What Divorce Does to Your Career

How divorce can help you get a better job and reach your career goals.

By Mary Lou Quinlan
Mary Lou Quinlan
Photograph: Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Quinlan

Driven by Divorce

When a couple divorces after 40, it’s usually the wife who pulls the plug. Which made me wonder: How does divorce affect women’s working lives? Can we maintain control of our hard-won careers when our hearts are hurting?

As a long-married woman, I can’t address these questions from my own experience, so I turned to MORE readers for answers. I never expected the resulting avalanche of heartache, triumph, and full disclosure. Your verdict? Midlife divorce has seismic effects on our careers, for good and ill. Some women feel empowered to chase dreams they squelched as young brides. Some find themselves paying dearly — in alimony or legal fees — for their own financial success. And for some late bloomers, separation is the thing that finally spurs them to stand on their own.

Ending a Marriage, Rethinking a Career

After 20 years in broadcasting, Margaret Burnette Stogner, now 50, had risen to senior producer of a weekly TV documentary series for National Geographic. This Alexandria, Virginia, mother of two was the family breadwinner yet got little emotional support from her husband. "He thought I worked too many hours and traveled too much, and was generally jealous of my success," Stogner says. "My career put food on the table, while he had a long history of not being able to hold a job." At age 43, her confidence fortified by her success, Stogner called it quits on the marriage.

Deciding to divorce was tough; living through it was tougher. Stogner hired extra help at home in an effort to arrange more personal time for herself. But the demands of single motherhood took their toll, and she began to cut back on work. "I stopped traveling and started skipping late-afternoon meetings to get home at a reasonable hour, knowing I was probably jeopardizing my career," she says. She wanted to rethink her career, but as the sole provider, she was too scared to quit.

Three and a half years after the divorce, she had no choice. Stogner’s job was eliminated — and she suspects that her reduced time commitment made her vulnerable. But her personal life changed for the better: She fell in love and remarried. Rather than dive into another high-stress job, she decided to start her own production company, Blue Bear Films, and to teach at American University, an option enabled by her new marriage.

Stogner feels that the biggest effect divorce had on her career was that it forced her to find a better balance between work and family. Although she misses the stimulation of her old job, she’s in love with her new life. And she’s no longer scheduling her time in five-minute increments.

Her Turn to Succeed

Divorce can be an aphrodisiac for ambition. Elaine Asquith (who asked that we not use her real name) married her grad-school soul mate. She and her husband were activists in the black power, antiwar, and feminist movements during the early 1970s. He became a minister, and though she had a master’s degree in education from Harvard, she accepted a secondary role as a minister’s wife, moving from parish to parish, caring for their home and children and working at a series of part-time, low-paying jobs.

Eight years into the marriage, her husband became involved with a parishioner and asked Asquith to accept her into their life. "I think they hoped to create a communal, blended family," she recalls. "It was either idealism, denial, stupidity — or all of the above."

Asquith said no and forced him to end the affair. Frightened of being so dependent on him and pregnant with their third child, she vowed to find a stable job once the baby was born. She launched a career in human resources and was soon earning more than her husband. That’s when the marriage really went into a tailspin. "The combination of not being the dutiful wife, making more money, and becoming more assertive built his resentment," she says.

Asquith filed for divorce only to find that at 40, she had no credit history and couldn’t qualify for a car loan; a friend had to cosign a lease so she could rent an apartment.

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