A New Cadre of Experts Helps Women Navigate Their Divorces


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A Brooklyn dinner party given by Untied, a support group founded by Elise Pettus, center, that helps women demystify the often-baffling process of divorce.

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Dina Litovsky for The New York Times

The women are architects, film industry executives, skin care consultants, product managers at tech companies, psychologists. They have worked in finance, publishing and television, though some had scaled back or left the work force when their children were born.

Divorce is what they have in common. Their stories are varied: the breadwinner wife whose husband’s career hadn’t quite taken off and who found comfort in an affair; the husband who never really adapted to parenthood; the wife with Ivy League degrees who stayed home with her child but lost her way in the marriage while the husband thrived in his international career.

One Sunday morning in early June, seven of them gathered for a boot camp/workshop in the brick-walled ivy-tendriled backyard of a century-old Brooklyn Heights carriage house that had been remade into the sort of place location scouts covet: an aspirational set for the next Nancy Meyers movie.

Blending motivational exercises, not altogether successfully, with a physical exercise routine, the workshop was led by a former music industry executive turned lifestyle coach. She was young and earnest, and if her instructions were sometimes incomprehensible (obfuscated by a dizzying array of New Age-isms), Elise Pettus, whose house it was, offered subtitles.

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Elise Pettus, of Untied, at a clothing swap she organized at her home in Brooklyn Heights.

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Dina Litovsky for The New York Times

“She wants us to say something we’re excited about, and something we’re not,” Ms. Pettus said after one particularly knotty passage, “even if it makes us feel icky.”

One woman, a European-born Internet executive, raised her hand. “I am excited about my fantastic new job,” she said. “Not excited? This week I don’t feel so solid inside. But I have one issue: What is ‘icky’?”

For the last two years, Ms. Pettus, 52, has used her soaring glass-walled living room and backyard to help women mired in the weeds of divorce navigate that which is profoundly icky. She provides community, respite and, most important, resources by hosting monthly panels, seminars and workshops on topics like collaborative law, litigation and mediation, raising teenagers, financial planning, real estate, grief, dating and midlife sex (zinc, apparently, is very important here), led by experts.

Untied is what she calls her accidental business, but you might call her a divorce saloniste — or a connector, in the Malcolm Gladwell definition of the word. In a neighborhood that is an avatar of a certain kind of upper-middle-class family ideal, her venture is a clever and intuitive use for a home that is suddenly empty, but spectacular looking. Not that she planned it that way.

Trained as a journalist and filmmaker, Ms. Pettus saw a market niche when she went through her own divorce five years ago. On the night that she and her husband and their two young sons moved into the house they had spent three years renovating, Ms. Pettus’s husband turned to her and announced he would like to separate. He moved out a month later.

“It was an out-of-body experience,” she said. “I was so stunned, so collapsed by grief, but I thought, thank God for the Internet. I’m going to find these really intelligent women I can ask, ‘What kind of lawyer do I call? Do you need a lawyer? Did your kids turn out O.K.? Did you regret keeping the house?’

“When my mother was sick with cancer, there were all these listservs. But I couldn’t find that place. And you can’t really put up a sign at your kids’ school asking people to meet you for coffee to talk about their impending divorce.”

Ms. Pettus is not alone in her efforts. While New York has trailed the rest of the country in terms of divorce law — the no-fault divorce did not land here until 2010 — grass-roots support systems surrounding the process have been growing, according to Lauren Behrman, a psychotherapist who specializes in divorce, following the lead of groups in states like California, Oregon and Minnesota, the birthplace of collaborative law. (Collaborative law starts with a commitment to settlement, not court.)

“The biggest challenge is to let people know they have options,” said Dr. Behrman. “That divorce doesn’t have to be this scorched-earth horrible litigation process. But the key is to get to the right professional first. If you walk into the office of a litigator, things are going to go a certain way. If you walk into a mental health professional’s office, it might go another way.”

While divorce rates over all have declined since their peak in the 1980s, the rate for those older than 50 has doubled in the last quarter-century (those over 50 account for half the married population). Nearly two thirds of these so-called gray divorces are initiated by women, an AARP study shows.

It is this confluence that underpins the female-centric nature of divorce support services and groups like Untied. That, and an anecdotal sense that women in crisis may seek community more often than men.

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­Ms. Pettus.

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Dina Litovsky for The New York Times

Divorce coaches, another burgeoning specialty, offer one-on-one services, for example, for fees that can hover around $100 an hour and may include a session to plan what to say to one’s lawyer, to streamline the process and thus minimize legal fees.

SAS for Women is a three-year-old divorce coaching business started by two women who had gone through very different divorces but faced a huge learning gap, said Liza Caldwell, one of SAS’s principals.

“We realized there’s a whole lot more to divorce than just the paperwork,” she said. “How are you going to skin this cat legally? How are you going to pay for the divorce? How are you going to go back to work, if you’ve been a stay-at-home mom? How are you going to help your children heal?”

There are also professional organizers who specialize in divorce, like Gayle M. Gruenberg in Bergen County, N.J., whose services include the Suddenly Single Sanity System, which covers paperwork, real estate and objects. “There was no real guidance on this when I was going through my own divorce,” Ms. Gruenberg said. “No, ‘This is what you do and here’s a checklist.’ ”

Wevorce, a tech start-up, offers an algorithm and a website that aims to connect those in the divorce process with certified experts in all fields, from finance to mental health, just as Untied does.

Stephanie Coontz is co-chair and director of education at the Council on Contemporary Families and an expert on coupling and uncoupling. Groups like Ms. Pettus’s, she said, are “microcosms of a new understanding that we have to develop norms for divorce rather than take sides.”

“As divorce has become more common,” she continued, “people have begun to stop seeing it as a personal loss or betrayal. It’s a process that can go badly or go well, so in many different ways there are people trying to make divorce less disastrous.”

Ms. Pettus was not yet legally divorced when she held her first event, a panel led by Jeff Landers, a financial strategist and Forbes columnist who focuses on women going through financially complex divorces. Ms. Pettus sent out emails to friends and friends of friends, and 19 people showed up for a talk on the top 10 things to do immediately after deciding to divorce. (Among them: “Make sure your ex is no longer your health care proxy. Open a separate bank account. Change your will.”)

Ms. Pettus convened lawyers and mediators for another panel, and more women attended. (Choose the less expensive lawyer, one panelist suggested, because in many cases he or she may be more responsive.) There was catered food, a wine sponsor — “Wine is important early in the divorce process,” Ms. Pettus said — and after a while she began charging, first $25 per event, then $45 (Untied members pay $97 annually).

Some panels can be harrowing. Jenny Douglas runs the Brooklyn Cottage, another townhouse-based organization, centered on meditation and the arts. Its programming grew out of her divorce when she, like Ms. Pettus, found herself alone in a big house on alternate weeks. She leads a workshop at Ms. Pettus’s home called Grief and Gratitude, a central exercise of which is to bring a photograph of a happy moment in the marriage that is ending.

Alison Rona, an architect, recalled how shattering that was. “To look at pictures at the height of our happiness, to remember what was good and to say goodbye. …” she said, breaking off. “I had a very negative image of women going through divorce. I didn’t want to be a classic bitter victim. So this was liberating, if scary.”

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At the clothing swap.

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Dina Litovsky for The New York Times

Other panels are more festive. A recent one, Sex and the ReSingled Women, led by sex therapists and an ob/gyn clinician, was particularly instructive. You don’t have to be such a good girl, one expert said. Do sleep around. You don’t have to tell anyone.

“I loved that message,” Ms. Pettus said. “I loved that she was telling women to play the cad a bit.”

You would imagine that Ms. Pettus — five years after her split and currently in a relationship (she met her boyfriend through a collaborative lawyer who spoke at Untied) — would be less than eager to keep revisiting examples of her past self. But she said she finds it exhilarating.

“Women are going through this terrifying time, but they are also figuring out their lives, who they want to be, or wanted to be, before the marriage years squeezed all that out,” she said. “They are firing on all cylinders. Being divorced is kind of a gift. You’re a lot less inhibited when one of the worst things that can happen already has. You’ve already walked through the town square naked. Because of that, things are funnier, juicier.”

Last fall, after a panel on online dating, women began clamoring for singles events.

Ms. Pettus’s solution was the Good Part: curated dinners at various Brooklyn locales for 12 “resingled” individuals. Finding men was a challenge, she said. “I emailed 120 women from my list” — Untied has over 300 subscribers — “saying, I’ve got this great stable of attractive, intelligent, funny women. Now all I need is a parallel group of men and to please send me one name.”

She got eight, two of whom did not reply to her initial invitation. At the third Good Part event, in June, one male attendee, a South African health consultant, seemed bewildered as to how Ms. Pettus had come by his name, but utterly game for the evening, which began over baby lettuces with pickled rhubarb in the garden of Vinegar Hill House.

From there it was off to the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where the group strained to hear unintelligible programming, because of a balky P.A. system, by the Lost Lectures, an organization that plants performances in “secret” locations, all of which turned out to be a bonding experience.

The aftermath included a collective but mild hangover. And one confirmed hookup.

As for the boot camp workshop a few days later, it wrapped up on the pier below Ms. Pettus’s house, with the lifestyle coach asking the group for an intention (“that’s something you’d like to happen,” Ms. Pettus said helpfully) for the coming weeks.

A film industry executive who said she had been walloped by depression in the last month (her daughter was about to meet her ex’s new girlfriend), and was truly struggling to get out of bed each day, said tentatively that she would like to start dating.

“Let love in, that’s good,” the coach said.

And Ms. Pettus, ever practical, added, “You know you wouldn’t have to get out of bed for that.”



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