Divorces are like snowflakes: no two are alike.
Her Story is a series of posts focused on real women, sharing their own experiences in separation and divorce. Names and other identifying information are always changed to protect each woman's privacy.
Above all be the heroine of your life, not the victim.
- Nora Ephron
Denise from Hamilton, ON
Denise is 43, divorced, and shares custody of her two children with their father. His mental health severely impacted their marriage, separation and divorce, and continues to challenge their legal parenting arrangement.
Truthfully, I spent a pile of money to get my divorce. I had no choice.
Typically in a divorce, you can deal with everything all at once. You draw up a separation or divorce agreement, and it’s all settled at once. In my case we couldn't do that. I had to split it into pieces so I could deal with one thing at a time. And that cost me a lot of money.
I probably spent about $70,000 in total on legal bills. I also had to split the debt with my ex when we got divorced, so I took on $60,000 of debt on top of the legal bills. I borrowed money from my parents, I used their credit card when I couldn’t get one. I borrowed money from my new partner. It hurt my pride to ask, to have to do it.
I still owe $15,000 but I’m almost done. I’ve worked so hard to pay it all off, and I’m almost there.
I don’t regret it. It had to be done.
Initially, we were able to create a separation agreement together with a template from the lawyer. We started working on it right away—as soon as I moved out. But when it got to the point where it was done, and time to sign it, he wouldn't. And everything just went still. In hindsight, I wouldn't have even bothered involving a lawyer to draft the agreement until after that one year had passed, until we were considered separated. I would have saved my money because I couldn’t do anything legally until then.
One of the biggest issues was our marital home. After I moved out, he decided he wanted to stay there versus selling it, that he would buy me out. But months passed and nothing happened. I was paying for half of it, and couldn’t rent my own place because of those costs. I moved into my sister’s basement, and I had no car. We had agreed he wouldn’t have to pay me support until things were signed and official, so I had nothing.
He didn’t qualify for a loan or a new mortgage, and he was broke too. I know this. And I felt bad. I did. I let it go on for a long time because I felt bad. I know he was stressed about money too, and he wanted to keep the house, and couldn’t make ends meet.
I think about this a lot. About feeling bad. Women do this a lot. We just feel bad, and so we look the other way. We give in. We make concessions. We try to be nice and helpful and accommodating. I don't know why we do this, why I did this. If it was just because of years of gaslighting or what. But I wish I hadn’t.
So, I waited. I just waited until that whole year was up. Then we were considered separated from a legal standpoint, and then I could say “I want to get divorced.”
By that point, we both had lawyers, the next step was getting all the documents to get things rolling. And he wouldn't provide them. My lawyer sent letters, and when he didn’t respond, we filed applications with the courts. I paid to file application after application and got nothing from him. This is what you’re up against with this type of personality. If you want things to move forward, the bill is on you. And he could choose to ignore everything if he wanted.
People always ask me, “How could he do that? Couldn’t the courts make him pay, make him follow the law?” If I could have done something else, I would have. But turns out, no, you can’t make them pay. Your lawyer can’t make them. The police can’t make them. A judge can’t make them. All you can do is send a letter or file an application with the court, and then wait.
People don’t know this and they should. If you are dealing with a difficult personality, a real narcissist, you are in for a battle. There will not be an easy way and it will cost a lot of money to get to each next step. My lawyer would send notices to the court that he didn't file something on time, and again, there were no real repercussions. We would have a hearing or a phone call with a judge, and the judge would say he had until a certain date to provide a document or sign a form, or that he was going to be fined $100 for not showing up or not providing something.
And he just wouldn’t pay. And he just wouldn’t show up. And there is nothing I could do to stop that or prevent that. It was years of me and the lawyer building a case and just sending documents.
We eventually got a pre-trial with a judge. They had to separate us into different rooms. By this point, there was a lien on the house because he had not paid the property taxes or the mortgage in months. The judge decided we needed to get the house sold and to get it on the market. We had to go to court to get him to do it, but it eventually was sold.
People would say to me, “This is causing you so much stress. At what point do you just walk away?” And I would be like, “Walk away from what? With what? I have nothing.” I was working three jobs to make ends meet and I was also the only one trying to manage my kids and their mental health, which also suffered because of it all. But I had to pick my battles.
I think the only way for other women to avoid this happening to them is education. People need to know how to avoid relationships with these personality types in the first place. I remember saying before we got married that something just didn’t feel right for me. Like I felt like he was kind of a con man, something felt wrong, and I didn’t listen to it. I still went ahead and married him. Why didn’t I trust my intuition? There is just not enough education out there to help people trust their own instincts when it comes to marriage and relationships and when to get out. How to get out.
I only communicate with him through email now. No phone, no text. I was told a long time ago that it's not co-parenting with this type of ex. It’s parallel parenting. You do what you do at your house with your children, and they do what they do at their house. I also cover all the expenses for the kids, even though we share custody. Sometimes I ask for half, and in total, he’s maybe given me $500. I can't do anything about it. All I can do is manage what happens in my own house. Sometimes I think my kids are doomed in a way, but they are getting older and they don’t have to live with him forever.
For anyone in a similar position, for any women who think they might leave, I would just say, start preparing. Just in case. Don’t wait. Make copies of everything before you leave, income taxes, bills, mortgage information, everything and for as far back as you have the records. You need it all. Document it all.
And don’t be afraid to get a second legal opinion. My lawyer was fairly junior and we both learned a lot together on my case. At one point, I did reach out to another lawyer and paid the $500 for a consultation just to see if what I was being advised made sense or not. That lawyer told me it did, and that my lawyer was doing it all right, and offered a few suggestions to take back to her. I was a little bit nervous to tell my lawyer that I went for a second opinion. But she told me I was smart for doing it. I was spending a lot of money, and I needed to make sure it was being spent on the right things.
And whenever we hit a roadblock, whenever my ex would flip things in court or didn’t do what he had been court ordered to issued an order to do, my lawyer just said to me, “Remember we got this one thing off our list now. It’s baby steps.”
That’s what I would tell other women now too if they are in this situation. Every little step is part of a systematic road map toward your end goal. Count your baby steps.
Paula from Brandon, MB
Here, we introduce you to Paula from Manitoba. Paula is 48, with three children, and has been divorced for 12 years—an experience that was described by a participating lawyer as “the worst divorce case they had ever worked on”.
With Paula’s permission, we share an edited version of her story.
We had what you would call a high-conflict divorce. Looking back, if I saw that person cross my path now, I would head for the hills. But back then, well, I had lessons I had to learn, I guess.
We met in the 90s and spent years travelling and working overseas. We eventually got married and had our three children here in Manitoba. He was adventurous, fun, smart, energetic, outdoorsy. He was also feisty, a real fighter, a real “conflict person”.
I come from a family that doesn’t confront conflict, so I didn’t even know how to deal with it. I actually thought it was good for me, like he was a bit ‘spicy’ and could teach me a bit about being assertive.
Before I knew what was happening, I was knee deep in it. There was conflict everywhere in his life and as a result, everywhere in mine. It just kept coming back, or old conflicts weren’t resolved, and I just kept hoping he’d one day be done with creating or being in conflict.
He was also a real risk-taker. He was careless—with money, with our lives. He would spend all our savings and we defaulted on our mortgage. He drove too fast, even rolled his vehicle three times. He was angry, and just couldn’t stay calm. There were a lot of angry outbursts, and when things were calm, he’d pick a fight.
I’d try to intervene, to talk to him and we’d make a plan to get out of our financial problems; he would agree and then never stick to the plan. We’d argue and he would threaten to take the kids away from me forever if I left him. That really terrified me for a long time because he didn’t really ever pay close attention to them. They just kind of straggled along behind him, in his wake. He wasn’t able to empathize with people, or see what anyone else needed.
It was craziness. Just craziness. I remember thinking, “If I don’t get out of here, he’ll take me down.”
So, when the kids were old enough to take care of themselves a little bit more, I left.
A friend lent me money for the down payment, and I bought a property in a nearby community so we could reasonably co-parent. I remember having $8 in the bank with nothing to draw on. I walked away from that man with nothing. I got a set of bunk beds and my $8.
And he was as uncooperative as he could be. He wouldn’t pay child support, and I couldn’t go through any government family services offices or use a parenting coordinator because he wouldn’t cooperate with them either. We had a court order, a custody and access report, and it recommended sole custody to me.
But my ex didn’t like it and he didn’t follow it. It stipulated that if he made even “one wrong move” he’d have to have supervised access with the children. It dictated the parenting schedule we had to follow. But he didn’t follow it. He thinks he’s above any kind of order or law; he only follows what he wants. So, we had to go to court.
I tried everything to not go to court. I offered him a settlement, so he could buy his own house closer to me and the kids, and be closer to them for his parenting time. He refused.
I offered him the earth and he wouldn’t take it. So, I went to court to get full custody and permission to relocate the kids to my community. I had hardly any chance and my lawyer said so, but I also had nothing to lose. I won. I did get sole custody.
And he kept fighting me all through the next decade. Any gray area, he would capitalize on it. If I gave him one extra hour with the kids, he would take two. It was always about the fight. His strategy was to pound me with letters and emails and threats of court dates.
He wouldn’t bring the kids back on time and he wouldn’t pick them up. So, I took him to court for not following orders; and to get his parenting time reduced.
Then he took me to the Court of Appeal. But he lost. I had to self-represent, because I could no longer afford a lawyer. Then he went to the Supreme Court to get custody of our youngest child. I was just putting up the decorations on Christmas Eve that year, and a knock came at the door, and I was served with the court papers. He does that. He serves me papers on holidays, or when I’m on vacation, so he can ruin my time away.
He’s a menace. He’s been married and divorced twice during the past 12 years, on top of our own marriage and divorce, and we were in court again just two months ago. He lost and I was awarded costs.
How have I coped? Well, I think a big part of it is that I’ve had to lean on my friends and my family emotionally and financially to cope.
For example, my best friend responds to him for me now. Anytime he sends me an email, I forward it to her and she just responds with “I don’t have time to talk.” I don’t even read them anymore. She reads them all and just tells me if I need to know anything from what he sends.
I also joined a peer counselling group; it was good for me. Through this, I now take calls from women who are where I was 10 years ago and helping them helps me process it all too. I also did individual counselling, as well as weekly group counseling for women trying to leave bad relationships. I also got advice from parenting counsellors, because this was hard on my kids too.
But I’ll be honest. Some days, lots of days, they just suck.
In the beginning, there were lots of days I couldn’t get off the floor. I was flat in despair. I couldn’t work, couldn’t think. I was worried all the time, I couldn’t eat, I had no money. It sucks the life out of you. It was hard to have any coping strategies sometimes. But my kids were at stake, and he was always trying to make sure I was worrying about them. So, I had to keep going, I had to find a way to cope.
I had to learn to manage my thoughts, my anxiety, to discern what is real and not real. It’s about acknowledging thoughts are not reality. And I made it a rule for myself not to talk about my divorce everywhere I went (I used to) because I found it poisoned every outing. Limiting my outlets to a couple of good friends and family members allowed me to have more time to enjoy myself and where the issues didn’t take over.
I began spending more time outdoors, getting exercise, and being healthy. It’s about finding something to do—creative, sporty, engaging, fun or whatever—that commands your focus, so you don’t have an opportunity to dwell on things. It is like going back to the most basic of self-care. I forced myself to take just a five-minute walk, telling myself that five minutes is better than no walk at all.
I would ask myself, “Can I at least go for a five-minute walk?” Yes, I could do that. I needed to move. Feeling physically strong helped me feel mentally strong. Every morning now I run or bike. I can’t imagine not doing it. Exercising is something within my control.
It’s been about changing my inner reality by changing my outer reality. That flip flop in perspective was the best reality, the best change. But when it was crazy, and I was getting peppered by crazy-making emails, actions, lawyers’ letters … it was costly and legal aid wasn’t always available. I spent a lot of money on legal fees, but what choice did I have? You can’t do it all.
At the end of the day, you have to take care of the here and now, and you can’t live in despair forever. I am lucky that I have friends that said, “We’ll pay for court if you can’t. You won’t go alone. You are not doing this alone.” My parents were also able to help me.
And the less energy I put towards him, the better it got. It’s just easier now to ride it out and soon there will be no need to deal with him.
Sometimes, I have questioned if I could have found a way to avoid all the time in court. Because of our kids, I thought it was important to go to court when he didn’t follow the parenting agreement or court orders. But I do sometimes wonder if I was wasting my energy and money by feeding into his need for conflict; it was like there was always something else he would find to do wrong, and to keep us in conflict and in court. I sometimes ask myself if I should have just said, “Do whatever, have the kids whenever” and let it play out.
But most days, I believe he is the kind of guy that is capable of doing worse and worse things, and that going to court is what may have stopped him from even worse behaviour.
When I look back, I think I accept now that whatever I offered, it was just never going to be good enough. He’s a fighter. And the law is not set up to deal with that kind of person. The courts can only issue an order and it’s up to each of us to follow it. So, when he just didn’t follow them, we ended up here.
I would tell other women going through this that it’s about hanging on, it is about having coping strategies. It’s a long haul, especially if your kids are young when you divorce. But it does end.
It is so isolating, so lonely, and you don’t want to be a burden and use up all your tokens with friends and family. But you need to, you need support, and lots of it, around you.
And yes, lawyers and other supports can be expensive, but they are needed sometimes. Sometimes we just have to take care of the here and now and not worry.
I would also say that you need to try not to spend too much time on your ex, on fighting with them, but know that it is hard in the early days when you are trying to sort out separation agreements and parenting time.
You have to learn not to react. It’s like having PTSD. Talk therapy is good; EMDR is good for healing that trauma. And then you learn that you can choose not to respond, to do nothing. And you will eventually start to feel more grounded when you do need to respond. It won’t feel like it’s life or death every single time you have to interact.
It does get better, and it does end. My youngest is almost 18, and soon I won’t have to talk to my ex ever again. My kids love him still, and they will still spend time with him. They are old enough to do that on their own, and I do not try to stop them. I am supportive of them having a relationship with him, and they are smart kids, so they will figure it out for themselves.
And though I didn’t date forever (my initial reaction to anyone suggesting that to me was “Are you fucking kidding me?”), I eventually started feeling like the idea of dating didn’t repulse me, and just a couple of months ago I met someone nice.
There was a time I wouldn’t have shared this, told my story. But now I do and it feels good to do it if it helps other women, so they know there is a light at the end of the tunnel.