There is life after divorce. Except that getting back on track isn’t that easy.
At 37, Eunice Omerah became a pariah in her church. She was branded ‘a bad example’ to women in the church. This treatment from a church where she had worshipped for more than five years was because she divorced her husband. Forgotten was the fact that she was married to a violent man for almost 10 years, and had chosen to opt out of the union when it was obvious that death was staring her in the face.
“I endured years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of my ex-husband,” she says, “I kept enduring because my pastor told me that a wise woman builds her home with her hands.”
The cosmetics merchant had given birth to three children in quick succession. These young ones had been helpless witnesses to the abuse that went on between their parents. Not even their cries and pleas could stop their father from pummeling their mother when the demon in him is enraged. He would kick her, hit her head on the wall, even stab her and thereafter, the family would attend church services together.
Tired of the hypocrisy and wary of the risk of continuing in a violent matrimony, she had applied common sense. She fled with her children one day when her husband travelled abroad.
“My elder sister supported my plan. I got a room and a parlour apartment far from his neighbourhood and I moved out. Then I filed for divorce,” she says.
The last thing she expected was a reproach from the church. Omerah didn’t envisage that the church would disagree with the step she took to protect her life against an abusive husband.
She said she was “stunned when my pastor ordered me to stop working in the ushering department because I am divorced.”
It turned out that was the tip of the iceberg. A gradual estrangement from the church community soon set in. “I noticed that many women in the church started avoiding me too. They’d talk in hush tones whenever I am around.”
It was a heartbreaking experience. She felt betrayed by the church. Why would “people of God” stop her from serving God because of the change in her marital status?
Life is never the same
Many Nigerian women’s inordinate fear of divorce stems from the way society unfairly labels female divorcees. Promiscuous. Rude. Arrogant. There is no end to the uncomplimentary remarks hurled at divorced women.
Though it takes two to tango, it is usually the woman that is flayed for abandoning the marriage. While many women claim they remain in the bad and impossible marriage because of their children, it is really the fear of societal backlash and stigmatization that keep them in worthless wedlock. This is the sum of the experience of six women who spoke to Saturday Sun.
How scathing and insensitive a society’s reaction could be is exemplified by the divorce ordeal of Rita Otika. In the three years that she has divorced her husband, Otika lost more than half of her friends. Many of them explicitly told her to stay away from them, as they would not want their husbands to complain that they hang out with a divorcee.
“They told me I was a failure for refusing to endure my marital challenges. My duty, according to them, was to work on my marriage like other women were doing instead of divorcing my rich husband,” she recalls.
It didn’t matter that her ex-husband was a womanizer who had sex with everything dressed like a woman, a sex poacher who went after her their neighbours, his wife’s friends and family members. The last straw for her was when the rascal almost raped her 12-year-old niece. Otika’s decision to end the marriage was resisted by her family, and estrangement was the consequence of her having her way.
“At that time, I felt alone and ashamed. I didn’t have enough resources available and the legal aspect of ending my marriage overwhelmed me. No one in my immediate family had ever divorced. My mother disowned me for bringing shame to my family,” she recounts.
If the woman’s family refused to empathize with her, the reaction from the husband’s folks could be worse. That was the reality for Rebecca Matias. Enduring years of verbal and financial abuse was a cross her ex and his family expected her to bear without complaints. She was loathed for filing for divorce after 12 years of marriage. They went after her with vengeance, mobilising people to stalk her on social media and even threatened to take her three children away from her.
Matias was the family big earner when she was still married. And what a dutiful wife she was. Her salary was promptly transferred to her husband as soon as the money dropped into her account. He would then give any amount he deemed fit for her.
“I worked like a slave for years while my ex was using my money to frolic around town with young girls and even married women. He was building a house in his village with money without my knowledge. He would abuse me and slap me around if I refuse to part with my hard-earned money,” reveals Matias.
When she filed for divorce, her ex-husband and his family went ballistic. They peddle tales of how she refused to submit to her husband. One year after the divorce, they were still haunting her. They branded her a harlot for daring to start a relationship with another man.
Those remotely connected to the family, that is the larger society, help to systematize discriminations against the divorcee. Rachel Philips encountered one of such prejudices while trying to rent an apartment after her divorce. She got a desirable place for the right price and met with the landlord to pay the rent.
But the demeanor of the urbane landlord who a few minutes earlier was eager to let out his apartment to her changed immediately when he learnt she was recently divorced. With discourtesy, he walked her out of his house.
“He told me he won’t give out his apartment to a woman who left her husband to start sleeping around,” Phillips recounts.
He told her “because divorced women are not under a man’s authority, they are like prostitutes who sleep around.”
Philips, 46, a Lagos marketing executive, was determined not to lose her sanity. To purge herself of the toxins of negative emotion, she started writing down her feelings and experiences with people who knew her story with her ex-husband.
Writing, according to her, “was a place for me to get out the poison in my head and to feel heard, though the notes were private.”
The mother of one also went through a proper therapy. “Having a therapist to talk to was incredibly helpful during those times when I felt like I was ran over by a heavy truck.”
In rare cases where society doesn’t blame the woman, there was hardly comfort in their words of empathy, according to 33-year-old Adenike Olusola, who quit her marriage of five years. “Because of my age, people tend to minimize the devastating effects of divorce,” she says. “They think saying, ‘You have plenty of life ahead of you to find someone new’ is nice. It (actually) hurts.”
According to her: “While it is true that being divorced young means you still have many years ahead of you to find love again, that doesn’t make the loss of your marriage less hard or less devastating.”
The pains and gains of divorce
Divorce is a two-sided coin. Though considered bad, many women have found some good in it.
One good aspect of her divorce is “the complete freedom of my time,” according to Otika.
She loves meeting new people because her business requires she meets people. Now she doesn’t have anyone berating her, ‘Isn’t there something more productive you could do?’
For her, the flip side is loneliness and the baggage that comes with it. For example, she struggles with the burden of caring for the children when she is off duty and she daily wished there is that someone at home to share the detail of her day with, someone to whom she can vent her feelings. The solitude notwithstanding, Otika would rather be alone than put up with her abusive ex.
“Control over my life and my money” is Rebecca Matias’s gain as a divorcee. She doesn’t have to explain any more to anyone what she does with her own money. That freedom comes at a price, as she contends with the difficulty of handling certain domestic tasks that requires the raw energy of the masculine.
Having children in the divorce equation, as Omerah discovered, complicates the woman’s life.
“You must make every effort to create a happy environment for your children, even if that means giving an Oscar performance about your feelings for their father to his face or behind his back.” That is a pain for her.
How about her gain? “Divorce helped me find the person I lost. It helped me take back my life.”
There is life after divorce. Except that getting back on track isn’t that easy. After stepping into the cold, lonely world of divorce, finding their way back into the sunny world of warm relationship is not so simple for many women.
With her terrible marital experience behind her, Eunice Omerah is open to dating again––but not so fast.
“I want to spend some time figuring out who I am now before I get involved with anyone else.”
For Rita Otika, “dating again sounds so odd.” Noting that men these days just want sex and want to live off successful women, she states: “I will date again when my heart is healed and I am able to trust a man again.”
Unlike Otika and Omerah, dating has no appeal to Rachel Phillips: “Although my ex has fully moved on with his life, in fact, he had impregnated another woman and got married before we even started our divorce proceedings, but I find it hard to consider dating. I still find it hard to come to terms with being called a divorcee.”
In the case of Adenike Olushola, stigmatization is the phobia holding her back from returning to the dating scene. She is scared of meeting men who can’t stand divorcees: “How do I tell a potential partner about my past? I have met some guys but I haven’t opened up about being divorced because I fear that might scare them away.”
Here’s the dilemma––for her and most women in her shoes: “When do you tell a date you are divorced?”
Psychological effects of divorce
On why divorce affects women’s psyche deeply, psychologist Patricia Chiegboka’s put it down to guilt, especially, when the woman is the one who initiated the divorce.
“This is especially true if there are children involved as the woman is wont to blame herself for breaking up the family,” she explains.
According to her, overwhelming responsibility, accentuated by the realization that the life they envisioned no longer exists, combined with financial strain usually drive women into a state of perpetual anxiety that results in depression even three years after a divorce.
To lessen anxiety, she recommends a lifestyle of eating healthy, meditating and exercising.
Chiegboka reinforces the view that divorce can affect a woman’s lives positively. “In the past, they may have limited themselves by focusing solely on their duties as wives and mothers,” she explains. “Now, they may seek new careers, volunteer opportunities and social networking that will boost their self-esteem.”