My marriage ended in a scatter of furniture. To be specific, it was our household furniture. To be even more specific, it was scattered across the backyard of our new rental property after my husband told the removalists to go home before promptly taking himself off to work. The marriage limped on for another year after that, but came to an abrupt halt when we discovered we had to move again.
Most of us don’t get married expecting divorce but, like one third of Australian marriages, that’s where mine is headed. It wasn’t an easy decision. Our two small children and the prospect of an uncertain financial future made certain of that. But making the decision was like finally releasing a valve, even if it was just the first step.
Our separation, like our marriage, has been a rollercoaster. Its unexpected twists and turns have tossed me from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other. Some days I’ve wondered when the ride will end. When will the lawyer’s bills stop mounting and the kids stop asking impossible questions and the bureaucratic red-tape that encases it all, finally run out?
The process of legal separation that leads to divorce can be demoralising, especially for women. In general, we come out of separations financially worse off than men and with less time. Most maintain the majority care of their children, making it difficult to advance their careers, build superannuation, increase their income and form new relationships. According to an Australian Institute of Family Studies report, The Economic Consequences of Divorce in Six OECD countries, women who divorce experience a 21% drop in their incomes.
Despite this, more women than men initiate separation and divorce in Australia. So, what’s the pay off? Why do we hop on the rollercoaster? And, what do we gain from the ride?
Partly, the answer lies in conservative gender roles and the ways in which marriage often supports them, especially for women with children. Australian women continue to spend substantially more time on unpaid care work than men, reinforcing gender stereotypes. This occurs while we juggle paid employment as well, leaving many of us time-poor and diminished. Over time, this dynamic of putting others’ needs before our own can lead to a loss of self.
According to Melbourne psychologist, Jill Mancini, the empowerment that comes from reclaiming your identity as a valued individual is key. ‘I have consistently observed that, alongside grief over the loss of their marriage, many women undergo remarkable psychological and emotional growth.’ She says this growth restores women’s confidence in making decisions and in their ability to self-advocate.
And so, the process of separation has been for me as I’m sure it has been for many other women, just this… hard and sad but also empowering. A friend, Ariana Callejas Capra, summed it up by saying, ‘[Over time] I started feeling more in control of my life, more confident.’ Like Ariana, the process of learning my rights and then pursuing them has made me stronger.
Without glossing over the harsh realities of leaving a de facto or marriage partnership, the act often gives women more agency over their lives. This is especially true in cases where women have suffered domestic violence. Leaving offers up new choices.
The first major choice I made, of course, was to leave the relationship. It was a long time coming, and by the time we found ourselves sitting like a pair of obstinate children in front of a counsellor, I had well and truly checked out of the marriage.
It takes bravery to admit defeat, to consider the possibilities and to decide that they are better than the alternative. It takes bravery to decide to do it on your own. Although those initial steps were scary, they propelled me forward. After living with indecision for so long, movement was liberating.
The logistics of separating demand action. For a first timer, with no separated friends to call on, the path ahead was confounding. I had no idea where to start. Should I call Centrelink first? A brain numbing prospect. Or, a lawyer? If so, where did I find one? Where would we live? How would I negotiate finances with a man I couldn’t speak to? When would he see the kids? How would I deal with their mounting emotions as well as my own? What steps did I need to take to legally separate? The questions were endless. But information is power, so I contacted WIRE (Women’s Information and Referral Exchange). A volunteer there put me in touch with free legal advice, provided guidance and emotionally propped me up for an hour.
When I got off the phone, I had some idea of the mountain I needed to summit and the equipment required to make the climb. I also realised I’d need a team. This eased an essential fear. I wasn’t alone. Seeking out and asking for help was empowering. I started to gather a support base, which included friends, family and professionals.
Kind people came out of the woodwork to offer their services and encouragement. A friend’s accountant husband helped me devise a financial proposal for mediation. The lawyer I sourced through WIRE became my representation. Friends and family babysat when I had appointments or needed a break, or provided a shoulder to cry on. And many women, on hearing my story, offered their own, to show me I would survive.
Exchanging stories is a powerful act, and these women proved it. Their stories sustained me. They emerged at parties, playgrounds, the gym or down the street. In them was hope, which lifted me up. My friendship group expanded too and the world began to feel full of possibility.
It’s taken the best part of two years but I’ve almost reached the peak. My husband and I have an agreement that works for now. And soon I will be sole owner (if you don’t count the bank) of the small dwelling I live in with my children. The loneliness I experienced in my marriage drove me to write a book, which grew into three. And so, I write and teach part-time. I love my children, but know the joy of having my own space again when they’re with their dad. Soon, I’ll apply for a divorce.
Recently, I took up cycling. Although I’m yet to sport Lycra, I purchased a fast bike. The equivalent to a sports car but more affordable. I told the woman at the bike shop it was a separation present to myself. She laughed and told me her own story. She’d taken up cycling in an effort to keep her husband. Now she’s single, cycling competitively and loving life. Later, she took me on a ride. As I sped down the hill on my new bike behind her, I felt free and, dare I say it, invincible.
For advice on separation and divorce, contact WIRE: 1300 134 130 or drop into 372 Spencer St, West Melbourne (Monday to Friday, 9am – 5pm). WIRE also offers a regular From Separation to Settlement seminar.
‘I’ve been through this myself — it can be incredibly difficult but also hugely empowering when it’s the right decision.’ — Julie Kun, WIRE CEO.
Emily Brewin is a Melbourne based author and educator. She has published one novel and has a second under contract (due for release in February 2019), both with Allen & Unwin. Her short stories, essays and articles have been short and long listed for awards such as the ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize and the 2017 Bristol Short Story Prize. She has written for literary journals, Meanjin and Kill Your Darlings as well as Metro, Screen Education and Shine magazines.