Find Your Divorce Tribe:
Advice from Elise Pettus, Founder of UNtied
Elise Pettus is a divorced mother of two whose own divorce inspired her to found UNtied, a divorce support group that educates and empowers its members through community and education. Read Elise’s take on the divorce process, community, and the importance of learning from others who have been there. Elise was interviewed by Divorceify Co-founder, Casey Rose Shevin.
Casey Shevin: You founded UNtied, a very popular divorce support group, after your own divorce — can you tell us a little bit about your own divorce experience and how UNtied got started?
Elise Pettus: My marriage ended for the most part in 2010. I had two children and I didn’t know where to start. I had an overwhelming urge to connect with other women who either had been divorced already or who were just a little further down the road in the process at the time. I just thought, I could benefit so much from speaking to other women who have already hired an attorney, who could give me a few pointers on what I should expect, and I thought ‘oh, thank god for the internet.’
I went online and couldn’t really find what I was looking for, all I could find were the blogs about the various gotcha moments, and I just had no real interest at that point in going down that rabbit hole. I found some other sites like divorce magazine online, which had teeny tiny print and lots of legalese and it was just very dry. I couldn’t find a portal where I could connect with others that were like-minded, and I knew that there was a real need for that.
I didn’t know anyone in my immediate circle who had already divorced; I was kind of at the mercy of friends of friends. That’s how I found my attorney (through a friend of a friend), and I loved my attorney. She was funny, she was smart, but there were so many things I didn’t know when I hired her that I wished I had.
For example, she was “Of counsel” at a large firm; which turned out to mean that she was moving towards retirement and only in the office two days a week. That explained why I wasn’t getting a call back for three months at a time. I was scratching my head and going “has she fired me? Did I say something wrong? Has she dumped me?” Sometimes I would think “okay, I’m gonna ask her some questions, but if I asked her all five of my questions she’s gonna think that I’m stupid, so maybe I’ll just ask her two.” I was intimidated by her — I’m not stupid, I’m not shy. You want your attorney to respect you, but you also want information.
I just thought, wow, there needs to be some way of helping others be more intelligent, confident consumers during divorce. I really would like to help others be less intimidated, get more out of the experience, and be more efficient. What I decided to do was combine those two needs. The need for getting educated around the divorce process, and the need for connecting with other women, and so I created UNtied.
Shevin: What did you think you could gain from speaking from other women who had been through a divorce?
Pettus: I couldn’t stop asking myself — What is it that makes some people sink and others swim after divorce? I remember Elana Katz at Ackerman Institute, put it perfectly when she said, “Well, in my 30 years of experience it seems really clear to me that the people who do well after divorce are the ones who are able to embrace contradictory emotions.” She called it “emotional flexibility.”
It made a great deal of sense to me. I noticed the person who says “He’s an asshole and I’m the victim” or “he’s the jerk who cheated on me and I was the perfect wife” –those people are the ones who end up having a hard time relinquishing the bitterness and moving on in a positive way. On the other hand, there are others who are able to see things in a more nuanced way. The person who is able to say “He is a great dad, but I couldn’t live with the financial risk he put us in,” or “I’m grateful for certain qualities in my spouse, but I was hurt by his or her behavior and am coming to grips with my grief and the need to move on” –those are generally the ones who become resilient.
I like the idea of looking at your narrative with fresh eyes and nuance. That, I think, is the key to moving forward. That is how I ended up offering events and workshops that tackle some of the emotional stuff involved in divorce.
Shevin: Can you tell us a little bit about the variety of benefits members of UNtied receive?
Pettus: We have several deep reaching workshops. Each one of them, in an organic way, invites participants to look at their narrative and feel safe to explore the nuance.
We also offer monthly info panels, where women come together to hear some top professionals speak on a practical topic –it could be real estate, parenting, finances, of sex and dating—over a glass of wine and some food. We now livestream our panels so that anyone can tune in from wherever they live and get their questions answered as well.
Members are also invited to social events through the year—there are potluck dinners, clothing swaps, sunset sail nights–for those who live in the NYC area. We are also starting to launch trips and retreats-we just got back from a ski trip in Telluride! Finally, we have a closed Facebook group, where women can connect with the people they’ve met and continue discussions.
Shevin: What are some of the things you think people get from being a part of a community of people going through divorce?
Pettus: Divorce can be super isolating, and it happens that while you’re going through it, it can be hard to talk to family at times because they have a stake in it one way or another. When your sister says “oh I always hated him,” that’s the most humiliating and awful thing to hear! It compounds your own misery, shame or humiliation about everything. Even well-meaning friends would say that to me, and it didn’t help. Or they would feel threatened by the very fact that you’re deciding to end a marriage that’s less than perfect.
Shevin: Because what does that say about their marriage?
Pettus: Of course. I think that a lot of us, when we are going through a split, need people to understand where we’re coming from, not to solve all our problems, but to really get where we are. That’s why this community has a lot of healing power in and of itself. A lot of the women say that they felt so alone, they felt their situation was so unusual or weird or shameful, and then they connect with others who get it so innately and at a gut level that it becomes so easier talk about and accept. Next thing you know they’re laughing.
Shevin: People must be so in need of that relief.
Elise Pettus: It’s very elevating, it’s just elevating in every way. The relationships that started in a community like this tend to be very strong because you’re talking about something so real, and there’s no bull shit. We’re all going through it and somehow the lack of bullshit is very freeing.
Shevin: What are some of the more common issues that your members report having with professionals they have chosen to hire to help with their divorce?
Pettus: One of the things that always takes me by surprise is when somebody says “Oh yeah, I’m on my third attorney.” What?! How could that have happened? It’s not always the same reason, but commonly that person goes into the attorney-client relationship with absolutely wacky expectations. Or, they went to the first attorney that somebody recommended who was really a bad fit for them.
Or I frequently hear — “I really didn’t want to spend a lot of money so I had a friend of a friend who would give me some free hours every now and then.” What?! Your divorce is the biggest business deal of your entire life. So often the instinct is to be penny wise and pound foolish — to want to get bargain legal advice. And then those people often end up having to fire their lawyer because they weren’t getting the kind of legal advice that actually needed. You need to find a good attorney — you need to find a way to work with that attorney so that you don’t overspend, but you really need to be smart about the attorney you hire.
Shevin: What is the effect of information and knowledge on the divorce experience?
Pettus: Well, it’s huge. It helps tamp down the panic, which can seriously impair our ability to make important decisions. The sense of panic is toxic because this is when you’re supposed to be making some of the most important decisions – decisions that will affect the rest of your life. It can really really impact our ability to be clear, calm decision makers when we most need to be.
Casey Shevin: As someone who’s gone through a divorce with children, and is now on the other side, what would you say to somebody who is on day one of their divorce and feeling daunted by what lies ahead?
Pettus: Take a breath. Remember to put your oxygen mask on first. Then find a team and find a tribe.