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
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.