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September 23, 2008

Can’t afford to stay, can’t afford to leave

Filed under: Treats — posted by Breakup Girl @ 9:23 am

Here, from FOBG Mary Beth Williams at Salon.com, a dismaying/touching account of the penny-pinch of heartbreak:

Sep. 22, 2008 | My marital separation would be so much easier if I were in a better income bracket. Then again, if I were in a better income bracket, maybe my husband and I wouldn’t be separating at all. I could rattle off all the reasons why the man that I promised to love forever is not sleeping next to me tonight. I can list all the heartaches we’ve endured over the last two years. Or I could cut to the chase and tell you that this is a story about money.

We saved and scrimped and searched for three years before sinking everything we had and more into a home for ourselves and our two children, a tiny co-op in a fringy New York City neighborhood. The process left us emotionally and financially tapped. Then, three days before we closed on the apartment, my husband lost his job.

Ultimately, it wasn’t the mortgage or job search or the way we both had to hustle for freelance work or the piled-up bills that did us in, although those things were a kick in the teeth. All those indignities we might have endured, though, had we endured them together. Instead, the stress and the pain and the lost self-esteem and inevitable and often crippling psychic toll of our strained circumstances contaminated our lives and brought out something in both of us that we couldn’t come back from. The harder we tried to be brave, the further apart we grew.

It may well be that if this financial and subsequent emotional crisis hadn’t driven a wedge between us, something else would have eventually done the job. It’s certainly fair to say that we’re not the same people we were when we married a decade and a half ago, in our mid-20s. But even if our financial disasters weren’t the cause of our breakup, they sure were the catalyst.

Yet they’ve likewise made us think long and hard about the consequences of ending it. I have spent hours at my desk, ruefully contemplating my Quicken spreadsheet, calculating my monthly income and expenses, trying to make the numbers turn out better. Emotionally, I couldn’t afford to stay in this marriage any longer. Financially, I don’t know how I’ll be able to afford to leave it.

Before I actually became one of those people whose marriage breaks up, I had a very simplistic notion of separation. It was a scene in a movie, one where the music swells and a woman stands tearfully looking out a window while a man in an overcoat tosses a suitcase into a taxi. Here’s the reality: It’s not like checking out of a hotel. And if it’s a movie, it’s more like “Dead Man Walking. ”

Long after we first broached the painful subject, my husband and I were still planning how to finesse our separation. It took weeks of discussion and more than one heavily annotated chart. Grief is not merely quantifiable; it can be PowerPointed. On the upside, the logistics of our unraveling have spurred us to communicate with a candor and spirit of cooperation that has been friendlier and more generous than almost anything that precipitated it. And it forced us to rely, heavily, on the charity of others.

Our separation is not a tidy business of someone going off to his quaint bachelor digs. Mostly my husband has been staying with his elderly parents, a few towns over, an arrangement that nobody’s enthusiastic about. At other times, we’ve cobbled together alternative accommodations. When our friends down the hall went away for two weeks, we traded off staying in their apartment, a situation that was unusual but which provided maximum access to our children. Later we made plans for him to stay at a Brooklyn musician friends’ apartment, but when the guy’s tour was canceled, we were sent scrambling for last-minute backup options. We’ve even had an awkward night when I went to a play with a girlfriend, returning late and sleeping on the couch while he slept in our bedroom. And if you’re looking for me next week, I will be taking up residence in another friend’s Upper West Side apartment during her vacation. This isn’t just a separation; it’s the Separation World Tour 2008, sponsored by Samsonite and the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority.

We still split the expenses. When I think about shouldering them alone I can barely breathe. I can’t pay a mortgage single-handedly. I don’t even know if I can give up our family phone plan. Some days, I look at the bills and wonder, is losing my rollover minutes the price I have to pay for freedom? He and I have conversations galore, but we still haven’t figured anything out that feels equitable and practical.

I have lived most of my adult on a limited income, have budgeted and penny-pinched and done without. I rarely go to restaurants or buy new clothes. Yet even the few indulgences I once enjoyed — a once-a-week mocha, an occasional new book — now feel out of reach. I am taking the pittance I put aside every month for my daughters’ college education and redirecting it toward the day-to-day cost of living. I watch as the shabby IKEA kitchen cabinets sag precariously. They will likely soon fall apart completely, and I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to replace them. The fridge is on the fritz. They need school supplies and fall clothes. Beats me how it’ll happen. The burden of this choice, the potential for utter ruin, haunts me constantly.

Breakups are painful and crappy even in the best of circumstances. My two close friends of reasonably independent financial means rail over the endless minutiae of splitting expenses with their exes. My happily remarried college pal still describes her youthful divorce as “an amputation.” They’re the ones who got off easier. Another friend and her estranged husband had to live together for two years in a miserable state of marital limbo, because they simply couldn’t afford to split up the family. And a fellow mom from the playground confided recently that she’s spent the past year wanting to leave her marriage, but how could she and her kids survive on her salary?

In most of history and even now in most of the world, a woman walking away from a marriage has been unthinkable. Autonomy is rarely an option. Hell, I’m doing it, and it still feels like a long shot. I’m still not convinced that the mere possibility of mutual happiness apart from each other is a noble or practical enough goal. I worry that I am limiting my children’s lives, that in addition to all the emotional baggage of not having Mom and Dad across from them at the dinner table, they will have to make all kinds of material sacrifices they didn’t sign up for. I ask myself every day if my kids would be happier with two brave souls sticking it out but keeping them more secure than they could possibly be with a primary caregiver whose chances of plummeting into poverty just went through the occasionally leaky roof.

And yet, when I was still in the contemplative stage of the process, the notion of staying in something because it was more financially advantageous struck me as hopelessly cynical and downright mean. I saw us growing older and sadder. I saw something that had been wonderful and good and loving for so long becoming twisted into something mercenary and suffocating, dwindling into a joyless splitting of the electricity bill and the groceries. I saw two goodhearted people, who had brought two hilarious and beautiful children into the world, at a point when the only right and kind thing to do seemed to be to take the craziest fiscal gamble imaginable. I couldn’t save my marriage. I am having a hell of a time saving money. But I might be able to save, at least, the rest of our lives.

— By Mary Elizabeth Williams


  1. I know a lot of people who are considering cheating because they are so dissatisfied in their marriages but simply CANNOT AFFORD to leave. I seriously think there should be some kind of halfway house for middle class people making the transition from married life to singlehood. It’s a very rude awakening, even if you have a decent salary, few or no children, and no debt. It’s definitely not easy when states like mine (Maryland) require that the marital separation last for at least one year from the date of separate residences before divorce can be granted … others allow separate bedrooms under the same roof, which makes a lot more sense in this economy. I’m one of the lucky ones for whom it worked but it could have so easily gone the other way.

    Comment by Katla Sanford — September 23, 2008 @ 7:19 pm

  2. I left my husand of twelve years last fall. Our divorce was final in June of 08. I now live with my sister 50 miles away from my old home, which now sits empty (and NOT on the market) becuase my ex now lives 4 houses down with an old neighbor of ours. I know, classy.
    What I want to know is, how do they afford his and her houses? We lived on a lake, now they have his and her boats. I have a jeep. That’s it. He begged me to leave him the house and boat. I did.
    He took me to court and grandstanded about what a horrible parent I am, even though I had been a full time stay at home mom for the last 7 years. He left every morning and left the kids with me, how horrible could I be? so he got physical custody needless to say. After all, he did just finish getting his degree – while I took care of everything else. Now it’s my turn to go to school, nope- time for divorce. Now he’s married to a family law specialist. And together they have tried to take me back to court three times now in the past 3 months. Next week I get to go back becuase they want more child support. I am a full time student with a part time job. What more do they want from me? Sell a house, sell a boat. Not my problem that the man COULD NEVER live with in his means. That was part of my reasoning for leaving him. (Well, besided the drinking, gambling, and obvious-NOW- infidelity).
    I am broker than broke. Yet they have the money to put my kids with a sitter the weekends they are supposed to have them so that they can jet somewhere warmer.
    When do I get that life?
    I gave up the last 7 years of my life to support a husband, and two kids in making thier lives the best possible. And all I end up with is a pile of lies, and broken promises.

    It was worth it. Now I get to go to school on the fed govt. , and work part time to pay to support my kids, or his habits?

    I get to be the fun parent now, with out ALL the work. I wonder who does all teh work for him now? His new wife. Not likely. Before we were seperated and I knew her, she barely spent time with her own kid, she’s not going to do it with mine.

    Where am I going with all of this?

    Just do it. Either way, material things can be replaced. Life is about enjoying the relationships you had and making memories. When your dieing, are you going to say to yourself, gee- wish I would’ve have worked more…. or- gee, wish I had more toys, or- gee, wish I would have stressed out a little more about bills, so I could play somebody I’m really not……

    I thank GOD every day for my sanity again. And every time I see him he looks a little bit more worn down than the last time.

    Karma is hard. And it does exist.

    Comment by wagner — September 26, 2008 @ 9:42 am

  3. Someone told me that love/marriage is like the seasons there are the spring: “love at first sight”, “we will never fall apart” season; summer: things are hot, but still tolerable; fall: things are cooling down and we become familiar with each other and the fire seems to cool out. Then the winter: EVERYTHING freezes over and there is no sign of life anywhere. The brutal winds of stress, kids, and finances … life are blowing and the “love” is not felt. However, after a harsh winter the spring will return and things will revive.

    I am married 7yrs and separated for the last 2yrs. I believe with all that I am that marriage can work but its WORK. The hardest thing I have ever done and yet I’m willing not to let the winter destroy our vows. There is allot of emotional healing that we both must go through, but hey God is good.

    Separation does allow us to step back and evaluate the reality of the relationship. Personally, I was an insensitive a$$ to my wife’s emotions, something that I was able to see by the grace of God. Now I have relocated from the south the far north to support her and the kids in a way that I did not in the past.

    I feel that you both still have love for each other but the coldness of your reality blocks out the warmth and security that we all crave (yes even men are in need of the security of love… we just don’t show it). EVERY marriage will go through their own “winter” but I feel that our society has the wrong impression of marriage. …. it should be spring for the rest of my life. So when the winter comes we run. You did not mention if there was adultery involved with your problems.

    … Let me stop. It’s the two of you vs. the world. If the world can get the right problems in between husband and wife, as the saying goes “divide and conquer”. If the financial issue was out of either of your power to control, then why allow it to tare you apart from the one you do love? Its still there, under the ice.

    Comment by Tim G. — September 26, 2008 @ 10:11 am

  4. You sure speak the truth. Even after all the rotten things my ex has done to me, somehow inside of me I know I could still forgive him. It starts with him saying sorry first. But I can’t make him do that. And apparently it is easier to get remarried than say those two little words that someday most likely will be said to some one else, or never be spoken.

    Comment by wagner — September 28, 2008 @ 8:54 am

  5. Wagner,

    Thank you for your response it encourages me to continue to pursue my wife with a humble spirit. As you said, you cant make him say Im sorry as much as I cant make her forgive me. Leaving a steady job, friends and life in Fl to move to Mass. was a big gamble. However it works out for us, I will be accountable for my insensitive attitudes and be a father to our children.

    A book I read the author said “It takes 4yrs to be a certified plumber and a few minutes to make a life long commitment.” If a man honestly learns from his mistakes and makes a sincere change I believe it can be forgiven. Spoken from a man I guess it doesn’t weigh much.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that men don’t think of relationships like women do. Most ladies grow up with the Disney princess idea of marriage from childhood. Men… not so. We are so simple and functional. When I said my vows, all I knew is that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. …..after now 7yrs I realize that I didn’t know how to. Foolish – yes, and to my personal shame she paid the price for my foolishness.

    Im hoping against hope that we will be able to get through this. If not, Im not rushing the isle again until I am ready. I would rather be alone for the next ten yrs than to emotionally scar another woman.

    – sorry didn’t mean to say so much.

    Comment by Tim G. — September 28, 2008 @ 9:50 pm

  6. Unfortunately, Tim, “simple and functional” to men often means just getting sex or meals from any woman who wants to give them out without offering anything in return, like a relationship, or sometimes, even common courtesy. And other men get too extreme with protecting women from possibly scarring them emotionally, when the woman would be willing to work with him to help heal. I’m in the process of cutting out one of each of those kinds in my life now.

    Still, this is all way off topic, except to maybe demonstrate the advantage of being unable to leave when you want to … sometimes it’s best to have a bottom line reason why you have to stay and work things out, who knows. Definitely not in my case, though, and probably not in Wagner’s either (you go girl, keep yourself #1 and let him bring himself down!).

    Comment by Katla Sanford — September 28, 2008 @ 10:53 pm

  7. I cannot say I still love my husband after all of 35 years. I wish there was a way to part amicably. We just have our different lives now and the prospect of taking care of someone who disregards his health (he smokes and drinks daily, a lot) in his old age does not appeal to me. I think it would be better to go our separate ways. Had we lived a century ago we both would probably have been dead by now. Did I mention we have three grown children the oldest of which is severely disabled and we have twin grandchildren who are wonderful, but we could enjoy them even if we were not together. I know I could love any number of people, I just don’t have the need to have an exclusive relationship. I could easily be alone, no problem. What to do?

    Comment by Vickie Travaline — September 30, 2008 @ 10:09 pm

  8. Hi Vicki:
    So sorry to hear you’re in a pickle. Unfortunately, as we note here, http://www.breakupgirl.net/?page_id=2
    I am not able to answer new questions via my former Breakup Girl advice column or this blog. That’s the bad news. The good news is, I am able to answer them via my advice column over at MSN.com (asklynn@match.com). As with any advice column, I cannot answer every question submitted, of course, but I honestly do my best. In the meantime, please try searching or browsing the BG advice archives (http://www.breakupgirl.net/advice/index.html) for another answer that may touch on your question — and do enjoy the rest of the site!
    Many thanks and all the best to you. 
    Breakup Girl

    Comment by Breakup Girl — October 2, 2008 @ 11:15 am

  9. WOW,

    Tears ran down my face as I read this very well written brakeup story. There is a grey area that arise when the finances get tough. Are you in it because you can not afford to leave or are you in it because of the commitment to your children and the relationship. I tell myself the best commitment you can make to your children is to commit to give yourself the best possible loving relationship you can have with their father so the children intern can learn how to have great relationships and learn to treat themselves well because they watched their parents.

    BUT…here i am in a worse scenario…the father of my kids started a relationship with me then went off and married and longtime off and on girlfriend. Now I have two small kids and depend on him to cover my rent and other expenses. HOW I HATE TO ACCEPT ANY FINANCIAL HELP FROM HIM. Although not enough to go to a shelter, i want my kids to live better than I can provide on my own right now. SO WHAT TO DO?

    I guess we all have to pray for guidance and direction and the strength to make the decision that is best for the well being of all involved and if we must endure unconmfortable situations that we are granted then peace to accept for the moment and see the grace of it all.

    And after you ask for direction and peace…you accepted as if it has been given to you and say to yourself, I am at peace with what is going, I see the lesson in this journey and I am ready to focus on the next step without forgetting that my future will be okay for me and my children. All I have to do is focus on the today and the next step while always operating with forgiveness even if its not deserved, love even if its not given, understanding even if we are not understood…

    I have mixed feelings about brakeup stories; it is good to know i am not alone but is sad that there are more of the same stories….


    Comment by Maria — July 15, 2009 @ 9:07 pm

  10. Enjoying this article,good sentences are used for motivate to our future. For the every type of person this blog are good. Best luck for the future.

    Comment by Assisted Living Cost — January 19, 2010 @ 6:56 am

  11. […] Can’t afford to stay, can’t afford to leave […]

    Pingback by Yes, yes and yes « Lost in Thought — March 6, 2010 @ 2:54 pm

  12. I have been married 44 years and I thought it would get easier, but it’s not. I think I was more willing to put up with the drinking and always chosing friends and work over myself and 2 girls.when I was younger. I really loved him for a long time, but never felt he felt the same way. Now that we are both retired I honestly thought it would be great. Pretty niave,huh? We have a mortgage on the house and several credit card debts that make it impossible to afford two places. If I won the lottery, I would leave tomorrow. He makes me very unhappy and I probably do the same to him. I know of no solution, so it just keeps going on day after day. How easy would it be in reality to walk away from 44 yerrs of even a bad relationship?

    Comment by Diane — August 12, 2010 @ 3:41 am

  13. @Diane,
    44 years is a long, long time, and it’s a long time for patterns to take hold and harden. I know finances are tight, but there is a way out, or at least a way to *some* new insight: Can you find a mental health service agency in your area with a sliding scale? It could be a resource for some marital counseling for you both. I understand that you’re in a deep rut, and it’s not easy to get out, but you don’t *have* to stay there. You might also check out the advice archives here on my site. All the best to you.

    Comment by Breakup Girl — August 16, 2010 @ 8:38 pm

  14. I am 22 and have been married for one year. The man I married does not love me and I know that by how he treats me. But I am a full time college student who works barely and I cannot do without his full time salaary. I feel like I am trapped for the rest of my life and I am so scared that I am going to be miserable forever now.

    Comment by Anonymous — September 16, 2011 @ 1:03 am

  15. @Anonymous, I understand why you feel trapped. But you have to think about the big picture. If he does not love you and you are miserable, you need to find a way out. Think big picture. What will it take? What would you have to do, and what would you be willing to do? Can you live with friends and family? Can you defer a year from college so you can work? Whatever it takes: you need to invest in you. Good luck. Love, BG

    Comment by BG — September 19, 2011 @ 4:44 am

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