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What’s at the Roots of Financial Divorce Recovery?

By Hanna Morrell October 24, 2023 Managing Money

Five years post-divorce, 25% of people say they feel recovered from the emotional impact of divorce, vs 35% who say they are still not recovered from the financial impact. Even after five years, so many of us are not financially resilient after divorce.

Let’s talk about what works and what doesn’t when trying to recover financially from divorce.

What Isn’t Working

Traditional Google advice is rife with well-meaning but ultimately overly simplistic advice like:

  • Try not to get too emotional about the divorce process.
  • Be involved in the marital finances. (How is this helpful NOW?)
  • Create a budget and stick to it.
  • Update your life insurance and investments.
  • Set boundaries.

I hope you can feel my eyes rolling right now. If the “five steps to recovering from divorce” (or the like) worked, we’d all be fine.

And we are not fine.

Not only is this generic advice of limited usefulness, but it also sets us up for failure as we hold these expectations of ourselves.

“It’s been five years since the divorce, and I still don’t have any savings… what’s wrong with me?”

“The divorce was finalized 6 months ago, and I still can’t keep to a budget!”

So How Do You Become Financially Resilient After Divorce?

Realize That Money IS an Emotion

I know we’ve all been told that it isn’t (or shouldn’t be), but it is. Money is THE resource in our modern economy, and it’s tightly tied to our survival. Every resource you need (food, water, shelter, safety, community) you likely need money for. Money buys us time, access, and rest too, and we need all of those things as well.

No wonder we feel panicked if there is even the shade of a threat to our financial standing, savings, income, lifestyle, or access to money. Especially as we have fewer and fewer earning years ahead of us.

Expecting ourselves to magically make calm decisions in what is one of the most potentially traumatic and threatening times in our lives is bullshit.

So, you’ve found yourself making some emotional decisions? Can you give yourself grace and patience? Can you find patterns in those emotional financial decisions without blame? (More on this in a bit.)

Emotions Are Tools

We humans are emotional decision-makers. (See above.) That’s not a bad or good thing.

Even if we say we are “logical” decision-makers, that’s frequently just secret code for simplistic emotional decision-making. And it means we’re only solving for one thing.

Perfectly right or wrong choices are rare in your complex, messy, and beautiful life.

By trying to reduce that complexity to just one thing, we tend to make fast, reactive decisions. And our stubborn brains won’t be swayed from holding that one thing above all else.

Would you like a simple example? OK, here you go!

A couple, Sam and Mo, are shopping for a couch. The “right” couch is out there, they just have to find it, right?

Sam: Hey look, this one would fit great in the living room, and it’s in our price range.

Mo: Is it comfortable?

Sam: I don’t know, we could read reviews, or see if we can find it in a showroom.

Mo: Yeah, let’s do that. It doesn’t matter how much it costs if it’s not comfortable, right?

Sam: Yeah, but if it’s not in our price range, it doesn’t matter how comfortable it is, because we’re not getting it, right?

Each partner is solving for one thing. Sam is solving for price; Mo is solving for comfort.

I imagine if you’re playing out the rest of this conversation in your head between these two fictional people it probably got pretty tense right away. Both of them think they are solving for the only right factor, and both can’t understand why the other can’t see reason.

Emotional Decision-Making

Emotional decision-making is fine as long as it allows for the complexity of our lives. But the more stressed out we are, the more likely we are to drill down on one thing (the “right” thing) to be concerned about. And our stressed-out brains have difficulty considering anything else.

This is related to the scarcity mindset, which deeply impacts our financial decisions.

Emotions deeply inform our decision-making… especially devastating emotions.

Grief Takes the Time It Takes

Even if this divorce or separation was your idea, even if this decoupling is a good thing, there may still be grief.

Grief may lead to avoidance, shutting down, or apathy. It hurts to grieve, so we shut down to avoid thinking about anything associated with our grief. It’s not far-fetched to imagine someone in the throes of grief just agreeing to anything and everything to avoid thinking about or prolonging the trigger for grief.

If you find that you’ve made financial choices under the influence of grief, it’s okay. You were doing what you needed to protect yourself. Use that pattern (grief= shut down = agree to anything) as a way to protect your decision-making in the future.

We often talk about processing grief like we can start this and after those magical five stages, we pop out the other side totally recovered. Unfortunately, no one told our brains that, and it often takes longer than we’d like. And sometimes the grief never quite subsides.

All of this is normal.

No Matter How You Grieve, It’s the Right Way

Any way you move through your grief is the right way. How have you experienced grief at other times in your life? What kinds of patterns are you seeing in this current time of grief? Personally and professionally, I absolutely recommend seeking therapy. Is there someone you trust that you can talk with? Someone who won’t try to fix or resolve, but listens and accepts you?

One other thing that will help with grief is being gentle with yourself. Piling shame, punishment, and regret will not help, but I do appreciate that those little bad guys might be popping up for you, too.

Can you be gentle with yourself if you feel grief, shame, judgment, or regret?

Practice Acceptance Through Self-Awareness

I’d like you to imagine a scientist out in the wild, they’ve got their pith helmet and their khaki clothes and their little notebook and all that. Let’s assume this is a good and ethical scientist.

Our scientist is observing a wild animal. Would the scientist try to change the wild animal’s behavior?

Not if they’re a good scientist.

The scientist would just be observing and taking notes, right?

So, let’s say the scientist has observed long enough and thinks they understand the wild animal’s “normal” behavior. And then the scientist watches the wild animal deviate away from that normal, would the scientist try to correct the animal’s behavior?

Probably not.

Maybe the scientist might get curious and ask more questions, but they are probably not going to correct the animal’s behavior.

Now the scientist sees the animal eat something gross. Is the scientist going to write in their notes, “Oh my god, this animal is so disgusting! I can’t believe it just ate all of that rotten, moldy elephant poop!!”

Again, not likely. The scientist would just observe and take notes. Date, time, how much elephant poop, etc.

So why am I telling you this story?

Because I want you to be both the wild animal AND the scientist.

Self-awareness ONLY happens when we are able to observe our own behavior WITHOUT judgment, correction, or shame.

My encouragement is to practice observing your behaviors and reactions around finances, your financial choices, and your spending – if you can.

What kinds of patterns do you think you’ll find in your responses and choices?

Practice Decision-Making When You’re Regulated

During this divorce or separation process, I’d wager that you’ve made some choices (financial and otherwise) while you were feeling stressed, threatened, or like you were having choices removed from you. And by choice, I mean anything from the volume of your voice to what you agreed to.

Choices made when we’re stressed are often lightning-fast and have a low likelihood of being good long-term decisions. This isn’t a personality defect, by the way, this is just what our brains do when we feel stressed.

Right now, it might not feel like there are too many moments when you feel you’re making calm, thoughtful decisions with your whole brain. But I’d like you to be looking for those moments.

Here’s how to find those moments of regulation:

Begin to rate your capacity on a scale from +5 to -5. +5 means you’ve got full capacity! Woo! You are feeling regulated and clear-headed. 0 (zero) means your capacity is neutral… neither high nor low. -5 means your capacity is all used up right now.

Once a day, evaluate your capacity. After a day or two, you can check in more frequently until your brain just does this automatically. You’re welcome to evaluate your general capacity (“What’s my capacity for all the things?”) or your capacity for specific tasks/events (What’s my capacity for doing the dishes right now?”).

As you begin to take note of your capacity, watch for moments when your capacity is +1 to +5. Practice making small decisions in those times. Start with small choices like what’s for lunch, then work up to big choices like what to agree to on the divorce paperwork or how to manage your shared investments.

The expectation here is not that you put off ALL of your choices until you’re on the plus side of capacity. The purpose of this is that by monitoring your capacity you’ll be able to respect it. When you can respect your capacity and care for it, you’ll find that you’re prioritizing decisions for when you are regulated and have more capacity rather than just expecting yourself to make thoughtful decisions when there is nothing left of you.

What do you think you’ll notice as you begin to track your capacity for decision-making?

Learning to Trust Yourself

Setting and keeping boundaries is one of the classic bits of wisdom you’ll hear during this transition time. But you cannot set or keep boundaries if you don’t trust yourself.

Trusting yourself is the hokey-pokey.

Unrewarding relationships, narcissists, our upbringings, our own internal narratives, and just life in general can give us lots of reasons why we cannot be trusted. Every piece of messaging that you’ve gotten that you can’t be trusted is nonsense, even if you’ve internalized it and just said to yourself, “But you don’t understand, Hanna… I really can’t be trusted because I…”

It’s nonsense.

Trusting yourself is indistinguishable from resilience. There is no difference between knowing you’ve got your own back and being able to weather financial and relationship storms. If I’m making it sound like there’s a switch you can just flip and then you’ll be able to magically trust yourself, I apologize. There isn’t, but trusting yourself can be grown over time.

Let’s Inventory Your Resilience!

Write out a list of the times you’ve trusted your intuition, that little internal voice, or your own choices. These could be little choices or big choices; it does not matter.

What kinds of patterns do you see in the times you’ve trusted yourself? How can you use the trust in yourself you’ve already banked to rebuild your resilience after the divorce?

Now list all the financial resources you have. Not just cash on hand or that mutual fund, but your expertise, your experience, your network, and your career or business.

Build Bravery into Your Communication

Nope, this one is not easy.

One of the worst pieces of advice we get is “communication is key,” with very few tools given as to HOW we just magically communicate. We all want direct, honest communication, but we aren’t taught how to do that. In reality, we are taught indirect communication, and to shield ourselves with shallow statements and requests.

How is anyone supposed to communicate if they feel like they need to protect themselves?

Our brains don’t know the difference between real threats and those we’re just thinking about (“It’s all in your head.”). Our brains and their obsession with survival are constantly scanning for threats. And if they’re looking for threats, they are going to see threats. Even something as simple as communicating a preference can be perceived as a threat. There is a threat to failure in honest communication, but also the threat of rejection.

Break out a piece of paper and then spend the next two minutes (and ONLY two minutes) writing out what feelings could be underlying your indirect, protected, or guarded communication around finances and money.

Now, in only a minute, work from the mindset that you can now magically communicate without needing to protect yourself. What kinds of requests could you make? How would you state your needs, desires, and boundaries?

It’s impossible to unpick guarded communication in this one article, but understanding what is motivating you goes a long way to building up the bravery to communicate your desires and needs in a brave way.

I strongly recommend the work of Marshall Rosenberg and his NonViolent Communication.

Self-Care, But Different

There are a great number of past versions of you and a great number of future versions of you, but only one right-now version of you.

The right-now version of ourselves is the one we spend a lot of time trying to protect, but it isn’t the version of us that is actually at risk.

The future you is the one most at risk, and also the one with the least amount of control. After all, the future version of you can’t actually DO anything, but the right-now version of you can.

The right-now version of you is also the only one that can feel pain or pleasure. So it’s no wonder we are often seeking to make our lives easier in the present moment. That’s what self-care is for, right? But that’s also what procrastination is for.

Sometimes it’s very difficult to tell the difference between self-care and procrastination.

Am I putting off reading the email from the lawyer because I’m practicing self-care or because I’m lazy and procrastinating? Hard to tell.

So, let’s practice taking care of a very specific version of you. Tomorrow You. What small task could you do today to make your life easier tomorrow? This doesn’t need to be anything huge, just one little thing.

By making your life just a little bit easier every day, you are practicing resilience (trusting yourself). And you’re also building up capacity too. As we talked about above, decisions made when we’re regulated (have capacity) are typically better decisions. This doesn’t need to be a financial task, by the way. You can work up to that.

Wrapping Up

In conclusion, here are some concrete ways you can begin to recover financially and emotionally from divorce:

  • Practice grace for yourself if you’re making fast, emotional, or reactive financial decisions.
  • Remind yourself that emotions are tools and can be an important part of your decision-making.
  • Give yourself time when it comes to grief. Grief takes the time it takes. Watch for patterns in how grief affects your decision-making.
  • Practice patience with yourself.
  • Make more of your financial decisions when you’re regulated.
  • Learn to trust yourself.
  • Communicate bravely!
  • Take care of the you of tomorrow.

So, here I’ve given you eight ways to begin recovering financially and emotionally from divorce, but don’t do all eight at once. Pick one or two, practice them for a few days, then add on another one or two and let us know how it goes.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

Are you recovering from divorce? Is the emotional or financial side worse, in your experience? Have you made fast financial decisions you now regret? How have you dealt with your grief? How would you rate your decision-making capacity right now?

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Well done on an excellent article! There can be so much emotion around money because it’s linked to our sense of security. I’m not going through divorce, so not relevant to me, but I think this is very well written and appreciate that it is not patronizing or unrealistic.

Hanna Morrell

Hi Ingrid! Thank you so much for your comments! And ya, so much financial “wisdom” is patronizing, unrealistic, and (my words) unhelpful!

Totally unrelated… My car is named Ingrid, lol. (It’s a favorite name of mine)

Be well!


this is very reassuring to me that others feel the same emotions and stress. I need to rewrite my will and lawyers are so costly! Any tips for creating a new Will?

Hanna Morrell

One of the most devastating things about divorce or separation is that it can be very isolating… reinforcing that sense that we’re the only ones in the world going through it! I’m glad knowing others feel the same reassures you, Louise!

As to the will… as long as the will complies with your state’s requirements and you feel comfortable doing so, you can DIY a will. Here’s a resource I like:
How to make a will without a lawyer.

The Author

Hanna Morrell is a holistic, trauma-informed financial coach who helps people trust themselves with their money. Her adaptive curriculum respects that every decision we make is either directly or indirectly a financial decision. Hanna delights in teaching her clients how they can build and customize their own money systems.

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