Tackling The Many Sides of Divorce with Elise Pettus


You can be perfectly happy in your marriage and listen to this episode. Have you ever thought about being divorced? Don’t lie, we all have at some point!

Even if just imagining a worst case scenario, everyone has thought about it. Divorce can be a really difficult process that can affect more people than just the couple involved. In this episode, we will discuss the reality of divorce, how to make it more manageable, how to find support and what practical steps to take for the best possible outcome.

Elise is the founder of UNtied, the Thinking Woman’s Divorce Resource. When Elise first entered the separation process in 2010, she felt desperate to reach out to other women who’d been through it.

Elise Pettus
Elise Pettus

A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, she worked in documentary film and later as a reporter/writer for magazines like New York and Gourmet, before launching UNtied in 2013. Her passion is to connect divorcing women to each other as well as to the most experienced and competent professionals in all fields related to their needs.

Resources mentioned:



The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study


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And remember: It’s not a crisis!


Doryn Wallach:

Welcome to It's Not a Crisis. I am your host, Doryn Wallach. I'm an entrepreneur, a mother of two, a wife, and a 40-something trying to figure out what is happening in this decade. Why is no one talking about it? I created this podcast to help women in the late thirties and forties to figure out what is going on in our mind, body, soul and life. We may laugh, we may cry, we may get frustrated, but most importantly, my goal is to make this next chapter of life positive. I'm also full of my own questions, and I'm here to go on this journey with you. So let's do it together.

Welcome to episode 15 of It's Not a Crisis. I am your host, Doryn Wallach. I'm very happy to have you back again. Today, we are talking about five tips to consider when contemplating or going through divorce. I've had several women reach out to me, and we, unfortunately, are at the age where a lot of people are reevaluating marriage. I've had women reach out to me, and not just women that are going through divorce or have gone through divorce, but women that are contemplating the idea and afraid to take the steps or don't know exactly what to do.

I don't know much about this topic besides the fact that my parents went through a messy divorce when I was nine. Unfortunately, I have some good friends that have gone through it and are going through it, so I've learned a little bit from listening to them. I've been married for 17 years, and we have a really wonderful relationship. We have an extraordinarily close friendship, but we've had bumps in our road, and most marriages do. I don't believe anyone who says that they don't. We've spent time working through them, it's always a work in progress, but we both couldn't imagine our lives without each other in them, and I think that that is what keeps us going.

However, you are lying if you've been married over 15 years and you haven't thought about what life would look like divorced. There's always a thought in your head of what if, or what if they leave, what if I leave, or what would my life be like? So I think this episode pertains to everybody, I think it's information to know. You never know what's going to happen, even if you have the most wonderful marriage in the world.

Today, my guest Elise Pettus is going to break down divorce with tips on the process in a way that's easy to understand whether you're going through it, about to go through it, have gone through it, or you're contemplating going through it. Elise founded Untied in 2013 after going through her own split and recognizing an enormous need for community and education among women who are facing divorce. A graduate of Brown University and Columbia Journalism School, she worked in documentary film before becoming a magazine reporter and writer for outlets like New York magazine, the New York Times Gourmet and others.

Untied's mission has been to connect divorcing women with the most experienced and competent professionals, empower them with knowledge they need, and provide them with meaningful community support. Elise believes these are essential to navigate their split with confidence and start a great next chapter. That's all we talk about on this podcast. Now in its eighth year, Untied serves a growing number of members in the New York area and across the U.S. through workshops, panels, webinars and social events, and I thought it was so wonderful when I discovered Untied, so I really needed Elise on the show, and I'm so happy to have her here.

Welcome to the show, Elise.

Elise Pettus:

Thank you, Doryn. So happy to be talking with you.

Doryn Wallach:

I am so happy that I connected with you. I think you are so perfect for this episode, so I can't wait to jump in and talk about it a little bit more. But I first want to ask you what made you start Untied?

Elise Pettus:

Well, I was facing a divorce in 2010, I had two smallish boys, and when I realized what I was entering into, and it wasn't my choice and it probably was several years in coming, but I thought, I can survive this if I could just talk to other women who have been through it, because I was the first person in my social circle to face it, and it felt incredibly isolating.

The other thing I remember thinking was, I have such a steep learning curve here. I went to my first consultation with a fancy attorney, and I remember thinking I have five questions, but I think I'll only ask for three, because I don't want her to think I'm dumb. Now, I'm not a shy person and I have a pretty good education, I was a journalist, so I'm very accustomed to asking questions, but the fact that I thought that made me realize that so many of us, when we get into the divorce scenario, we're confronting things we've never done before, and it's overwhelming and we have no confidence in this zone because we've never done it.

So I thought, if there could only be a way to both connect with other women who have been through it, who are going through it, who get where I'm at right now, and if there could only be a place where I could hear really smart, experienced professionals teach me what I need to know to get through the process. I put those two things together and created Untied because it seemed like something that should exist.

Doryn Wallach:

It's so wonderful. I mentioned in the beginning of the podcast that I'm a child of divorce, my parents divorced when I was nine, but I am also a 43-year-old women, I have friends who are going through divorces right now, are about to get divorced or just got divorced. This is the age my parents got divorced, so it's not uncommon; nowadays, obviously, it's a little bit more common than it was when I was younger.

But I do think that a lot of my friends feel very isolated and they don't have that support so what you're doing is terrific. In fact, I sent it to a friend and she said, "Oh my God, I'm so happy to know about this, I didn't even know it existed." So thank you for providing this for women.

Elise Pettus:

That's great, I'm so glad. I'm so glad that, again, I'm always so gratified when people find it a welcoming idea. I don't know if as many men would be excited about sitting around a living room with a glass of wine talking about divorce issues.

Doryn Wallach:

They just wouldn't admit it. They probably would benefit from it, but would never admit that they needed it.

Elise Pettus:

Absolutely, absolutely. Because we're women, we have been, traditionally, for millennia, the ones to gather around the well and share notes and share suggestions and share what works, you know? Like, where are the good berries, back in prehistoric times. So I feel like that really helped women learn, was when they're in community. I think that really just bears out amongst the women that I see going through this process.

Doryn Wallach:

That's so wonderful, and such an empowering thing as well. My mother would've greatly benefited from something like this. I was telling her, she's actually here today, and I was telling her what I'm doing my podcast on. She goes, "Oh, that's wonderful. I wish I had that. I had very little support."

With that being said, I have gotten more than one message from listeners who have said, can you do something on if you're contemplating divorce? I thought that was really interesting, and in my intro just now I said that if you've been married over 15 years and you have never once thought about divorce in your head, you're lying, because everyone has, you've thought about your partner leaving you and what do I do, or you've thought about it. And it's true, so I think this podcast will pertain to many different women. But I think I'd like to start with your advice, typically, to a woman that says, "I don't know, should I stay, should I go? I don't know, I'm scared, I'm not sure of what's ahead of me, what are my steps, what do I do?"

Elise Pettus:

And for so many of us, we live in that place of uncertainty for years. There are many people who live in that place of uncertainty for years. So I do have some suggestions to sort of help people work their way through that place, they may go either direction, but the first thing that I say to people who talk to me about the fact that they're considering divorce is I urge them to talk to a lawyer. And I know a lot of them are resistant, they think, oh, wait a second, if I talk to a lawyer, that means I'm getting divorced, I don't know.

But here's why I think that is so important: because until you do, you really don't know what the picture might look like for you financially, or if you're a parent, in terms of your parenting life. So I feel like that is the first thing that you really want to do. I mean, more than even talk to your friends, just talk to an attorney who you can be super honest and upfront with about everything, which is very important, and then get a sense of what your options are. You're not pressed into making any decisions at that point whatsoever.

The second thing I would say is get a grip on the finances. This should be all of us, as married or considering divorce.

Doryn Wallach:

Honestly, I think that's something every woman should do, regardless of wanting to get divorced or married. I actually have a podcast coming up on finances for women, so I just want to put that out there.

Elise Pettus:

That's so great. We all know that we should be on top of our money, but I have to say that, too often, it takes divorce being thrust upon you to make us actually do that. So I feel like anybody who's even considering it, and this may be obvious to them, because if you're thinking about divorce, you're thinking, how am I going to survive? How am I going to live? You may or may not be the breadwinner in your family, you may be a stay-at-home parent. Sometimes even the breadwinner isn't really on top of the finances.

So as soon as you can, really start to watch, get a real grip on what you're spending, what your budget is, and that means down to the itty-bitty details. A lot of people end up ... if you have time to plan your so-called exist, you might start using budget tracking tools like Mint.com because it saves you a lot of work in the future. So you really want to get a grip on what you spend, then you want to know what you make, and I mean you as in you and your spouse, what your assets are, and what your debts are.

All of that requires, I mean, depending on how conversant you are with those things before you're thinking about a divorce, it still requires some work. Certainly most of us don't know what we spend each month, so that's going to be important for you going forward in terms of really taking a cold, hard look on what your life might be like post-divorce or what you might require for maintenance if you've been a stay-at-home mom. Those are the most important things, and I would say that many of the women I see who are not the ones who deal with the finances, they've taken their hand off the wheel in that department because they're full-on with the kids. They may not even know what all the assets are.

So in that case, they really need to look at the tax returns. Don't just sign the tax return, but take a look at it and there's a certain section where you really can zero in and, I think it's the schedule B in the 1099-C, where all the interests and dividend earnings are, because that can alert you to accounts they didn't know about. I feel like that's one of the big things to sort of get on top of. What are our assets, what is our income and where is our money?

The other thing I think, in this same vein: if you have been a cardholder on your husband's credit card, which so many of us have, and so many of us didn't even know it. I was one of them. I was actually financing the credit card, but it was his credit card and I was an additional cardholder. That can be a problem. If you don't have a credit card in your own name, you need to get one. There are several reasons why this is a really important thing to have as you're preparing to get divorced.

One, if, for some reason, your husband is the earner and he has the power to lock you out of finances, you have that credit card that you can draw on to pay an attorney fee, to pay a therapist or something on an emergency basis.

The second reason you need a credit card in your name is because, going forward, you need your own credit history. What I advise somebody to do is to get a credit card in your own name while you're still married, and you can check off the box married income, which will boost your opportunity to get a credit card, and then have that card and pay it off, use it and pay it off, so that you have a credit history so you, going into your next chapter, have a better chance of being able to take on a mortgage, say, if you want to keep the house, better chance of being able to rent your own place, better chance of leasing a car. I mean, so many things require having a solid credit history, and so few of us who've been in long-term marriages are paying attention to that.

So I would just say take a look at that again. Similarly, I would make sure you have an account that you can draw from, set up a checking account in your name. You can't take a huge chunk of funds from your joint account it's funded with, but you could start, little by little, putting money in there so that you have the means to hire an attorney in the beginning, even if, at the end of the day, if your husband is, let's say, an investment banker and makes all the money and you've been home, he will end up paying those attorney fees.

It's really nice to be able to have some so-called rainy-day money in case you get into any kind of trouble or you want to make sure you get to talk to an attorney before alerting your spouse to the fact that you're starting to prepare for a divorce. Does that make sense?

Doryn Wallach:

Yes, that makes a lot of sense. So interesting and true. Speaking of attorneys, I remember when a friend of mine was contemplating divorce, she was told that she should go see all the best attorneys in the city, because then her husband wasn't allowed to use those attorneys.

Elise Pettus:

That's called conflicting out. Any attorney you visit and have a consult with cannot work with your spouse. Now, if you live in a tiny town and there's two or three great attorneys, you can pay consult fees and I guess you could do that, right? If you live in New York City or L.A. or whatever, it's not really practical to do that. And that's working it, perhaps you're married to somebody who's going to be an operator in that way, in which case you have to be more strategic.

But generally, I would really advise you to look for attorneys that you really want to work with, and I have a lot to say about this because I've seen so many women going through this process, right? And some attorneys are just more litigious. There are many choices you can make these days, unlike when our parents got divorced. Mediation has become very, very robust in the last 10 to 20 years. In addition to mediation, mediation, for those who aren't familiar, is one attorney and both spouses in the room with that attorney working through negotiations, right?

Now that sounds great to some people and sounds scary to others, but the thing that a mediator will do that a classic, traditional litigation lawyers really can't do is a mediator is going to be better able to work out an unusual, a tailored, very customized agreement. You're not getting handed down the law from the judge, you're not having a judge decide the details of your future.

So if you can work with either a mediation attorney, which, as I said, is one attorney for the two of you, or there's a newer process that has really been around for maybe the last 15 years called collaborative law, and in collaborative law, you have an attorney for each of you, so it's definitely you have more advocacy than if you have one mediation attorney. And a collaborative attorney will work on your behalf, but they agree they're not going to to court. So again, you have the option, you have much more agency to work out kind of a more unusual or customized agreement than you would if you want through the mitigation attorneys and through the court system.

Doryn Wallach:

Three friends started with a mediator, and one was successful, a couple others were not, unfortunately, and they had to go to lawyers. So I love the idea of that, but it doesn't always work, right?

Elise Pettus:

You're so right. It doesn't always work, but I do have a couple of tips just to sort of make the chances, give you better chances for it being successful, and one of them is to have an outside attorney consulting with you as you go through that process. Good mediators will highly recommend you have that person, because you have an advocate outside the room who really can sort of help you find your way through these negotiations and give you a real sense of what's the spectrum here of what I could expect, given this much income, this number of kids, you know?

You'll have a much better grip on what you're going after when you go into the mediation room, but again, that consulting attorney is not going to charge you the enormous retainer fee that they would ... lawyer, but they're working with you in a different capacity. So that's one tip that I think can be very helpful.

The other tip that I think can be very helpful is to have, if you're not financially savvy, is to have an outside financial advisor helping you, because sometimes what happens with mediation is that you spend a lot of time in mediation meetings, and you come up with an agreement, and then sometimes the mediator says, well, show this to an attorney, and you do, and the attorney's like, what?! Or you show it to a financial advisor at the end and your advisor's like, what?!

So I would say that those two things can really make a difference. Some people would say, you know, a divorce coach can be super helpful because they have an antenna out for certain issues. And I'm not saying that mediation is going to work for everyone, and even when it doesn't, sometimes, and I don't know if this happened with your friend, but sometimes working through mediation can help you at least come to agreement in some arenas.

So let's say you're in mediation, you can solve the money part, but you can't solve the kid piece, or you can solve the kid schedule and the sharing of the visitation, but you can't solve the money piece. And that alone can also, that can save you money when you do finally get into the litigation system and the court system, right?

The other reason, again, to start with mediation is because, right now, I don't know how long this will last for, but during COVID the courts were closed for a good five months in most states, so they are so backed up right now that it is prolonging hugely a lot of processes that have been started in the courts. So it stands to reason that mediation, you can pick it up at any time, you can start it at any time, you can do it from home, you can mediate just part of your settlement, your agreement, so that you have, you're narrowing the scope. Maybe that's adjusting your expectations for mediation and also just bolstering yourself on the outside. Those are the two ways, I think, of maximizing possibility for success.

If you're a marriage where the balance of power is really out of whack, like either your spouse is making all the money and he's very controlling, he could be bullying, he could be abusive, he could be even violent, all of those scenarios, those make mediation very difficult. So in those scenarios, I don't think that mediation would be a first choice. I do think that you can still work around it if you have a really great mediator and if you have a really great consulting attorney, and sometimes, by the way, a good mediator will invite the separate attorneys into the room because they know how to work with those attorneys or know how to include your financial advisor in the room.

So if you feel very small around the money piece and very, very wobbly and worried, you could still try to mediate by having a financial advisor who can advocate for you and who can figure out the numbers and make sure that your back is covered on that.

Doryn Wallach:</