Death Or Divorce: What Does One Have To Do With The Other?
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By Cathy Meyer, Founding Editor - March 10, 2014 - Updated July 21, 2016

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Death or divorce, which is worse? As someone who has been through an unwanted divorce, I can share my views on what I feel is pain equal to loss due to death.

Over the years many of my divorcing clients were women whose husbands had left them for a younger woman or a better life. These women suffered the loss of a spouse and marriage, but society’s attitude toward a woman who loses everything due to divorce is far different from a woman who loses a spouse to death.

Just as a woman who loses a husband to death, my clients had no control over the loss of their husbands and the lives they had built as a couple. Yet, society has granted the widow all the dignity of her position. There are funeral rituals, she can claim all her husband’s assets and she is showered with sympathy and concern for her loss.

What Life is Like For a Widow:

The aftermath of death is far different for a widow than it is for a divorcee. Below are a few of the emotional and financial advantages a widow has that a woman who has been left doesn't.

  • She has the comfort of knowing her husband would have chosen to stay with her.
  • She doesn't go to bed at night knowing her husband is alive and choosing to be with another woman.
  • She can share the grief of losing her husband with her children.
  • She will be surrounded by friends, family, and her community. Instead of shamed she will be supported, loved and shown compassion. 
  • In most cases she will be able to live comfortably off her husband's insurance and other benefit plans set up to protect his family should something happen to him.
  • If she has a home, one that they shared as a family, more than likely she will remain in that home with loving memories of the man she loved.
  • If, however, she struggles financially, she will be surrounded by loved ones willing to help her get back on her feet instead of viewing her as the cause of her own problems. 

On the other hand, the divorcee and her loss are devalued by the legal system, society and, when you need them most, friends and family. The victim of an unwanted divorce doesn’t hold the same status as a widow because their ex-husband is still alive and finding life without her preferable.

What is life like for a woman who's husband leaves her?

  • She has to live with the pain of knowing her husband no longer wants her or the life they had built together.
  • She has to live without the one she loves and with the societal attitude that she should "get over it" and "move one." 
  • She has to face the husband she lost in court as they battle over who gets what of any assets they have accumulated.
  • She has to face him every time he comes to pick up the children for visitation. Yes, he is, at least, still alive and he lets her know every opportunity he gets that he finds her detesting. 
  • She has to live with the angst caused by knowing her children are being introduced to and encouraged to care for the woman her husband left her for.
  • She has to do all these things with very little family support and no community support. She is on her own with her pain. 
  • She has to sell the home she enjoyed with her husband and children and, more than likely, move into a small apartment. 
  • There are no insurance policies, no financial security, just an ex-husband fighting to keep her from getting what she needs to remain financially secure.
  • And, she gets to raise her children as a "single mom." Vastly different from the widowed mom who isn't blamed for a broken home or possibly causing trauma in her children's lives. 

The knowledge that a husband is still alive is cold comfort when you have to live daily knowing he has chosen to live elsewhere. Not that I don’t sympathize with anyone who loses a husband to death, but at least they know their husband would have stayed if given the opportunity. They don’t have to live with the fact that their husband is dead to them because he CHOSE to be dead to them.

In reality, a widow and a woman who loses her husband through divorce have a lot in common. The only thing they don’t have in common is how they are viewed by society and the compassion and dignity they are shown. To lose a husband through divorce is to experience death without dignity. It means the death of your friendship with someone you had chosen to be your life partner. It is the death of your future with the man you love. It is the probable death of any financial security you felt in your marriage. It is the death of the emotional security one feels in a marriage.

Divorce can be as traumatic as the death of a husband…loss is loss. If you are going through an unwanted divorce, treat yourself kindly. You did not fail at marriage; you are suffering through the death of your marriage. If you know someone whose husband has left her, treat her with dignity. Show her the same sympathy and concern you would if her spouse had died. After all, she is living with the uncertainties of divorce and the skewed views of a society that feels she deserves less emotional and legal support.

I was discussing this with a friend one day, her response was, “You divorce someone you can't stand to be with anymore, so I fail to see how that could ever be compared to the death of a spouse you love? If I were a widow or widower I'd be insulted by any of my divorced friends who had the audacity to compare their failed marriage to my grief.”

And therein lies the rub, the belief that divorce is a choice in all cases. The ignorance of most to the fact that divorce is not a bilateral decision made when a couple calmly sits down and decides it is time to end the marriage.

In most marriages divorce is a unilateral decision made by one spouse to leave the other. The fact that the spouse leaving is out there somewhere alive is cold comfort to the person whose life, future and dreams were destroyed by divorce.

Like I said before, loss is loss and when your husband is gone from your life that loss is not made less painful just because he is still alive out there somewhere. Especially when you have to live with the fact that he is shagging his new love, spending the retirement fund you helped build and not giving a second thought to someone who invested decades of their life in a marriage to him.

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