyle changes, the list went from cutting her own hair, making her own bread to cycling everywhere to cut down on costs. The things that she does from scratch for her and her daughter would likely qualify her for a Pioneering Woman Award.
It’s clear that Diane has some challenging years ahead and yet despite the heaviness of her situation she is remarkably positive. The health crisis that she experienced as a result of overwhelming stress was a wake-up call for her to celebrate life, and she has gone on to athletic pursuits that she otherwise would never have entertained. To hear her speak is an inspiration, particularly in light of her living conditions. One can’t help but be impressed by the depth of her strength.
It’s that very strength that prompted me to ask a difficult question: How is it possible that John could come to dominate her in the way that he did? By any measure, Diane is a highly intelligent, strong, capable woman. How did this happen?
There is no easy answer. If anything, the answer is possibly “one small action at a time”. You allow one problem to go unchecked, then another develops and before you know it your world is a complicated mess. It happens all the time.
Diane’s first piece of advice to all women is: “Your truth is your truth. Follow your heart and don’t let anyone pressure you into a decision that doesn’t feel right for you. I should never have married John, regardless of the societal consequences. It was a terrible decision for me. Make your own decisions.”
Here is a list of recommendations she wishes she had followed herself:
- Understand that marriage is a financial partnership. Don’t marry someone that you could never do business with.
- If you are bringing different assets into the marriage (e.g. a house, etc), sign a prenuptial agreement.
- You can survive as a self-employed, single parent. Don’t let fear drive your decision-making.
- Ask for financial statements or discovery at the beginning and understand what assets and liabilities your partner is bringing into the relationship.
- Keep in mind that many promises never materialize. “Later” never comes; there is only today’s actions and deeds.
- Ask yourself “Am I modeling behaviour that I want to see in my children?” If not, make changes to your situation.
Please pass this along to all the women you know. Help us to help other women.
And if you know of someone who has been through a challenging divorce or who has lost their husband/partner, please ask them if they would be willing to be interviewed by me. The feedback I’m getting tells me that these stories are having an impact. I welcome your comments. Let me know what you think.
My next blog post will be Rita’s story: From the KGB to Canada.