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In affluent divorce, non-earners face imbalance of power, murky finances, social stigma

Divorce coach Jen Lawrence helps spouses split with ‘elegance and ease’

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It was mid-pandemic, and Jen Lawrence got a call from her husband, who’d just landed in Seattle on a business trip. The exchange was brief: he’d called to inform her that their marriage was over. After she hung up, she looked around and discovered he’d planned ahead; his hockey gear and personal papers were already gone.

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But he had made her recovery easier. She realized instantly that she didn’t want to be with someone who’d end a marriage in that way.

Still, it was a shock that motivated her to start coaching other women who found themselves in a similar position. Today she is a certified divorce coach and divorce financial analyst with a financial background, an MBA degree and a recently released book, The Designed Divorce: How to Preserve Your Wealth and Peace of Mind in Divorce.

In her coaching practice, she does not offer financial or legal advice but helps wealthy clients around the world navigate the end of marriage, whether that means dividing assets and going their separate ways or entering into a “non-divorce divorce” – staying together on paper while living apart.

We asked Lawrence about wealthy couples’ imbalances of power, complicated finances and how to divorce with “elegance and ease.”

Divorce and money – would you say those are the two most stressful issues to a lot of women?

There’s so much stigma, especially in the suburbs, which is where I live. A lot of people stay in really lousy marriages because they don’t want to lose the lifestyle. I thought, ‘There needs to be a better way. Maybe I can help provide that.’

I came into it through my own two divorces. I decided to get trained as a coach and look at divorce a different way. I have an investment banking background, and I was able to get my certifications as a certified divorce coach and certified divorce financial analyst. I don’t do the financial piece for clients, but I have the financial mindset, about getting your mind around managing your own money while having less money.

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I mainly work with women. I deal a lot with situations where the husband has a big job, she has been at home, and their duties are bifurcated. She’s been hands-off the money. So there’s not a sense of how much money one actually needs to pay for a lifestyle. The other issue is, it’s so fearful. They are divorcing pretty powerful guys, so there are issues with that. And that’s not even dealing with economic abuse, such as not allowing access to bank accounts. And I deal with that as well, unfortunately.

Have you seen women who give up assets because they’re emotional and later regret it?

Absolutely. There is so much stigma around money that they feel, ‘I don’t want to deal with it.’ I completed the Trauma of Money method facilitation training out of Vancouver. Divorce tends to unlock all those money issues you have had since childhood and it releases them. If someone came from no money and married wealth, they go back into that ‘I can’t handle money because money is scary’ mindset, and they don’t want anything to do with it, or they give it away and say, ‘He can have everything.’ Then they deeply regret that later.

That can happen because many people think of spousal support as being tied to the individual they are divorcing, and they want to get free.

A lot of women find money stressful. They’ve been gas-lit, educated to think their husbands are doing them a favour by taking care of this ‘dreadful, complicated money.’

That’s when I’ll say, ‘Let’s come up with some questions to ask your lawyer about what you are legally entitled to. You can make that decision later, if you don’t want anything.’ I will tell them there are options, such as you can take a lump sum. Divorce is a private contract until it hits the courts so you can negotiate what you want within limits.

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There are some women who have no idea what their net worth is, and if there is a family office involved, sometimes it’s all behind the curtain. The Wizard of Oz allocated cheques here and there, but there’s not really knowledge of what is held in trust, or in the family inheritance.

Jen Lawrence
Jen Lawrence

I get women clients who think they are really wealthy and find out they’re not. And I also get women who think they have nothing because they have been given a modest allowance over the years for housekeeping and clothing and stuff. They had a credit card but they didn’t have access to the accounts. And then they find out they are coming into a huge sum of money. And that’s scary as well — not as scary, but it’s something to wrap their minds around, because family and friends come out of the woodwork.

There are women who get allowances? Isn’t that an automatic power imbalance?

I know women with allowances. I understand it, because for me, I became a stay-at-home mom even though I had a finance background. There was no financial abuse in my relationship but I was a money person, and I’ve always been a feminist.

My mom had access to her own money, and my grandmother. But a lot of women find money stressful. And I think they’ve been gas-lit, educated to think their husbands are doing them a favour by taking care of this ‘dreadful, complicated money.’

Financial professionals don’t help. They make it overly complex. Everything is an acronym, and there’s so much shame around not understanding money. It’s about empowering women to have conversations with professionals to be clear with them. Otherwise, they say, ‘Forget about it, I just want to go. Give me the car and an apartment.’

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And add onto that all the emotions, right?

The problem with divorce is you are emotionally wrought, whether you planned it or got up the courage to leave or you had been ambushed. In my recent divorce, I learned about it via a phone call from an airport. For me, that made it easier. Anyone who would do that is not my person. At that point I could focus on my healing.

I thought, ‘I wish there was a profession where you could hire a person who could road-map you through the process, so you could focus on your healing so you didn’t get married again because you were messed up.’

Is that what inspired you to become a coach?

That’s when I decided I should be a divorce coach.

Divorce is tough in so many ways – a big, emotional event involving sadness and anger. It’s better to handle your healing separately, and a coach can help you balance the business piece with the healing piece. It’s better than going into your lawyer’s office and trying to get emotional justice. A coach helps you walk that line of being strong in business but also starting to heal. Divorce lawyers love it when their clients work with coaches. Divorce lawyers feel bad when someone is being charged for weeping in their office. That’s where I can drop in.

Affluent divorce is particularly tricky at times, and the non-earning party can be vulnerable to economic abuse. People think you don’t have money problems because you are married to someone with money. But you can have more money problems because money is weaponized.

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Put your team together. Do lots of self-care but don’t just go to a spa. The best form of self-care is to establish boundaries. Also, sleep. Eat well. Don’t drink a lot.

And sometimes you might not even need to go through an actual divorce?

Some women will contact me who are in wealthy marriages, with family office situations, and with some of them we talk through the idea of ‘no-divorce divorce,’ when both parties don’t want to remarry and agree to live separate lives. With wealth there are multiple properties, they are vacationing separately anyway, you might have your own interests, your own foundations, different charitable strategies — there are ways to separate the relationship.

So you stay married on paper, and through post-nuptial agreements you can structure what the new marriage looks like without separating everything. It’s usually the case when children are involved, because they recognize the stress of custody battles. Then later, when the kids are all over 18, and they don’t want to live with the lies and the façade anymore, they can divorce.

You also help women rediscover their values.

I ask women, ‘What do you want’ It’s one of my first questions, and they are like, ‘I haven’t asked myself that in so many years I can’t even remember.’ It’s a little like leaving a dysfunctional, all-consuming job. You really can lose who you are after being in a marriage with a powerful person.

I’ll ask, ‘Who are you? How do you want to dress? What weight do you want to be?’ Some of them have been contracted to keep at a certain weight. If it’s not contracted, it’s constantly commented on. ‘You’re getting big. There are younger women.’

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There is a book called Not to People Like Us: Hidden Abuse in Upscale Marriages by Susan Weitzman. Affluent abuse looks really different than most forms of intimate partner violence. It’s about coercive control. Powerful men don’t need to use physical force to keep them under their thumb. They use money and they use community pressure.

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These women don’t want to be pushed out of the tennis club or become the gossip at the private school. They believe their behaviour is policed. People police each other. You step out of line and it’s threatening to the group. It’s a very interesting dynamic. Are you a good enough mother? Did you get them into the right school or the right university? If not, you failed as a parent. There are so many pressures.

When the women are finally out of that, they don’t know their identity anymore. That’s why I do Myers-Briggs work. I’ll tell them, ‘Let’s do vision boards.’ I’ll ask, ‘When you were a kid did you think you would grow up and be a trophy wife? Spoiler alert: No one ever says, ‘yes.’

It sounds like women sell themselves short when they enter into that kind of marriage. Wouldn’t you see the signs early on?

Over time it’s the frog in boiling water. If the guy were a monster on the first date it would be easy. But a lot of these guys are narcissistic types who do well in business, and they are charming at first.

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And they are super charming to everybody else — that’s the hardest thing. Everyone thinks he’s amazing, because he pays for the hockey tickets, they think he’s Mr. Wonderful, and they can’t understand how she could want to leave that situation.

Does it usually end because of some major issue? Is there a trigger?

Often it will end because the man, who has perhaps been having affairs all along, sometimes he falls in love. They decide they want a second kick at the can. That tends to be the most common thing because he wants to start another family. Also there’s the case where the woman has been so miserable, and sometimes she had an affair to pull the ripcord. They needed to justify a way to end the marriage, and then they feel guilty and they say, ‘I don’t want any money because I did this wrong thing.’

How about the social aspect of divorce? How about those friends you lose when they choose sides?

In affluent divorces, if he has the money and power, they will all side with him, even your girlfriends, because their husbands don’t want to lose access to the hockey tickets and business opportunities and everything. They will side with him, and you just have to know that.

But the reality is, were they really your friends? I’ve known women who are afraid of losing their friends but then describe them as vipers. If you’re describing your besties as vipers, I’m going to suggest they’re not friends.

Have you seen people get really bitter and fail to move on from divorce?

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I know a woman who has a picture of her matrimonial home on her phone as a screensaver. She’s not a client. I assumed she was divorced six months ago, but she got divorced over a decade ago. I find that sad because she’s stuck.

It’s important to see the positives in your divorce, like not having to ask permission to do what you want. For me, after my divorce, I booked a trip to Rome. I would not necessarily encourage a trip during a pandemic since it was scary at times. But it was also exhilarating. I didn’t need to ask anyone if it was a good idea, and no one can make me feel bad about it. The buck stops here. Which can feel scary at first, but then it feels liberating.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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