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Helpful Advice For Navigating a Divorce in Midlife

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“I’ve never been more broken,” says Beverly Willett, recollecting the morning she checked her husband’s phone and listened to an unrecognizable woman say she loved him on his voicemail. Willett was devastated by the shocking discovery, but still wanted to save the marriage — her husband did not. 

After 20 years of marriage, that included two children, 7 and 12, Willett suddenly found herself 50 years old and navigating the messy world of divorce. Starting over at this age was not a part of her plan, and she felt overwhelmed with having to go back to work after 10 years as a stay-at-home mom, meeting friends that weren’t tied to her ex, and entering the dating pool. “If you’re in your 20s or 30s, the road ahead disappears into the horizon,” she says. “When you’re older, you can visualize the stop sign at the end of it.”

Willett eventually learned to not focus on that stop sign — or the fear of the unknown. In the early days of life as a divorcee, Willett wondered if she’d ever recover from feeling so weighed down by the world. But sometimes, the darkest times in our lives offer us the most valuable lessons. With time, Willett found happiness again. “Going through divorce later in life, with so much thrown at me all at once, became my quick path to figuring out that the source of my deepest pain was my attachment,” she says. “You can never know what you’re truly made of until you face your deepest fears and walk through them.” Willett learned that the key to happiness has little to do with marital status. “Happiness is self-generated and self-maintained.”

But it wasn’t easy for Willett to get to this place, and she shares the depths of her divorce journey in her new book Disassembly Required: A Memoir of Midlife Resurrection, ($18.20, Amazon) which will be published on July 30. If you’re going through something similar, you might also be feeling overwhelmed by the emotions and logistics of divorce. You have a lot of details to iron out, but the first step is to know that you don’t have to do it alone.

J Paige Harley, M.A., a Divorce Transition Specialist and Supreme Court Listed Mediator, has helped many people getting divorced later in life. She has witnessed women and men of all ages re-write their stories and thrive. “I have helped people start new careers, and return to school,” she says. “I have had people retire on islands. I have had people take up hobbies they always wanted to do like rock climbing or yoga. It’s possible!” 

Below, Harley offers advice for those facing a divorce later in life.   

Find an Attorney You Like

Harley advises to be patient with the search for a great attorney. “You will be spending a lot of time and sharing personal information with this person and it is important you feel comfortable with them,” she says. Many lawyers offer complimentary consultations; meet with several attorneys and prepare a list of questions ahead of time. Read reviews online and don’t be timid. If you have specific expectations, lay them on the table during the consultation. Don’t rush it. Lawyers are, after all, expensive, and play a significant role in decisions that will affect your future. 

Give it Time

Divorce is a process and so is healing. Don’t weigh yourself down with unrealistic expectations or a timeline to heal. Allow yourself to grieve the end of the romantic relationship and the life you expected to live. Harley explains that there are four types of divorce: legal, emotional, social and financial. She estimates that each stage takes about two years to move through and that they may not happen simultaneously or be in synch. You may have recovered financially long before you have healed emotionally, or vice versa. Don’t rush it, but be sure you are moving forward, even if it’s just a tiny, half-step at a time. 

Commit to Successful Co-Parenting

Divorcing later in life often means that the children affected are adults or close to it. Even so, it is important to remember they are still your children and you will need to co-parent with your ex throughout their adulthood. Harley suggests treating them as if they were teenagers. “Don’t share too much information and make them confidants just because they are adults… parenting is not something that ever stops, it just takes on a new look.” Read books about co-parenting and make a plan that addresses potential weddings, family celebrations, holidays, and college graduations. “The more you can talk about expectations on the front end, the cleaner the process of moving forward for everyone,” says Harley. “Adult children still need parents to tell them what they envision for the future — it’s scary for them, too!” 

Keep Dreaming

When dealing with clients who are divorcing later in life, Harley always keeps the focus on hope. “I find those who are around 50 or above are often more fearful,” she says. Questions such as ‘who will want me now?’ and ‘now what?’ are typical for her clients. The truth is it’s an exciting time and doors that you shut years ago on a career, hobbies, or lifestyle can swing open. Harley encourages her clients to create dream boards as a tangible vision for what the next 20 years will look like. Don’t let fear take over and don’t listen to the voices in your head that tell you it’s too late. It’s never too late to start a new hobby, to date, or to practice healthier habits. 

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