Divorced women report liberation as well as loneliness


Divorced after 25, 35 years of marriage -- alone and never having lived alone before. The situation of these women may seem dire.

Sad, yes, in that it's tough, but pathetic by no means. That's the message of a book based on a study of women who were divorced in mid-life, or later, after long-term marriages. Indeed, a lot of them turned out to be a whole lot happier after getting through the transition.

"Our Turn" (Pocket Books; $22) is unabashedly upbeat. So much so, perhaps, that researcher Christopher L. Hayes pointed out in an interview that the book is "not advocating divorce, but rather saying to take this transition, this very gut-wrenching, emotionally devastating experience, and use it as a springboard."

Mr. Hayes is founder and director of the National Center for Women and Retirement Research at Long Island University, where the study was conducted, and an associate professor there. He designed the study and wrote the book with Deborah Anderson, research coordinator of the study, and journalist Melinda Blau.

The study looked at 352 recently divorced women between 40 and 75 years old who had been in marriages lasting from 10 to 48 years.

These women typically married young, when American culture made it mandatory for women to devote themselves to husband and family. "They walked down the aisle at 18 and left themselves behind," is how Ms. Blau puts it.

Among the findings:

* Eighty-two percent had a more positive self-image and higher self-esteem after divorce.

* Nearly two-thirds found that the process of divorce inspired them to gain control of their lives.

* About one-third of the women reported their enjoyment of sex increased after divorce -- and the majority reported they had not enjoyed sex during marriage.

* Remarriage was not a goal for many of the women. Half responding to the survey said the hardest part of being single was not having someone to share life with on a daily basis, and not having a regular companion for social events. But many feared losing independence in a second marriage. Twenty-nine percent of women between ages 40 and 44 said they preferred to remain single, and the percentage feeling that way increased with age -- up to 46 percent of women 50 and 59.

* Although half of the women did find it hard to be growing older alone, an equal number began dating again. "More important, many stop defining themselves in terms of their relationships with men," the book says.

Mr. Hayes said he became interested in studying such women through his work with retirement-planning seminars. He noticed that many of the women attending were middle-aged, divorced and "not at all the type of women prior research had tended" to portray. They were not lonely or despondent and didn't seem to face a "dismal prognosis," he says, as some research suggested.

The group studied was 95 percent white, 55 percent Protestant. Most ofthe women had some college education, and 20 percent had postgraduate degrees. Of the hundreds who filled out questionnaires, 70 were interviewed in depth, a group of them several times.

The participants "were very enthusiastic to say there's life after divorce," Ms. Blau says. "And that also, if a woman really takes the time to search one's own soul and figure out what her own needs are, there are great surprises in store -- if only they just hang in there."

But it's not a perfect picture. Although the women did adjust well socially and emotionally, as a group they fell down in the area of financial management. "There were a lot of women interviewed who wound up with settlements of something like $100,000, and frittered it away, giving money to their children, buying presents. . . . Women to this day have a very, very difficult time" acknowledging their financial needs, Mr. Hayes says.

Independence -- in identity and finances -- is crucial for all women, he says.

"This I underscore 10 times -- whether you're married or single, young or middle-aged," Mr. Hayes says. "Find your own self-identity. Don't rely on a man to define who you are and what you are."

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