Just because you don’t share children doesn’t mean your divorce will be a breeze. Helen Archontou, our real-life expert, shares some of her own story.
- Whether you have kids or not, divorce is still an ending. It still involves the mourning of a loss.
- When dealing with the “after” of divorce it’s important to have something to help you get through, something to get you out of bed, something to help you focus on things other than the loss of your marriage. In a way, having kids makes that easier.
OUR GUEST – Helen Archontou, CEO, MSW, Licensed Social Worker, YWCA NJ
Welcome to another episode of the exEXPERTS DIVORCE etc… Podcast where we give you all kinds of information and tips on everything divorce. Why? We’ve lived it, so we get it! We’re T.H. & Jessica.
TH: Welcome to today’s podcast. We are happy to have Helen Archontou here today. She is the CEO of the YWCA of Northern New Jersey, she is a licensed social worker, she is a mom, she is a wife, and she is a very, very accomplished woman in terms of where she’s come from and what she’s done with her life. Welcome to our podcast today.
Helen: Thank you so much for having me.
TH: Today we’re going to talk about getting divorced of course, because we’re exExperts, we’re divorced, that the three of us are all divorced, but Jessica and I have kids. I think there’s a little bit of stigma that people think that if you have kids, it’s harder because you have kids.
Jessica: Or just a stigma that if you don’t have kids, it’s not a big deal. Getting divorced it’s like it’s okay, it’s like it’s easy.
TH: This is great guys. Go your own way.
Jessica: Right. Right, like there’s nothing residual after that.
TH: Right. Helen and I were speaking before we planned today’s podcast and getting to know one another. She brought up the fact that it’s really hard getting a divorce when you don’t have kids. We really wanted to address this, and name it, and talk about it. Let’s get into it.
Helen: Yeah, and again, I can only share my experience. Other people may have had a different experience getting divorced without kids, but again, I could just share. I do think that there is a narrative out there that if you don’t have kids, it’s easy. It’s just paperwork and you go your separate ways. But I think at the end of the day, a divorce is an ending of something, right? The reality of it is most people approach marriage with a vision of a future, a dream if you will, of what will be, and it’s the beginning of that. An ending, even without children, is the mourning of a loss and the end of a dream. There is still something to process and to work through with that. But I do think people think because you don’t have kids that makes it easier. In some ways, and again, I don’t have the experience that I had a divorce with children –
Jessica: Well, let’s just give people a little bit of context. You were married for how long?
Helen: I did not have a very long marriage the first time. I would say my whole marriage first time probably lasted under two years.
Jessica: Okay. How long were you together before that?
Helen: Oh, a few years. Probably two to three years.
Jessica: Okay, so in all, somewhere between a four to five-year relationship?
Helen: Yes. Yes, and we knew each other as friends before we actually dated, so we had a long history of being in each other’s lives. The reality of it is pretty quickly into the marriage, I’d say about six months in, it was clear that this was not going to have the happily ever after storyline to it, and figuring that out.
Jessica: How do you feel like you came to that conclusion because I also, probably mistakenly, am of the mindset based on the way my first marriage ended, that sometimes when there is a specific event such as infidelity, in a weird way, it sometimes makes it easier. I wasn’t staying. He had an affair. I was fricking out of there. But I always had wondered, okay, but how hard would it be to just decide this just isn’t working without there being a specific impetus for that? Then without children, you don’t have that feeling of I should stay because of the kids.
Jessica: That’s right. That’s right. Tell us about how you got there?
Helen: Well, let me just say, I think, again, I can’t speak for every marriage –
Jessica: We know this is only your –
Helen: Yeah, yeah, I can only speak for my own, but my experience was for me, there was an impetus as well. There was a reason to step back and be like this is not something to stay in too long term. But at the same time and for me also, probably a lot of it was cultural. I’m Greek Orthodox and was raised in a very traditional Greek household. You do marriage once, and women aren’t supposed to get divorced and are not supposed to speak up. It’s a very patriarchal culture. There was definitely, even though there were no children, there was all of that. My parents, when my father died, were married almost 60 years. My first husband’s parents were married a long time too. It’s not like either of those marriages didn’t have challenges to them, but they stayed together. You have that model on top of everything else looming to be able to work through.
Jessica: So you really had a lot of that stigma around divorce just floating around in your life?
Helen: I think, again, from a cultural perspective, for sure there was a lot to work through. For me, I was someone who was really looking forward to having children and really looking forward to having a family. The fact that the marriage ended without that was really heartbreaking to me, because I really was very, at the time, very, shattered that the marriage didn’t work out. I did have to work through feeling like I could do this again and getting to that next stage. I also think because for me in my situation, because I didn’t have children, a lot of times when you go through something that is the ending and there is grief, and there is loss, and you have to kind of pick yourself up and move forward, sometimes what you do is you need something, you need a reason to pick yourself up, right? Because what is the impetus for getting out of bed when you’re that depressed or when everything has shattered to pieces?
Jessica: That’s such a good point.
Helen: And that I think is the piece that people do negate when they say you didn’t have children, so it really was almost just paperwork. Because what I do think is there’s a whole host of challenges that come with parenting with someone that you had married, and then you’re no longer married to, and there may be difficult feelings there to manage. I totally get the challenge around that. But when you don’t have anything to focus on to get yourself out of bed or to get to that happy place again, it’s hard. I mean, I ultimately, I say this all the time, I ended up just – and it was the craziest thing, it was the day that would have been my wedding anniversary, I was strolling and somehow ended up taking home a dog. I ended up with a Chihuahua, who just actually recently passed away because this is how much time has passed since my first marriage to now. That little dog saved my life because that little dog gave me something to focus on. He gave me something to do every day, a reason to get out of bed. He needed to be walked, he needed to be fed, he wanted to cuddle and snuggle, which was like an intimacy thing that I was missing at the time. He gave me a routine again, which I had lost as a result of the marriage not being there any longer. Despite it being a short marriage, nonetheless, there was a cycle to it. I always credit my little dog, as I used to call him, my little Chihuahua, Brutus was a great partner. I went from my ex to really the greatest love of my life, which was my dog that I had with me for the years that we were together. I actually am not someone who has a tremendous amount of contact with my ex, but I have a couple of times that we have crossed paths, I’ve joked with him how it was all good because I really did meet the love of my life because of him.
TH: [Laughs] ‘I replaced you with a Chihuahua that I met two weeks before.’
Helen: The moral of the story is to get a dog.
Jessica: Which I bet is not uncommon.
Helen: I would think not. I would think not. And again, I really think it is because, again, whether you have children or not, it really is it is a loss. It is an ending. If you are feeling upset about that, if you are feeling some inadequacy that you weren’t able to make it work, if you are feeling as if a dream died and you have to create a new one, having something else, another being, and if you have children then it becomes them, right? But if you don’t have children, what is it? I didn’t even have a fish. I had nothing in the house. I was living all by myself, so getting out of bed was really hard to do. I was sad. I felt, here I’m a social worker, and I wasn’t able to figure it out. You feel all these inadequacies at the time. But looking back, the thing that was the most healing and the thing that moved me towards healing really was getting Brutus, and him in every way, just opening up my life to love again and being open to people. Quite frankly, he had everything to do with – he was great at helping me when I did start dating again. He would help me [he’s a man magnet]. Not only was he a man magnet, but he would weed them out. He’d be like, yeah, this guy’s no good. He’d bark at them indefinitely and keep them away.
TH: Sorry, Brutus doesn’t like you. You’ve got to go.
Helen: A big joke is my husband when he did propose, he put the ring around Brutus’ neck with a little note and sent him in the room to me, because he said to me, I pretty much knew you wouldn’t say no to Brutus, and that he was a key to your heart. He really had become that. He was a great judge and he really opened up my life again in the best way possible.
TH: Helen and I were when we were speaking the first time, we talked about – because I was trying to explain my situation, and we were going back and forth between our experiences. I definitely stayed in it for my kids. I had three kids under eight, and I used them as an excuse. I mean, now looking back, I can say that. At the time, I would never say that. But they were an excuse to delay something that was really hard. Then when we were talking a little bit more, I’m a workout fanatic and I had injured myself, and that was my way of dealing with stress. Now I had three kids under eight, I had to find a new home, and now I couldn’t even work out? What am I going to do? My therapist said, good, now can we work on what you’re really struggling with. Now it’s time to work on you. Okay, you put all your energy into the kids, the dog, the house, the moving, and your work. Now you can’t work out, and you’re going to have to deal with your shit. When Helen was saying she was home and she didn’t have all these distractions before Brutus, I guess you’re really forced to deal with your own growth and whatever you need to work on for you way faster because you don’t have all that other stuff in your world making you super busy, so you can’t sleep at night. You have to deal with that much sooner, which I never really thought about in terms of getting divorced without kids.
Helen: Well, I think that’s true, but look, at the end of the day, if someone wants to run from something, whether you have kids or not, they’re plenty of mechanisms to make you run. I think the thing for me when I was in that life experience at the time, as much as I believe, and I can feel comfortable at this point in my life, especially looking back and saying I did everything I could to try to work things out and to have it be the happily ever after, but at some point, it was just very clear to me that this was not going to work as it was. My self-protective factor kicked in so that I did step away and say I need to take care of myself and need to look out for myself. It was funny, I will say when I remember the day in court when my first marriage was annulled, it was legally annulled, and I remember standing in court with my attorney saying to me how she was so proud of me because she said most people wait 20 years into a marriage and have made a series of decisions that make it harder and harder and harder to get out of it. But early on, even though it was crushing to you, you stepped in and said this isn’t going to work. As much as I wanted it to, this isn’t going to work. You kicked in for yourself and now you have your whole life ahead of you and that you can have the next phase. At that moment, I didn’t believe that there was a next phase, but I did start doing things. I bought a new house, I got a new car, and I got my dog. Well, the dog came first and then the other things because he really did open me up to possibilities. I started to do those things that created a new vision, a new dream, a new future for myself that allowed me to leave that first one behind. Obviously, at this stage in my life, I could say today here in 2021, it’s not even something, and because we never had kids together or anything like that, it’s honestly not even something I ever even think about. I forget that it even happened sometimes. I have the luxury to do that because, from that perspective looking back now, it really was just paperwork. At the time it didn’t feel like that.
TH: Yeah. You didn’t let it run your life. You took control. You were able to take control of your life slowly, first with the dog and whatever, but you identified it, named it, and moved forward, which is really impressive.
Jessica: Well, I have two questions now. I’m curious because you just mentioned the annulment, which I feel is a whole other podcast episode by the way, so take note TH. I’m curious to know, you’re talking about the first relationship in the context of divorce, I’m just curious is that how you look at it? That you were divorced, even though technically it was an annulment, which is again, maybe a wrong interpretation, but I feel like even a little cleaner than a divorce? But my other question is what would you say was the most complicated aspect of getting divorced, given that you don’t have kids? A two-part question.
Helen: Let’s see. Again, I don’t have anything to compare to because I only got annulled. I never really got divorced per se. I don’t know what the difference of it was, other than I remember at the time, when I was going through the process, that it was important to me to get an annulment. Not for religious reasons or anything like that, but just because I felt that the marriage was built on something, from a legal perspective, it was built on something not portrayed accurately.
Jessica: But when you were dating and stuff, you would explain your situation as I’ve been divorced?
Helen: Yes. I never – it’s not like I categorized –
Jessica: You didn’t parse the difference between divorce and annulment?
Helen: No, I don’t think I did. I mean, my husband knows that there was another husband somewhere in the mix. I have young kids, so they don’t actually – Actually, what’s funny is one of the things I was thinking about in terms of doing this is that I guess that’s one of those conversations at some point I’m going to have to broach with them that there was another person. But thank god that was all it was. A blip and they came and went. But the reality of it is I can’t say that I have defined it differently in terms of speaking about it to others. I don’t actually know when TH and I were talking that I said that we were annulled until this moment.
TH: Yeah, you did.
Helen: Okay, right. But at the end of the day, I remember at the time it was meaningful for me to have it categorized that way. It signified something from that perspective.
Jessica: Understandable. What would you say was the most complicated outcome of getting a divorce, given that you didn’t have kids?
Helen: It probably was, I mean, look, I never changed my name, so I didn’t have to go through any of that part. I understand that’s complicated. I didn’t change my name the second time either. My married name is not Archontou. I understand that that’s complicated, but I think in the end, it’s really just the stuff, right? If you are a couple that has a prenup then it’s not quite as complicated, because everything is pretty much handled. If you are a couple that doesn’t have a prenup then it is just a matter of making sure that all that stuff is done properly. I think it’s just that legal stuff which is hard if you’re both not in the same emotional space. I think as much as it’s frustrating how long it can take for a divorce to happen, that legal process, in some ways, maybe it’s also a good thing because there’s an emotional evolution that you go through to it. By the time I sat in court with my attorney on that very last day when the annulment was granted, I remember being like, yes! I don’t know that I would have felt that way early on. I spent a lot of time crying. By the end of it, I felt like now this is the end of the beginning. This is the end of one chapter and the beginning of another and it felt good, it felt clean, and it felt like starting over.
Jessica: Yeah, well, that’s a perfect (sorry for the phone ringing.) That is a perfect end there. I feel like we could still continue this conversation for so long. Thank you so much for bringing that perspective to the exExperts community, because I think that that’s a really important topic. A lot of times when it comes to divorce, people are really focusing on what are you doing with the kids, but the truth is there are a huge number of divorces out there that happen where kids are not involved and all of the complexities that go along with that. We really appreciate you bringing that to us. For anyone out there who wants to reach out to you directly, what are the best ways for them to reach you?
Helen: Well, professionally you can reach out to me by going to the YWCA of Northern New Jersey’s website, which is www.ywcannj.org. There’s a contact page there with my email on it, and you can just send me an email or you could follow us through social media and probably get me through a direct message there as well. But I also want to say to everyone too, let me just also just put a plug in forgetting yourself support. I mean, that’s what I love about your platform. Personally, I didn’t just kind of wrap it up in a bow on my own. I went to therapy, I did a lot of self-care, and I did all the things that I needed to. That is what helped me get to a healing place and then also get able to be in a healthy relationship again going forward. I gave myself the space and time to do what I needed to do to heal and move forward. I just want to make sure I put that plug in because it doesn’t just naturally happen. There’s a lot of work that you have to do to get there.
TH: It takes a village. It really does.
Jessica: Yep. Well, thank you so much Helen and we’ll talk to you again soon.
Helen: You’re welcome.
TH: Thank you.
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