Retirement is Not in My Future

After the financial debacle of 2008 I realized that I could not soon retire. One of the reasons that I stopped writing regularly for this blog is that there were some worrying matters to tend to, and I did not want to transfer all my anxiety into my writing. I am not an extravagant person and I have no debts, but when one's retirement nest egg drops by 33%, no amount of thriftiness will make up for such a huge loss. At present, my investments have crept up to 2008 levels, but I no longer trust the system.

I noticed on the university website that Bob is now retired. When we split, I received the house and he retained his retirement savings. He taught for over 20 years, which means that he left with a hefty severance package. He has started a financial business concern and is realizing his dream of piling on money.

I began working full time at 51. You do the math. If I am lucky and can stay healthy, I can retire in ten years at 71. Even then my pension will be no more than $2,300 per month. Add social security benefits and deduct the cost of health care, and I am staring at a significant drop in my income.

I refuse to allow my worry about my financial future to take over my life; but that constant niggling pressure is starting to affect my sleep. If the economy keeps tanking and if I should lose my job, who would hire a 61 year old woman with preexisting medical conditions and give her full benefits? In this day and age, no one.

For the first time I feel trapped in a job.


It's Those Little Habits You Miss ...

Apart from losing your best friend and life's mate during your divorce, you are also losing your financial security and those daily habits that up to now have made your life predictable and comfortable. One of the first habits I had to overcome was not to shout as I opened the front door, "Bob, I'm home!" For those first few weeks I would rush inside the house to share some news, only to find it empty. I cannot tell you how lonely I felt.

There was no longer a way to divide the household duties. All of a sudden I had to take out the garbage, mow the lawn, and pick up laundry at the dry cleaners, as well as purchase groceries, cook the meals, and clean the house.

I worked three part-time jobs all in different parts of the city; oversaw the maintenance of my 2-story house; went to therapy twice a week; and tried to keep up a social schedule of sorts. One thing I could say for certain - I had very little time to relax and feel sorry for myself.

The changes in my daily routine came as little shocks. I recall that the week after Bob left I had made arrangements to have my car serviced. I asked Bob if he would take me, for ostensibly we were "working at saving our marriage," but he coldly said no. I felt too injured to ask someone to pick me up and take me back to the mechanic's, so I spent that morning in the waiting room at the shop.

One month later we were hit with the worst snow storm in a decade. It was Bob with his strong wrestler's shoulders who would clear the sidewalk and parking area in previous storms; it was Bob's 4-wheel drive vehicle that would get us to the grocery store. I did the best I could, going out every hour to clear my front walk and driveway. That night the snow plows came through and trapped my car behind a wall of ice. My reliable, dependable husband was gone, and I did not have the physical strength to tackle that huge pile of compacted snow. I was trapped in my house, alone, with no one to comfort me. During those moments I despaired and cried the hardest.

But life goes on. My routine changed. I found people who could help me in a pinch. I moved furniture around, changed the side of the bed I slept on, placed a t.v. in my bedroom (a big taboo as far as Bob was concerned), got a dog (another taboo), and generally started to live my life not as a couple but as a single person who no longer needed to accommodate someone else. The small changes felt like self-nurture. I felt emboldened to try new things. And after a while, I recaptured the sense of adventure I felt when I had first moved out of my parents' house.

Oh, I did not take all these steps at once. They were slow and deliberate. I savored each change and felt stronger as I made decisions that used to require compromise. In fact, I am so happy with my new home routine, which suits my personality and bio-rhythm, that I started to wonder if I could ever share my house with someone again.

The answer is yes. Last winter a young female colleague moved temporarily into my house. It was so nice to come home and shout out, "Kate, where are you?" and to cook dinner for two, and to hang around in my jammies on Saturday morning discussing plans for the weekend. When Kate moved out, I felt that familiar sense of loss. But then my new routine, the one that is reserved just for me, kicked in again. That is when I discovered that, no matter what the circumstances, I am fine - with someone or by myself.


Break Up or Blow Up?

Melissa Etheridge and Mel Gibson. You have to be a hermit not to know about their messy relationship blow ups! They have made headlines recently, and both couples have come out with their fists swinging.

I recall the first conversation I had with a lawyer days after my ex moved out of the house. He identified two ways in which an unhappy spouse leaves a marriage. "Some spouses feel guilty when they leave," he said, "and they will be quite accommodating. You need to take advantage of this period and get the best deal you can. Then there's the second type of separation, in which the spouse will torpedo the relationship by lying, stealing or cheating and generally behaving like a louse."

What kind of break up characterizes your separation? I was lucky in that my ex felt guilty for several months. This allowed me to gather my thoughts and attend to my future. Then he met his new girlfriend (and future wife) and his attitude changed. Cruel words were spoken that I recall vividly to this day. But I never had to deal with the nightmarish and unreasonable behavior that so many abandoned spouses must go through.

I discovered one important survival trick soon after Bob moved out: while I could not save my marriage, I could control my behavior. I decided to take the high road and have largely stayed there. Research has shown that people who are able to face the future with a positive attitude and move on recover faster from the pain of divorce than those who wallow in self-pity or rehash old wounds. Here are my suggestions for those who are struggling to cope:
  • Live in the moment. Don't blame yourself for past mistakes or live with regret. Don't fear the future unknown. Take each day as it comes. Reward yourself for small successes. Be KIND to YOURSELF and trust that one day you'll find contentment again.
  • Don't react to a quarreling spouse. By not engaging with them, you take away their power to hurt you.
"In some cases the best way to deal with an unreasonable spouse is not to deal with him or her. No amount of discussion, debate or arguing will change the mind and attitude of a person who is bent on thinking and acting unreasonably. If your spouse truly believes you are a "jerk", then there is no amount of energy you can spend that will change that perception." - From the blog A Woman's Divorce
  • Take charge of the things you can handle. Don't wait for your spouse to take all the action.
  • Don't fool yourself into thinking your spouse will come back. If your spouse has left with clothes and some furniture and moved into an apartment, your marriage is over. My lawyer did not beat around the bush. He told me this in no uncertain terms - I just was not ready or willing to listen. I actually believed that Bob was going to therapy with me to mend our marriage. He was actually going to make the best divorce deal for himself.
  • Pick your friends wisely. Surround yourself with people with positive attitudes and who have only your best interests at heart. (Some friends revel in the drama and add fuel to the fire. Stay away from them.) Don't force your friends or family to choose sides, especially when kids are involved. Take the high road.
  • Listen to your instincts. Don't let others talk you into taking action that you know in your gut is wrong. My family tried to talk me into moving out of my house and to take other drastic action. I have since my divorce made changes in my life, but they were all done on MY terms and on my timeline, not someone else's. If a spouse is totally unreasonable, use a professional mediator to speak on your behalf.
  • Forgiveness is a powerful drug. Forgive yourself. Forgive your spouse. Let petty things go. Concentrate on survival issues and on healing and growth. Don't dwell on inconsequential matters. Don't play the blame game. By letting go you will feel instant relief. There are couples who will spend all their assets on lawyers fighting over inconsequential possessions for months, even years. My friend, a great lawyer, advised me: "When you are both slightly unhappy with the division of your assets, then your negotiations are done."
  • Yes, of course you need to vent your frustration, hurt, and anger. But do this in a "safe" environment. Exercise will help to keep your emotions under control. My mom allowed me to sit for 10 minutes on my pity pot before I had to get off. Those ten minutes, during which she listened quietly as I ranted and raved, allowed me to release a lot of steam. After a while, I simply ran out of anything to say.
  • Cliched as it sounds, time does heal wounds. I am still sad that my wonderful marriage did not last, but I am stronger for having survived a time that I truly thought would kill me.
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