Midlife divorces bring unique challenges

Story and photo by DANIELLE MURPHY

The Community Legal Center houses the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, as well as other non-profit legal aid organizations.

The Community Legal Center houses the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, as well as other nonprofit legal aid organizations.

Monica never had to work during her 32 years of marriage. Then her husband told her he wanted a divorce and she suddenly found herself thrust into the workforce.

Sometimes she wishes things had turned out differently. “When you are more than 50, you are thinking about retirement, not just starting to work,” said Monica, who asked that her real name not be used to protect her safety.

As a wife, Monica stayed home with their four children while her husband worked. But problems at her husband’s job caused stress in their relationship and eventually drove them apart. When he moved out, Monica needed to start working.

Monica and her husband had been living with their daughter, Jill, and her family. “My mom having to start from zero, that was hard to see,” said Jill, whose name also has been changed to protect her identity.

Monica initially began work as a nanny with some housekeeping on the side. Her years of being a mom, as well as her work and training as a midwife before marriage, aided her in this. Recently though, she acquired a new set of skills.

“I will do whatever I need to, to be financially independent,” she said. This self-reliance led her to train as a certified nursing assistant. She recently passed her tests and has started a new job as a CNA.

Nicholas H. Wolfinger, associate professor of sociology at the University of Utah, outlined some of the issues unique to middle-aged people getting a divorce.

He cites the following specific challenges that some divorcees may face: being accustomed to higher standards of living, being less likely to have living parents, having a more difficult time dating and remarrying, and being more used to being married. He also said people who have not been working typically earn a lower salary because they do not have the consistent employment that their spouses did.

The top 3 reasons for postponing divorce. Source: AARP The Magazine.

Graphic by Danielle Murphy. Information source: AARP The Magazine.

According to a study conducted in 2004 for AARP The Magazine, 37 percent of divorced women between 40 and 70 said financial concerns postponed their decision to divorce. This parallels the 37 percent of women who were concerned about the effect their decision would have on their children, which was the top reason for men to postpone separation. Of men surveyed, 58 percent prolonged getting a divorce because of their children compared to only 6 percent of men who were concerned about their finances.

Eventually though, many people do decide to divorce. Despite her husband asking for the divorce, Monica officially filed first. Soon after, she found out her estranged husband had been legally remarried before their divorce had even gone through.

Stewart Ralphs, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake and Monica’s attorney, confirmed the marriage. “Even though it’s technically bigamy,” he said, “it’s hardly ever enforced.”

Ralphs and the Legal Aid Society helped Monica with all the stages of her divorce, from the initial filing all the way through mediation and to the finalizing of the decree.

The LAS was established in 1922 and assists almost 3,000 low-income individuals in Salt Lake each year with domestic violence and family law issues. Legal Aid Society’s fees for family law issues are on a sliding scale based on the client’s income.

Ralphs discussed issues like Monica’s. “[These cases] really pull at your heartstrings. A middle age housewife whose husband left them with no marketable skills … they do their best, but there isn’t enough money to go around. Even with alimony they won’t a have enough to maintain their current lifestyle … that’s a harsh reality check,” he said.

Monica described what she was thinking before the idea of divorce was brought up. “We had some goals to have a life together like normal. For me, that is a normal thing and I always thought that, that was his normal thing too. There wasn’t any reason to think something different, the idea was to be together as a family, as a couple,” she said.

Women like Monica who are concerned about their financial situation because of a divorce have options available for training and education. Many states have developed programs in an attempt to remedy these situations. Utah is one of them.

The Utah Displaced Homemaker Program was created to provide services for displaced homemakers who are having trouble finding employment. Jeff Webster, program specialist for Utah’s Department of Workforce Services, said eligible individuals include people who have been out of the workforce for at least eight years, have stopped receiving assistance from a spouse or family member and are returning to the workforce.

The services offered by the UDHP are composed mostly of workshops that cover topics including resume writing, financial management and using homemaking skills in the workforce.

However, as more and more women enter the workforce during marriage, stories like Monica’s occur less frequently.

Alan Hawkins, professor of family life at Brigham Young University and the chairman of the Utah Commission on Marriage, said, “The situation in which one spouse has devoted herself to … the non-compensated functions of the home and family, is a much less common experience than it was 20 or 30 years ago.”

One theory explaining why more women are working outside of the home involves advances in technology and business. In a study published in 2007, “Marriage and Divorce: Changes and their Driving Forces,” Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, both assistant professors of business and public policy at the University of Pennsylvania, suggest that greater numbers of females work because of the emergence of labor-saving technology, such as kitchen gadgets, and more businesses providing services that have traditionally been preformed by a woman in the home, such as daycare.

Working outside of the home provides some women with emotional stability. Jenn Palacio, a clinical lab assistant at Intermountain Medical Center, dealt with her middle-aged parent’s divorce as a teenager. Her mom, however, had steadily worked throughout the marriage. “My mom always loved working. She was so dependent on my dad in so many other ways that I think working really helped her to be able to move on,” she said.

Getting assistance from programs like the Utah Displaced Homemaker Program after a divorce, or already having recent work experience may make the financial aspect of a divorce easier, but it often doesn’t change the emotional aspect most people deal with when they go through a divorce.

Monica acknowledged that she felt hurt, but didn’t see any other options. “You can’t make anyone love you. They have to want to do it,” she said.

Since divorce is usually unplanned and unexpected, both Wolfinger and Hawkins offered suggestions about ways to avoid divorce from the beginning of the engagement stage.

Wolfinger’s advice to people thinking about getting married is to wait. “The older the better,” he says.

Hawkins’ tip for young couples getting ready to wed involves more active participation.

“Take the process of preparing for a marriage seriously, educate yourself about the knowledge and skills needed to form a healthy marriage and carefully examine the qualities of your relationship,” he said.

Hawkins believes most couples spend too much time on the wedding, what he refers to as the “window dressing,” and not enough time in self-evaluation and formal education.

Monica echoed this sentiment. “When you are in love, during your courtship, everything is pink. Marriage is a commitment that two people who are different have to make. You need to stand up for yourself in a loving, gentle way,” she said.

Divorce education building bridges of friendship


Belinda Hartranft, a shopaholic and soccer mom, divorced her husband after 10 years of marriage. The decision to divorce came quickly after Hartranft discovered her husband had been cheating on her.

Alma Perez, their paralegal through Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake, admitted that although Hartranft’s case was alarming, it was the most speedy and successful divorce she ever processed.

Generally, divorce is not a pleasant experience. It can include separation, conflict and bitterness. Hartranft used her divorce to build a stronger bridge between her ex-husband and children.

Fifty percent of the nation’s marriages result in divorce, according to Jim Stringham, a therapist of 15 years.

According to “Common Ground,” Utah’s official newsletter for divorcing couples, the parties involved make separation more difficult than it needs to be. “[They] feel like they have to compete with each other… like there is a battle to be won,” the newsletter notes.

How then, can two people avoid a battle and instead benefit from a divorce?

LAS offers clients a divorce education course before they separate. Through the course, clients can learn how separation can strengthen relationships, rather than taint them.

“Divorce education courses discuss how [the divorce] will affect the children … as well as the steps taken during their divorce so that they know what is actually going to happen,” Perez said.

Divorce education courses and mediation are required by law. David Musselman, a mediator from the Divorce Mediation Institute of Utah, said mediation is a way that people can resolve their disputes without going to court. It helps the couples negotiate better and learn how to modify their behaviors. “It costs less, it saves a lot of time and it helps the couple to reach a conclusion without a judge,” Musselman said.

After the course, Perez said Hartranft’s divorce took just three months to complete, giving their relationship a firmer foundation for friendship.

“It made me see things differently,” Hartranft said. “I realized how important it was to let things go instead of continuously fighting. Divorce was just the better thing to do, and now we can have a good friendship.”

Musselman mentioned that mediation has a 90 percent rate of effective cases. That may be an outstanding result, but what about the other 10 percent? Is divorce the only solution a couple can come up with?

Like Belinda Hartranft, Edye Wagstaff felt her only solution was divorce. After five years of counseling, Wagstaff and her husband decided to divorce. “From the very beginning we were in therapy through religious leaders and psychologists … it never helped,” Wagstaff said.

She and her husband were both stubborn. If they hadn’t separated, they never would have considered their big issue to be a small and simple one. “It gave us an opportunity to step outside and look at our relationship with a different perspective,” Wagstaff said.

Wagstaff said she feels therapy works only if both people are going to be honest with themselves. “They need to be willing to respect the responsibilities of their own weaknesses,” she said.

Wagstaff and her husband happily remarried after two years of separation.

Therapist Jim Stringham handles about 45 sessions a week, a third being couples. He knows from experience that therapy, mediation, or divorce education courses can never promote happiness unless both parties are willing to change.

If the couple cannot sort things out, Stringham often splits them up to do individual sessions. He has learned that it is important for a person to work on their problems separately before trying to work them out as a couple. “If there is not enough commitment … it doesn’t work,” he said.

Wagstaff and Hartranft consider themselves lucky. Their divorces were definitely painful at first, but in the long run it was for the best.

“It was probably the weirdest divorce,” Wagstaff said. “But it saved our marriage…. Everything became so healthy. We learned that we could trust each other in every aspect of our lives.”

Hartranft said not only do her children spend time with their father regularly, but she also speaks with her ex-husband on the phone almost every night. This journey of separation strengthened their friendship by encouraging them to see what they value most in life.

“I totally recommend those classes to anybody,” Hartranft said. ”It teaches you how to deal with your kids and it gives you options and suggestions. I had to realize he was ready to move on — and I needed to get there too. I am a much better person now than I was, and I have grown to appreciate myself better…. Thank you Alma and all of Legal Aid.”

Overcoming: The story of a middle-aged divorcee


The entrance to the Community Legal Center, the location of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake.

The entrance to the Community Legal Center, the location of the Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake.

She always thought she would have a good marriage. She thought he was a good husband, a good father and a good provider. They had four children and nine grandchildren. But, 32 years after their blissful wedding day, it was over.

Monica was in her 50s and had only lived in the United States for six years after emigrating from South America. She hadn’t held a job, or planned to hold a job, since her midwife training when she was first married. Suddenly she was left alone and had to take care of herself.

Monica requested that her real name not be used due to concerns for her safety and well-being.

“We had some goals,” Monica said. “To have a life together like normal. For me, that is a normal thing and I always thought that, that was his normal thing too. There wasn’t any reason to think something different. The idea was to be together as a family, as a couple.”

She began to feel alienated as things began to go wrong at his work. As she asked about it, he grew more distant. He said he was trying to protect her, but she felt hurt.

“Communication in a marriage is the most important part. This is a sad story but it could have been better. He just never wanted to talk about it,” Monica said.

When she asked him what he was trying to cover up, he told her he wanted a divorce. That was it. They separated.

He moved out immediately.

Monica was bewildered. “I think he lost his mind,” she said, “because he always had good principles.”

During the three-year separation, he informed her he would take the necessary steps to start divorce proceedings. Time passed and nothing happened.

Neither one had taken further steps toward a divorce when she found out she needed an operation. He agreed to pay for part of her medical bills. He also assisted her with a small amount of money and kept her on his medical insurance.

The operation was successful, but the attempts at obtaining monetary support weren’t. The money Monica received from him became more and more infrequent.

She started to work, taking care of children for extended family, but this only covered a small portion of her living expenses. She knew she had to officially file for divorce.

Monica heard about Legal Aid Society of Salt Lake from a friend. The Legal Aid Society is a nonprofit legal assistance organization that assists almost 3,000 low-income individuals with domestic violence and family law issues annually.

She was introduced to Stewart Ralphs, an attorney and the executive director of the Legal Aid Society. “Ralphs was a great help,” Monica said. “He helped me through the whole thing.”

Filing for divorce includes divorce papers being served to the spouse by law enforcement. “I didn’t know the procedure or how it worked really,” Monica said. “When he was served, he was really mad about it. He thought I was sending the police to him.”

Then, on a snowy Christmas Eve just a couple years after he moved out, she learned he had found someone else. It was a painful surprise. They were separated but not legally divorced and he had already remarried.

“Even though it’s technically bigamy, it’s hardly ever enforced,” Ralphs said.

The money stopped coming. No help with medical bills was ever received.

A judge finally issued a temporary order at the initial hearing for Monica to receive alimony. But for months Monica didn’t receive any support. After another hearing, her estranged husband agreed to mediation.

Through mediation, she found out he was making wages similar to hers. They agreed that he wouldn’t have to offer her any support now, but as he began to make more, he would pay her alimony. They were officially divorced.

Monica continued working, but still struggled to earn a decent income. When she asked her ex-husband for pay stubs, he refused, telling her to have a judge ask him instead.

Frustrated, Monica called Ralphs. He advised presenting her ex-husband with a 10-day time frame to send over the pay stubs before she would make a motion to find him in contempt of court. He didn’t respond to any of her phone calls or e-mail.

Ralphs sent an e-mail on her behalf. The response was immediate. She had the pay stubs right away.

Now, she sends Ralphs a copy of every e-mail she writes to her ex-husband to ensure compliance. The alimony comes steadily. He’s reluctant, but “as my attorney got into the middle of it, he knew I wasn’t messing around,” she said.

Monica’s current situation isn’t her ideal, but she does it with dignity. She continues to tend children for extended family members, and also does housekeeping. “I would like to only be the grandma, not the nanny,” she said. “It is not pleasant, when you are more capable than that.”

Monica’s daughter, Jill, echoes those thoughts. “My mom having to start from zero, that was hard to see,” she said.

But, Monica isn’t giving up. “I will do whatever I need to, to be financially independent, I don’t want Social Security…. It’s not pride it’s self-reliance,” she said.

She is currently waiting for results on her written certified nursing assistant test. She has already passed her skills test and is looking for various CNA positions. As for her ex-husband, she said, “I wish for him the best. It was all his decision. You can’t make anyone love you. They have to want to do it.”

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