In working with divorcing couples, reemployment of an “at-home” spouse is a recurring theme. This is usually (but not always) the wife, who needs to enter the job market after the divorce. An analysis of the finances of a divorce case generally leads to the stark truth that the family unit (now divided into two households) cannot live on the earned income that was being brought into the household prior to the divorce. It is a zero-sum game, and without an additional income stream (which now has to be brought in by the wife), the standard of living of the family unit (as reconstituted) will be drastically reduced.
It does not take a divorce lawyer or mediator to figure this out. However, the lack of adequate income post-divorce comes as a surprise for many divorcing couples. People getting a divorce are so pained by their interpersonal difficulties that they generally do not adequately contemplate the financial shoals ahead. These are difficult financial times between job losses and losses of equity in homes, pensions, and other assets. As a result, the financial problems inherent in divorce worsen dramatically.
Colliding with this difficult new world of post-marriage finances in hard times is the fact that often the Wife has left the job market, never entered it, or is only tangentially connected to it through part-time or volunteer work. The Husband has built up his career or job path, but the Wife has been the primary person at home, also a full-time job.
The Wife generally has many concerns and great fears about re-entering the job market. When people are losing their jobs every day, the fears of joblessness are well-founded, reality-based, and magnified.
I have no easy solution for this problem; just have a few thoughts to share with the spouses who need to embark on getting into the job market that may help deal with that new task. In my practice, I have seen women rise to the challenge, and have seen women who are defeated and unable to rebuild their lives financially after a divorce. The women who rise to the challenge – even if they build up careers that result in a fraction of their husband’s income – seem to be much happier and well-adjusted post divorce.
I hope that my thoughts below help a few spouses gain courage and give them some tools to reintegrate themselves into the job market.
1. Being afraid is reality-based and normal. Age discrimination (which starts about age 40) and gender discrimination are facts of life. No one can tell you it’s easy to get a job, or to build, or re-build a career after being out of the job market for some or many years. You probably feel scared and unsure of yourself as you go towards the unknown. This is normal. Don’t beat yourself up. Try to get through those feelings with action. Your goal is to get a job or build a career. When you have negative thoughts, push them away. Be focused on the goal.
2. You are as talented, capable, and bright as your Husband. That’s why he chose you, right? Understand that you have a lot to offer whenever you feel demoralized. Look for work that takes advantage of your strengths. Be persistent. Always think well of yourself. Banish negative thoughts.
3. Be aware of the cultural lessons that impede your building a career or getting a job. Men generally build careers and establish themselves in the job market through life-long training and expectations. From early childhood onward, boys are taught that they will have a job, support a family, and succeed at work. Women do not have this training. We are taught to assist, be a homemaker, parent, and be a support to family members. Making a successful entry (or re-entry) into the job market requires you to learn the cultural lessons little boys and young men learn. They are learnable with time and effort.
4. But what about looking for jobs in these difficult times? Yes, the job market is bad. People are being laid off. At some point this will turn around, and you will have months of experience in looking for a job. Spend at least four hours a day. Keep a log of your efforts and of the lessons you learn along the way. Stick to it. Your experience will benefit you greatly once jobs become available.
5. Patience and persistence are essential. A spouse needing a job will be competing with young people entering the job market for the first time. It is indeed a challenge, and getting your foot in the door may take some time. Persistence is very important, as is getting the moral support of friends and family while you are looking for work. You will succeed eventually.
6. Keep an open mind. There are things you can do for work that you have probably never thought about. For instance, outside sales representatives earn very good salaries and often find their jobs enjoyable. This type of job can be a good fit for an outgoing person. Working as an administrative assistant can lead to greater responsibilities. Peruse all the ads in your city or regional paper for ideas. You may get some ideas that you hadn’t thought about. Seek out an excellent employment counselor to get more ideas on what might be a good fit for you.
7. Think about getting some short-term training for a career. There are short-term training programs to gain entry into many careers where jobs are still available, including in the medical and computer fields, much of which is available on the internet. Keep focused and choose a job path that you think will be a good fit and lead to a fairly quick result. Be realistic.
8. Be careful about starting your own business. Starting your own business has a lot of appeal because you don’t have to get a job, you create it. However, this idea is fraught with pitfalls. Unless you have significant business experience or training, the business may not generate the level of income you need or will fizzle out. Starting your own business after you’ve built a career with outside employers is generally safer and may lead to a more fruitful outcome.
9. You will be happier and more fulfilled once you are in the job market. When a marriage ends, you have lost a great deal even if it is you that decided to end the marriage. You no longer have the status of a stay-at-home spouse. Remember that work can be very healing and can generate self-satisfaction. As a success in the outside world, you will be modeling independence and self-reliance to your children, both your daughters and your sons.
10. View having to work as a benefit (not a detriment) even though it may take some change of attitude. Dependence on a spouse has its downside, as you have learned by making the commitment to your marriage, which is now ended. Being independent and in control of your own life will actually make you feel very good about yourself. This inner strength will grow and enhance your going forward into new pursuits and into any new relationships you may embark upon in the future.
Geoff is the 2007 chair of the NZ Law Society ADR Committee and often speaks on mediation both in NZ and more recently in the United States at the invitation...By Gini Nelson