Divorce & Financial Independence

As a partner in a real estate finance firm, I work with high net worth investors who seek to build their lives, careers, families and a healthy financial foundation for today and for the future. Many of our investors are doctors, dentists and ambitious professionals.

When I connected with the gentleman behind ‘xrayvsn’, a blog for doctors seeking insight on building their financial knowledge to achieve FIRE (financial independence, retire early), I was surprised to learn that he had created an open forum for people to share their divorce stories - specifically as it related to the financial impact of divorce and the importance of financial independence. He welcomes submissions and emphasizes the benefits of sharing our stories and the support and healing found in that sharing:

I can use this platform as a sounding board for people who have gone through one of the most emotionally and financially traumatic experiences possible.

For the people who have been through divorce, I hoped that, by sharing your experiences on this blog, you would gain similar benefits as I did.

For those whose marriage is failing or are currently going through a divorce, perhaps you can gain inspiration from these submissions and realize that there is indeed a light at the end of a seemingly endless dark tunnel.

I believe that sharing our stories is a form of healing, and I offered my own story to be published to his site, which I am re-publishing here.

Divorce & FIRE

There is a dark stigma of shame, failure, and disappointment when it comes to the separation of people who, for various reasons are no longer - or possibly were never, compatible. We beat ourselves up. Others beat us up. We lose more than a spouse or ‘a marriage’; we often lose our stability, our sense of self, and in some cases, we lose family and friends. 

Silence and shame are co-conspirators of suffering. Breaking the silence and the shame around divorce is a form of healing not only for those sharing their stories, but also for those who, for various reasons, cannot share their stories or leave their marriages.

How do I know all this? Because a video of my story of losing myself, finding my soul and leaving my first marriage went viral. With nearly 250,000 shares, 33 million views, and over 85,000 comments, I struck a chord, sparked conversations, and witnessed both the best and the worst of what people believe about marriage.

Though initially dumbfounded by some of the criticism leveled at me from perfect strangers, I realized that I had long-since let go of the ideals and ideas of marriage, roles and cultural-societal rules and expectations that had landed me in that situation – a marriage - to begin with.

 

The Back Story

We met in Europe in 2002 when I was living in Brussels, Belgium finishing my international business degree. I was 22, from Canada. He was 30, from Italy. We dated long-distance for a few months while I was in Belgium and when I went back to Canada in the Summer.  We had only spent about 20 days together - mostly weekends, from the time we met until I moved to Italy. We felt a strong connection, and given we had a lot in common – we were both ambitious, hard-working, liked to travel, and had deep conversations. We believed we were right for each other.

He proposed within a month of me moving to Italy. I wasn’t ready, but I didn’t know what I would do or where I would go if I said no or even if I said, “I need time … we need time.” So, I talked myself out of my doubts and suppressed my inner voice telling me that it wasn’t right and that I needed to get to know him better.

Going from weekends to living together while acclimating to a new country wasn’t easy. When signs that we weren’t that compatible started to surface, I dismissed and denied them. Instead, I focused on work and building a successful-looking life. We got married one year later; I was 23. 

Living in Italy was not conducive to my career ambitions. It was impossible for me to find a job that matched my expectations or value; I was too young, too educated and too experienced to get the kind of job I was qualified for.

You see, anyone under the age of 35 with two degrees and work experience in banking was a statistical impossibility for that country, especially a woman. So, I had to settle, but as with the rest of my life, I constantly felt unsettled.

“But you lived in ITALY! You must have had a great life!” Yes, I hear that a lot, and I get it. We all have romanticized ideas of what it means to live abroad, and admittedly, I had a picture-perfect looking life.

I enjoyed the country’s beauty, food, wine, and history, but I never fit in and I didn’t adjust well to the culture. I’ve never heard people say, “You can’t”, or “Don’t bother” so much. Constantly hearing this was depressing and disconcerting, especially when believed that I could forge my own path and success with the right mindset, willpower and the willingness to work at achieving my dreams.

The country’s fatalistic attitude was as destructive to my spirits as the nepotism, sexism and misogyny I encountered on a daily basis.

Independence and ambition in women were not normal; motherhood was. I always said I wouldn’t have kids before I was 30 because I wanted to be a globe-trotting investment executive; it’s what I dreamed of since starting my career in banking when I was 19. I often expressed that I didn’t see myself having kids, but I was consistently pressured by him, his family, and quite frankly the whole culture around me. My standard response was to deflect; I would smile and say, “In 5 years, I’m still young.” I said that every year, including the year I turned 30.

 

The Financial Situation

Financially, we did well. His family ran a successful industrial business that paid for our house and everything in it, as well as his car. His father and uncle managed the finances and assets of the company responsibly, with an eye to assuring their family’s futures. We had no debt (I paid off all my student loans and he never had any); we only had living expenses which were relatively low in Italy, especially in the early 2000’s.

Even though he counted on his role of taking over the company, and various inheritances, I never felt secure about my personal financial position. I didn’t own any assets and could only count on what I earned - and saved. He and his family owned pretty much everything that made up the material structure of my life. Prenups are the norm in Italy, and are never questioned. When I asked about it – and about a different arrangement, I was summarily dismissed, and it was never talked about again.

I remained focused on my career, and on my financial independence and empowerment. Though I struggled to find suitable work in the first few years, I never gave up on myself, my ambitions and my unwavering expectation of being paid appropriately. Eventually, I got a job in a hedge fund in Switzerland in 2007. I had always been adamant and about saving and, when possible, investing - especially in real estate. I owned two condos in Canada; one that we purchased together and one that I bought with my own savings.

I knew I didn’t have rights to anything in Italy – especially without children, which contributed to my sense of being at arm’s length from everything and everyone; always a stranger, a foreigner, and a guest in someone else’s life and home. This was uncomfortable for me, and when I learned that he had no intention of moving to Canada (as he had promised both to me and to my Father when he asked to marry me), things started to break down. That was in late 2008.

By then, our unhappiness, which had been building for years, was evident. The marriage had devolved into a (mostly) respectful friendship devoid of any physicality and full of tension and resentment. We tried couple’s therapy and I left the hedge fund in 2009 to stay at home and be more of a “wife”, albeit in my own way – I started an online business with my sister, Camilla, who lived in Vancouver.

We carried on this way for several more years. We kept ourselves busy with our careers – he was gaining more responsibility in his company and I was traveling the world for trade shows for my business and working odd hours to keep up with the time zones in America, and often, Asia.  

 

The Ending

It took a complete breakdown and awakening to finally show me the truth … that I couldn’t stay in that life any longer. I was dying inside, and nothing I tried to fix externally could mend my fragmented soul.

Therapy hadn’t helped, getting a dog hadn’t helped, taking a 3-month break hadn’t helped. There was only one thing that could help me now: speak my truth or continue withering away.

When it came time, I knew it could only come from my heart. There was no blame, no victim, no villain. I told him – with a tremble in my voice that betrayed the otherwise iron resolve in my soul that I didn’t want to have kids - ever. Calmly, knowingly, he replied, “You know that is important to me.”

I knew that my truth could be the deal-breaker. And, it was. I acknowledged the elephant in the room that had been living with us for so many years. The silent, subversive battle of wills was over.

The separation and divorce weren’t nasty, difficult or contentious.

Three weeks after that initial conversation, I left and went back to Canada. That was in May of 2011 and the following September we legally separated. In Italy, couples are legally separated for a minimum of 3 years before they can file for a divorce.

I didn’t try to claim any assets or compensation, not only because of the prenup but I honestly didn’t want to; I had no interest in recompense, retaliation, vengeance, ‘ruining’ him or ‘having what was rightfully mine’ … all these are emotionally-infused mental fallacies bred by acute resentment, victim-mentality and misplaced righteousness and entitlement as to the meaning of a ‘marriage’ – contract and all.

We split our joint savings account and, combined with some of my own savings, I started over. I had a good amount of savings, and the two investment properties.  

When I left, I took a few boxes of clothes and personal items. I left everything else that was part of my 9-year life. If I had wanted more – like art or stemware or whatever other material things I could think of, I doubt he would have said no. But there was nothing I wanted other than to move forward with my life and figure out who the hell I was at the age of 32.

 In 2014, three years after filing the separation, we completed the divorce paperwork.

The Lessons

It’s been 8 years since I left Italy, a continent of friends and connections forged over the course of 9+ years, and a life I tried so hard to fit myself into. I’ve been digging my soul out from under my ego ever since, learning many more lessons about who I am, what I value and what gives my life meaning.

I’ve overcome business and financial challenges, including losing my savings to investment fraud (that’s another story) and leaving the business I started with my sister when we were no longer on the same page about its direction. Camilla is doing great, and so is my ex. He took over the company as planned and merged with a large European conglomerate. He hasn’t remarried but he does have a baby boy.

We can wait a lifetime for the tides to turn, only to realize that we had been standing at the wrong shore.

Though I don’t have the luxe life I had before, I am thriving. I feel successful. More importantly, I am happy and fulfilled. My self-work has taught me where I was giving my power away, where I was succumbing to fears, external expectations and pressures, and where I simply needed to experience what I experienced, live my life, and grow wiser through it all.

Professionally, I am a real estate executive as well as an author and a public speaker. I share my stories and speak about self-mastery and empowerment in my keynotes and workshops. I believe that empowerment is a responsibility that we must each undertake to achieve our dreams and desires. Self-empowerment translates into confidence, clear communication, authentic relationships, and financial health, as well as wealth in all areas of life. 

Personally, I married my Soulmate, Andrew, in 2017. The quality of our relationship is marked by passion, intimacy, authentic communication, and a willingness to ‘do our personal work’ while working on our relationship with courage, openness and honesty that sometimes hurts, but that always heals.

Like our marriage, our finances require attention, care, and honest assessment. We balance paying off his student loans with saving, investing, and still enjoying our life together.

Building a healthy financial foundation is both a present-tense and a future-oriented endeavor.

We bought and completely rebuilt the single-family home we live in; a great investment but a ton of work, especially because we did it ourselves! As our incomes and property value grows, estate and tax planning are essential, even if we don’t have kids.

My understanding of personal finance, and my work-ethic and career-drive were paramount to helping me slowly grow and rebuild my life after the divorce and other financial challenges. I attribute this to ‘willingness and willpower’.

Financial stability, freedom and empowerment are not just about investing or accumulating assets; it’s about working, planning, saving, and striking a balance between enjoying life and having the awareness to stay on top of expenses.

Financial empowerment and wealth-building begins with the willingness to know what’s going on with the finances and the willpower to control spending. It’s no easy feat, but it’s doable with discipline, optimism, and faith.

The experience of leaving my picture-perfect life forced me to reevaluate everything about what I thought I wanted. I’ve progressed personally in my quest for self-mastery and self-actualization, and succeeded professionally with the same resilience, grit and stubbornness that allowed me to overcome every obstacle and claim every opportunity for growth that life has offered me.