Women Take Biggest Hit in Divorce, Say Experts

PHOTO KATHLEEN JOHNSON MICHAEL
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Divorce nearly crushed Kathleen Anderson. She lost her three children in a custody battle and her finances were devastated by child support.

Her first husband left her and 30 days later married a close friend. A judge determined she couldn't financially provide for the children, and they were better off in a two-parent family.

"All I could do was cry for days," said Anderson, now 54, of Utica, Kansas. "My financial situation was dim. I learned to budget and do without, sell junk and take on small part-time jobs."

She even picked up trash along the roadside and offered to help an elderly neighbor for extra cash.

That was 20 years ago. Today, she is reunited with her three oldest children and happily remarried with two more children. But Anderson has never forgotten how her life was shaken by divorce.

"I learned that things happen to others just like myself, and we can choose to sit and mull over it, or get up and make a difference in our world," said Anderson, who helps her husband run a farm. "Divorce, I found, wasn't the end of the world -- it was just the beginning and I was growing by it."

Kathleen Anderson and her son Michael, one of her five children.

More than half of all marriages -- there were more than 2 million in 2009 -- end in divorce, according to the National Council of Family Relations.

The probability of a first marriage ending in divorce within five years is 20 percent. After a decade, the chances of a divorce are 33 percent. As the number of marriages increases, so does the risk. By the third time around, about 73 percent will dissolve, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Women are often hit harder than men, as they try to navigate new lives with fewer financial resources, more child-care responsibilities and the challenge of dating again.

One report in Marie Claire magazine said a woman's quality of life drops 45 percent after divorce.

Stacy Schneider, a lawyer and author of the 2008 book "He Had It Coming: How to Outsmart Your Husband and Win Your Divorce," says women mistakenly wait to make a clean break from their husbands before they figure out their finances. She sees many women emotionally "going to pieces" and "wimping out" when it comes to protecting their property rights.

Another earlier study from Iowa State University's Institute for Social and Behavioral Research showed that divorce had no immediate effects on a woman's physical health, but had lingering effects on her mental health that led to illness a decade after divorce. The incidence of physical illness is 37 percent higher in divorced women than in married ones after a decade.

Researchers said that social isolation and comparatively poor job opportunities after divorce could be responsible for the illness reported a decade later.

One woman from Texas, who did not want to be identified, told ABCNews.com that hardest part of divorce was being a single working mother with a 2-year-old.

"While, of course, there's huge financial stress, I find the emotional stress to be greater," she wrote in an e-mail. "First, it's the lack of time to raise my son as I'd hoped and dreamed, the guilt and inadequacy associated, and the worry of future effects it may have on him...to have such limited bonding time with his mother."

Emotional Stress of Divorce Hardest

That 35-year-old mother said she also finds no time for socializing and dating.

"These are compounded upon the emotional stress of the divorce itself -- the failed marriage, the lost hopes and dreams, the betrayal and infidelity, the stigma of being divorced, the disadvantages created for my son (and all the legal proceedings...even more financial and emotional stress)," she wrote.

Andra Brosh, 44, of Santa Monica, Calif., had a seemingly perfect marriage to her college sweetheart when her husband walked out to live with a longtime mistress.

"I was living a dream," she said. "For nine months I tried to make it work because I didn't want to let the dream go. But I needed to move on with my life, and there was no way I could live my life looking over my shoulder every second."

She and Allison Pescosolido, 43, both grief counselors, have founded a divorce recovery program and website, Divorce Detox, where women can get help.

They wanted to take the "pain and heartbreak and confusion" out of divorce, so women could survive the loss and build a "foundation for a better life."

"We developed a whole paradigm to take people through the steps of divorce," said Brosh, a psychologist.

Women Can Survive Divorce, Say Experts

For women who have been married for a long time, Pescosolido says the first emotion is shock.

"It's very, very traumatic...they are so attached to the commitment," she said. "The forever of two lives is being upset, and all dreams and hopes, everything that you have thought about since childhood is lost."

The stress of divorce can also lead to health problems. "They forget to take care of themselves," said Brosh. Sometimes, women stop eating properly.

"Even people who are very functioning are surprised at how hard it is just to do their daily activities," said Pescosolido.

Before custody arrangements are in place, women can resent their spouses for leaving them with all the child care responsibilities.

"Suddenly, the single mom has a lot to deal with," said Brosh. "It's frustrating for women when the partner has a new wife and seems like he is in his heyday."

For women who have been married for years, online dating is an anomaly. "There's an old stigma that's not relevant anymore," said Pescosolido. "There is nothing shameful and that's how dating is done these days."

Some are fearful of dating, but once they step out, "they feel relieved at how liberating it is," said Brosh, who is now in a relationship again.

After 10 weeks, most women begin to make major improvement. They learn to process their feelings, enter into new relationships and even make amends with their former husbands, a process Brosh and Pescosolido call "ex-communicating."

Such was the case with Susan B. of Pennsylvania, who wrote to ABCNews.com.

"When I went through my divorce I was devastated," she said. "My children were 13 and 15. I had to sell my house and move to another town. My kids had to switch schools. But with all that being said, we are much better off. We have grown to appreciate things a whole lot more. Yes, we struggled, but we are stronger for it today."

Her children are now 20 and 22 and "they are better than ever," according to Susan. "They still talk to their father. They are happy, well-rounded children."

Even Kathleen Johnson came out the other end of four painful divorces.

"My advice for women: If you get married again make sure he is willing to work at the marriage also," she said. "Effective communication is vital, and realize that you both communicate differently. Forgive each other daily, and spend more time finding the laughter in even the small things."

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