What you need to know:
- Women who divorce find themselves excluded and devalued in the social arena.
- A few friends audaciously told me that I might attract their husbands given my current 'appearance.'
Talking about divorce is like standing naked in a room full of mirrors. It reminds you of the emotional abuse that you once experienced behind closed doors at home and in court.
You recall how your spouse dragged you through the mud and prompts memories of the hushed talk, shame, unsolicited advice, and stigma as friends and family accused you of not fighting hard enough for your family, or for being too independent as a woman.
There are also judgmental glances that trigger a little voice in your head that says, ‘I wish I was a widow than a divorcee because society never judges widows harshly.’
But talking about divorce and the judgment that accompanies it can be cathartic. Three women spoke to Saturday Magazine on the stigma they faced as divorcees and why few people understand that divorce can be a healthy choice.
‘You can never be too strong for the psychological roller coaster after divorce’
Dr Zippy Okoth, 40, filmmaker
“When I left my marital home, I noticed a chilling distance from people I used to call my friends. During my marriage, my circle of friends comprised mainly women who were married. We bonded during Chamas and coffee.
I went through a divorce in December 2012, after enduring five years of physical abuse, emotional torment, and infidelity.
Some of my friends’ husbands told them that I was a negative influence, fearing I would ‘contaminate’ their wives with my newly acquired single status.
Others diminished my value as a woman, thinking I was now a potential threat to their marriages due to my newfound 'single' status.
A few friends audaciously told me that I might attract their husbands given my current 'appearance.'
The judgment was unending. Many took a holier-than-thou stance, rebuking me both behind my back and to my face for not persevering enough, suggesting a flawed belief that any man, irrespective of his behaviour, was better than no man.
'Go back to your husband, there is no better man. They are all the same…you think you are special,' some told me.’
When I left, I was 30, and so I was told that I would not find another man.
My mother-in-law, instead of showing empathy, mirrored this sentiment. Six months after the separation, she called, not out of concern, but to trivialise my pain. She implied that the domestic violence was not a good reason for a woman to leave her marriage, urging me to return and build my home.
For four long years, I struggled to heal, frequently confronting overwhelming self-doubt and wondering why this fate had chosen me. Because of the societal stigma I endured, now I have few close friends.
When I decided to finally leave my marriage, it was not unfaithfulness that was the last straw that broke the camel’s back. It is the deep-seated disrespect.
Ours was a long-distance marriage. Every time he would come home either for a month or two, he would beat me up. He was jealous and possessive. When we were dating, I thought these were nice traits, but marriage showed me a different side to these traits.
Initially, the violence stemmed from innocent acts, like me answering phone calls and laughing with my friends or even hugging my male friends. It escalated when I confronted him about his infidelity, his late nights, his lack of response to my calls, or when he prioritised going out with friends over spending quality time with our now-deceased son and me.
I wanted our marriage to work. One time he kept me waiting in Nairobi for so long while lying about his whereabouts that I decided to buy myself alcohol while I waited. When he finally showed up, he started interrogating me asking who had bought me the alcohol.
I told him I had bought for myself, but he was far from convinced. In a fit of rage, he left only to return shortly, demanding we leave. Once inside the car, he started raining blows on me. I managed to get out of the car through the backseat. 'This is the last time you will ever lay your hands on me,' I told him as the crowd formed ready to attack him.
I moved out and my parents opened their doors for me. However, the society was not as kind. Five years after the divorce, I decided to try and find love again. Sadly, the second relationship, although not a marriage, had the same challenges as the first, save for the physical abuse.
Even though we were only together as boyfriend and girlfriend, the fear of another breakup haunted me. I would do anything to avoid the shame again. I kept thinking of separation and the whispers behind my back.
A second heartache is not easier. In fact, the compounded pain nearly pushed me to needing psychiatric intervention.
I wish people understood that divorce is like death. It feels like a part of you is getting torn apart. You lose so much time in the emotional healing and one needs a good support system. I wish I was a member of a divorce support system during the process. I managed to join one years later and we are able to share our stigma and crisis. Just knowing that someone else has overcome gives us the strength to go on.
I also recommend divorce therapy. You can never be too strong for the psychological roller coaster that hits you after divorce. Attend therapy, accept the new life. It's lonely and it gets lonelier. Find a new hobby, change your wardrobe, learn a new skill and sometimes just enjoy nature and watching the blue skies or sunsets alone. Go for dates but don't commit to anyone too soon.”
The dating scene for older, divorced women with children is not easy
Elizabeth,38, banker-turned-sales executive
“I was in a come-we-stay marriage that ended bitterly on January 1, 2017. We had lived together for seven years, and when I decided to leave, my parents were not so eager to welcome me back home.
But I also did not inform them immediately. It took eight months for me to disclose to my family that I had separated from my husband.
I did not want to be questioned on how I would take care of my children or how I would bring them up without a father. I wanted to be okay mentally.
However, that did not ease things when I finally told them. Due to my go-getter attitude, my family said I was to blame for the failure of my marriage.
Ever since university, I have always fended for myself and even sent some money home to help my mother pay school fees for my siblings. I am generally ambitious, and very hardworking. But society sees this as a weakness. That such women are competing to be equal to men.
'Unafikiria wewe ni kama mwanamume ndio maana hungetulia mkae pamoja. Ndio maana ulifukuzwa, unajifanya unajua sana.’ (You think you are like a man and that is why you could not respect him or be submissive? You think you know so much, that is why you were chased away),' my mother told me.
My mother saw my ex-husband as a darling. He often gave her money. This made her only see the best in him. But behind closed doors, he belittled me verbally and physically abused me. It is difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced emotional abuse how words can destroy a person.
But when I left, I told my mother-in-law, she feigned sympathy. She promised her son would support our children but that was after blaming me for not fighting hard enough to sustain the marriage.
She told me that my inquiries of his whereabouts were excessive. I was treating him like a child. I was not cleaning or cooking for him. My focus was my work or the children. That I gave him little attention.
At first, I adjusted to suit his needs, but the abuse and unfaithfulness did not stop.
After we separated, my sister-in-law called me. I expected her to be empathetic, but the first thing she asked was, ‘how will you survive without a man, especially with two sons?’
The ridicule and noise from people affected me so much that I became a shell of my former self. My spirit was broken. Working became very difficult. I was a bank teller, and interacting with male clients and colleagues became hard. I felt like they were irritating me and I could not serve them as I did women. Most misunderstood my pain, misreading my actions as being rude and disrespectful.
Tension with my colleagues culminated in a fallout with my boss and my subsequent firing. I had miss-posted a transaction but I was not accorded grace despite it being my first mistake ever.
Although I got another job soon after, transitioning to sales strained my finances. I had to take my twins to my mother while I tried to rebuild myself.
Finding a home presented another challenge. I remember one agent, refused to let me rent a house because I did not have a husband. 'In this apartment, we do not allow unmarried women because you tend to bring different men daily,' he told me. When my boys were to be baptised, a church official struck them off the list because they did not have a surname and I did not have a husband. We were all set for baptism day, then I got a call that my children would not be baptised. The church official went ahead to give reasons why.
The next day, I took them to church ready to cause drama. They stopped the church service and the priests had to deliberate and my children were baptised.
The dating scene for older, divorced women with children is not easy.
Four years after the separation, I got into another relationship. But it was short-lived. I realised he was a married man. I did not want another woman to go through what I had been through.
Then I got another man. He wanted to marry me but I was too scared and too scarred for marriage.
I have stopped dating and now my focus is on my job and fending for my boys.
Maybe I will fall in love one day, but I want my babies to grow up first.”
I felt alcohol, social media, and the gym had replaced me
Carol Qodesha, 56, former army officer
“It has been 33 years since my marriage ended. I have healed but my two sons cut me off after the divorce, and that still hurts.
I met my husband when we were both serving as soldiers in the US Army. We had been stationed in Germany when I got pregnant with my firstborn. I left the army and went back home and lived with my mother.
When he came during the holidays we got married and got our own home. All through our marriage, we were in a long-distance relationship and I would get part-time jobs to help supplement his income. I took care of our children and even my stepson whom we got to learn about when our last born had been born. I did not blame him for it because he also did not know it till then.
But when he came home, he would not interact with our children as much. I would try coming up with activities to do as a family to get him to bond with them in vain.
Cracks in our marriage started to show the day my husband retired from the army. He started drinking, going to the gym twice a day, and trying to seek attention from social media. He barely spent time with us.
'Take a picture of me, the food…' basically photos of everything he was doing. At first, I was okay, then I started getting overwhelmed by his need for validation from strangers online.
I felt alcohol, social media, and the gym had replaced me. He did not need me, so when he said he wanted a divorce, I did not fight back. We agreed on when I would leave and since I was with him for quite some time, I was entitled to 50 percent of his retirement package.
We sold our two houses, paid our debts, and split the money equally through lawyers. In December 2022, we faced each other in a courthouse and were declared divorced.
Growing up and raising our children, I was a religious person. I was a strict mother, teaching people the bible, and women on how to be good wives and mothers, and how to maintain their homes.
‘I would dish it out and take it.’ When our marriage ended, everybody was shocked, because we were their role model. However, no one spoke ill about me or stigmatised me. He was the only person who could hurt me so I cut him off. I banned him from visiting my house.
He became so angry, called my first-born son and took him on his wing. He told him that I was to blame for all his challenges and issues in life. Him not getting married, not being successful like he wanted to be, unable to socialise, name it, everything was blamed on me. So, my son cut me off as well.
My stepson too was fed with lies about our marriage and the reason we parted ways and he too kept his distance.
So, two months ago, I left the US to come to Kenya to heal, start anew and establish my business.”