This week Elise Pettus, creator of Untied.net joins us to share her divorce journey and how it brought her to create a dynamic site and community full of resources and support for divorced women.
In 2010 Elise Pettus was faced with her divorce. Being the first one in her social circle to be divorced, she felt very alone and isolated. While there were so many sites providing technical information, and even some bloggers sharing their own divorce stories, she felt a serious lack of community. Near the beginning of her divorce and co-parenting journey, she accidentally sent an email to the entire parent list of her son’s 8th-grade class. Instead of the scorn and shame that she expected, women reached out to her with messages of support and camaraderie. This is what sparked Elise to create UNtied, a sisterhood of women sharing their experiences and post-divorce wisdom with one another.
UNtied is a place for women who look to grow from this experience and to gain the tools needed to build the next chapter of their lives, in their own vision. UNtied offers seminars, workshops, online resources, support groups and more.
At the end of the conversation with Jennifer, Elise imparts on us some of her best advice for women preparing to build their next chapter.
Here are her tips:
Jennifer Butler: Welcome to Divorce and Other Things You Can Handle, a branded podcast from Worthy. I’m Jennifer Butler, and I’m your host. You don’t have to go it alone and nobody should ever have to. I cannot emphasize enough just how much power this statement holds. It is estimated that around half of all marriages today will end in divorce. That’s a lot of people in the world facing similar challenges. Yet, when you’re going through a divorce, you somehow feel completely alone.
We hear from so many women in our Worthy community that you don’t know where to turn for support, resources, or advice. Our guest today faced this very same problem when she was going through her own divorce, and so she set out on a mission to create a very real and effective solution. Elise Pettus founded UNtied.net, a sisterhood where women can go for support, wisdom and resources on almost any topic related to divorce. She’s created live and online events, workshops and panels dedicated to taking the feeling of being alone out of the process of getting divorced.
Elise really is the perfect person for us to talk to about why community is so important when you’re navigating a divorce, especially since there can be some reservations about joining a group or a community during what feels like a very private and personal time in your life. From her unique viewpoint, Elise will discuss with us the reasons community support is so essential during this time of your life. We’re going to take a quick break and then we will be back with Elise Pettus.
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I am so thrilled to be talking with our guest today, a graduate of Columbia Journalism School. She worked in documentary film and later as a reporter, writer for magazines like New York and Gourmet before launching UNtied.net in 2013. A student of all things divorce related, her passion is to connect divorcing women to each other as well as to the most experienced and competent professionals in all fields related to their needs. Please welcome to the podcast Elise Pettus.
Elise Pettus: Thank you Jennifer. Delighted to be speaking with you today.
Jennifer Butler: I’m so excited to have you on today. We had such an awesome conversation when we were setting our podcast up, and I think I said to you I wish I would have pressed record then, because I loved our conversation. I think our listeners are really in for a treat today. We’re going to be talking about the importance of community when going through a divorce. I thought it would be great if you started with sharing your story, because it really is just such a beautiful and powerful illustration of our topic today.
Elise Pettus: Sure. In 2010, I was looking at divorce. I knew that I could make it through this process if I could just connect with some other women who had been through it or who were further down the road than I was, but unfortunately, I was the first in my social circle to go through it and I was feeling incredibly isolated. I went online thinking, “Well, thank God for the internet. I’ll find my peeps there.” I never could find the sort of place that I was looking for. I mean, I’ve found very, very technical websites about divorce.
I’ve found a lot of blogs, where it would be one person’s story about discovering their husband’s infidelity and a lot of unloading, and I felt like that was not what I needed. I wanted to connect with women around moving forward. Eventually, I found myself looking in different ways. At one point, I will add, I wanted to write a note to all of our children’s friends, families, an email that said, “Hey everyone, you know, Dan and I are splitting up, but we want you to know that it’s not the end of the world. You know, we want your support, our kids …” I wanted to prepare them.
My husband at that time really did not. He said, “Absolutely not. That’s not okay.” He wanted to keep it private. I think a lot of people do, but in any event, what happened one day was that I inadvertently sent an email. It was opposed to be an email to him about our new schedule meant that he was going to pick up the kids at Mitzvah, and I had to send him the details. I remember writing this email. I had a brand new email system that very day, something like, “Please pick him up here.” Then it was PS, “I had a dream last night that we were friends.” Essentially, it was clear that we were splitting, that we were no longer a family unit.
Jennifer Butler: You outed yourselves.
Elise Pettus: Instead of pressing send to my soon to be ex-husband, I pressed reply all to the parent body of my son’s eighth grade class.
Jennifer Butler: Oh my gosh.
Elise Pettus: At that time, it was just about the most mortifying thing that I could possibly have done. I recall collapsing to the floor with embarrassment and thinking, “Oh my God.” At that time, I think it was probably 80 kids in the class, 80 families, 80 couples now know exactly what’s going on with us. This was not what I intended, and so I went into this moment of, “I can’t imagine how I’m ever going to live through this.” Then over the next few days, I was so surprised at the way certain people reached out.
In other words, the thing that I most wanted to keep secret was wrenched out into the public space. Instead of scolding or whatever or cold shoulder, I got some really warm reach outs from families who had been through it. One woman in particular reached out and said, “Hey sister, I’ve been through this. Let’s have lunch. If you have any questions, I’m so here for you.”
Jennifer Butler: Oh, how beautiful.
Elise Pettus: We became friends. It was really a harsh wake up about the reasons to bring it out. I’m not saying everybody should carry a banner and say, “I’m splitting up,” but I did feel like at the end of the day, I was glad that my so called secret was out in the open. It just was one of those instances where I realized that we all feel isolated and we feel a certain degree of shame around our divorce. Since that moment and since I’ve been working building this community, I realized how destructive that shame is. I realized how much having a community where you can talk about things is a real self, and it banishes that sense of shame and isolation and allows us to move forward in the best ways.
Jennifer Butler: Absolutely. I mean, I think that you’re right. I think that there is not only a stigma and a shame around the divorce itself, but then around sharing it with others, whether it’s friends and family or take that to the next level, a community of people that you don’t know.
Elise Pettus: Correct. I also realized when I was going through it that I said I needed to talk with women who are going through it or had been through it because I wanted to speak with others who got it. I feel as if we go through divorce, our family and our friends are maybe full of sympathy, and sometimes that sympathy can feel super alienating. “Oh, I’m so sorry, the worst thing has ever happened to you and I’m …” Then you can feel them thinking, “I’m so glad it’s not happening to me.”
Sometimes, I remember certain friends feeling as if I had inflicted upon them something awful because it was really messing up their social life. They’re friends who we’d see every Friday night for dinner and they were like, “Damn, now what am I going to do?” There was that. Everybody seemed to have a stake in it or there were also people who would say … This is one of those things that if you’re going through a divorce or if you’ve been through divorce, I know everyone can relate to is that well meaning friend or family member who says, “Oh thank God, you know, we never liked them,” or something like that.
That is so unhelpful. It’s just so helpful. It magnifies feelings of humiliation. I realized that if you’re going through it, the best person you could possibly be talking to is someone who gets it, who’s also going through it or who’s been through it. There’s no judgment, and there’s a sense of an understanding of the complexity. It’s not just funeral grief. There’s also liberation. There are so many emotions, and it’s really hard to get a grip on those emotions unless you’ve been through it yourself, which is why when these women who meet each other through our gatherings at Untied, often, they feel like, “Oh my gosh, long lost sister,” and they become good friends.
They also start to create a new social network around moving forward and around building a next chapter that is incredibly positive and incredibly exciting to witness.
Jennifer Butler: Absolutely. Let’s take a step back and let’s let our listeners know. You began UNtied.net in 2013, and it was really born out of your experience. You created the community that you had really craved. You created it yourself for other women.
Elise Pettus: Exactly. I mean, I had no idea if there was going to be a real need for it out there, but I knew that I needed it. I needed not only to speak with other women or hear from them, but I needed some guidance in how to be a competent consumer of divorce in the sense that I was a perfectly educated person. I’ve been to good colleges. I got a graduate degree, but I was cowed by the process of hiring an attorney. I thought if I am, wow, I mean, there must be a lot of women out there who are feeling uncertain about what they want and how they should go about working with an attorney or a financial advisor or any of the other myriad professionals.
As a journalist, I had a lot of experience in sourcing the experts, and because I grew up in New York City, I was able to pretty quickly suss out some really great attorneys. I thought we’re going to set up a panel. We’re going to bring women together to meet each other, and we’re going to present them with three very different kinds of attorneys, and they’re going to talk about how they work with a mediator, a litigator, and the collaborative attorney, which is a newer process to the divorce experience. I found that that was a really great way to not only become knowledgeable but feel confident.
I found that when I had this first meeting, I reached out, send emails out to everyone I knew saying, “Do you know any women going through this divorce process?” They gathered in my living room, 17 women I never knew. We listened to a Forbes columnist named Jeffrey Landers talk to us about the 10 top things we needed to do to prepare for divorce. After that evening, the degree of gratitude and the exhilaration at actually meeting other women and also getting so much knowledge in one night was so profound that I realized I had to keep this going and figure out a way to make it work.
Jennifer Butler: I mean, you’re equipping women with so much. I mean, you’re equipping them with knowledge and choice and opportunities to connect and opportunities to really decide how they want to move forward. I remember when I went through it, I didn’t know there were other pathways. I thought there was one way to the finish line, and you’re giving the gift of possibilities to choose from.
Elise Pettus: The traditional experience of divorce is you realize you’re facing it. Maybe he’s saying, “I’m done. I’m leaving.” Maybe you realize you’ve got to get out. Then usually like someone says, “Oh, my uncle, you know, he knows a lawyer from the golf club. He’s the one. Talk to him,” and there you are and you’re in a traditional litigated situation and somewhat at the will of the attorneys. In this situation, I mean, increasingly, there are other options that allow us, the people going through the divorce to take more control over the experience. That’s huge.
I mean, for instance, if you can hire a mediator instead of a traditional litigation attorney, then you’re saving thousands of dollars and possibly saving your relationship with your soon to be ex so that you can co-parent effectively and do less damage to your kids. There’s a lot to be gained from going into this process with real open eyes and consciously choosing the right process, the right kind of attorney to navigate this experience with.
Jennifer Butler: Absolutely. The willingness really to join a community allows for so many things. I mean, what you’re talking about, education and knowledge and choice opportunity, that sense of sisterhood of not being alone. It’s interesting how many people go through divorce, but I speak for a lot of women when they say, and I’m sure men too, but our community is women to how alone they feel in the process.
Elise Pettus: I feel lucky that this began in Brooklyn. I mean, maybe it would have been possible in other communities as well, but it’s big enough so that it wasn’t a tiny, tiny town where … I mean, some people were afraid to come out. I mean, I will be the first person to acknowledge that it takes courage to come out and go to a place and meet with people you’ve never met before and out yourself as, “I’m going through the hardest thing I’ve ever been through in my whole life. Hello. Here I am.” Just that very brave step is I feel like one of the first steps towards healing and towards building your new life.
I mean, it happened that the first gatherings I held were specifically women who felt already pretty confident in their lives and realized that they wanted to go through divorce with their eyes open and they wanted to figure it out. They wanted to figure it out. They thought, “I can’t be the only person going through this. There must be others out there. Gosh, damn it, I’m going to figure this out. I want to learn what I can.” That trumped the fear of, “Ooh, you know, what if I meet someone I know?” Sometimes people would ask me like, “what if I meet someone I know?”
I would say, “Well, won’t that be nice? You can have coffees and you won’t just have to talk about nice outfit. What’d you buy at Costco? You’ll be able to have a really substantive conversation about things that really matter,” which is another thing I’ve found so liberating and wonderful is that the conversations that would happen at a gathering like this are so refreshingly real. People are really invested in sharing. Of course there’s moments where it’s difficult and sad, but there are also moments of complete hilarity and uplift and joy.
When one person says to a group, “You know, look, I did the scariest thing I could possibly imagine. I took a trip alone to India, and here’s how it changed me,” that has a huge impact on the others in the room. I hear it from so many women when they come to say like our gathering about solo travel, that they were inspired to take a trip themselves and how they came back, and they felt so much more confident and excited about their capacity for being in the world without their spouse.
Jennifer Butler: I think what I’m hearing really is this … I don’t want to say positive because there’s a realness, a vulnerability, a shedding of skin that you’re talking about, but it’s almost a celebration of everything that happens because of the journey through divorce, because I think this is an important element for people when they’re thinking about finding a community. I think that the stereotype a lot of times is, “Uh, it’s going to be so depressing.” Everyone’s going to be complaining about how awful or just kind of venting.
Elise Pettus: You’re right.
Jennifer Butler: How do you keep that, what you’re describing happening because that makes joining a community completely different?
Elise Pettus: You’re right. It’s a good question. In the beginning, I thought, “Well, if we have our gatherings around a panel of experts or an expert to talk, I felt safe doing that because I thought, well, we’re just tackling the practical stuff and that that would sort of keep the focus on moving forward, arming yourself with knowledge and strengthening yourself for the divorce.” About a year in, around 2014, I became friends with a woman who had started this workshop in her home. She was not a therapist, but she also had gon through divorce and was also like me looking for what she wanted and didn’t have.
She invited me to come to this workshop, and it was called divorces detour. I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, it’s going to be so awful. I’m really dreading this. It’s going to be venting.” Just like you said, the support group that I had tried to avoid and that I was dreading, but I went because I liked her. What I found in the way she structured this group was that it was the very best possible thing that anyone divorcing could be given. We now offer this exact thing. It is a regular workshop called Grief and Gratitude.
It does scare people off initially, but I always say, “This is a group for anyone who, who, who hates support groups. It is a very structured kind of experience that is offered to about eight women at a time.” It’s structured around writing exercises and poetry. It’s just elevating and empowering, and it is so not depressing. I mean, it’s hard and there is no question that going through divorce can bring you to the absolute trough of your life, and there is nothing that I went through that was harder, but I will say that for various reasons, the muscles that I gained, the ability to look at everything and not run away from it was exactly what gave me the foundation to build a new life that I really felt good about, a way of living in my skin that I couldn’t be more thankful for.
This workshop is the antidote to the rant group or whatever, and a lot of women say like, “I thought this was going to be one of those awful groups where everybody just rants,” and instead, these groups come through. They experience grief and gratitude, and then it’s like they consider themselves alumni and they’re connected at this deep, deep bond. They keep in touch ongoing. They’d make deep friendships, and we get to see and so cheer on each person’s progress through life. I mean, it’s funny. It’s the last thing from depressing.
I guess the whole experience of UNtied for me has been hardly like a moment of there’s no depressing there because you’re meeting people at the hardest place in their life.
Jennifer Butler: Absolutely.
Elise Pettus: Any help that you can extend is going to improve their experience, but in my case, I feel like I just get to bear witness to women walking through this threshold into this really self-created new life. It sounds maybe like simplistic and overly optimistic. I’m not saying that women aren’t facing serious financial struggles, serious parenting struggles sometimes with spouses who are in the throes of addiction or mental illness. I mean there are some real challenges.
Jennifer Butler: Absolutely.
Elise Pettus: Getting help and having a tribe to help you through it is just invaluable. It’s always going to be better that way.
Jennifer Butler: Absolutely. Especially a community as you’re speaking about, so we have to take a quick break right here, but you talked about something called the magic spot. I am going to ask you about that when we return. We’re going to take a quick break and we will be right back with Elise Pettus.
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We’re back with Elise, and we have been discussing the benefits of being connected to a community, especially when you’re going through something like a divorce. We were talking about how uplifting community can be, how elevating it can be even when you’re going through something that really presents difficult challenges. I had alluded to something that Elise talks about called the magic spot that she finds with her women in her community. Talk to us about that. What is the magic spot?
Elise Pettus: Well, it’s a funny phrase, but I sometimes will often find myself incredibly moved when I hear women talking in a small group about their experience and something about being in the group and sharing in front of others will help them see their own situation in a new light. That new light is often just wildly liberating and empowering. I’ll give you an example. This past weekend, we hosted a workshop called Write Your Story weekend in which eight women came with their stories and worked with a writing teacher who had founded the Modern Love column for the New York Times.
He is a real expert in the personal essay, and this was a personal essay writing workshop for writers and non writers alike. Of course, it takes some courage, but what happens is, and we’ve done it four or five times now, women will bring in the scariest monster of a story, the secret, the shameful, whatever it was about their breakup. With the help of Steve Freedman, the leader and with the help of the group through the process of doing writing exercises about it and writing what they think is their story and then hearing other people respond to it. At the end of two and a half days, they tamed the monster.
In other words, at one point, he asks everyone to write down the one thing that they wouldn’t include in their story because it’s just simply so shameful. Somehow by the end of that weekend, they’ve written a story about it and it becomes no longer shameful but kind of a very valuable companion. I mean, oftentimes, these stories lead to publication. I mean, many of them go on to write these essays for either online magazines or literary journals or what have you. Others just use it to find their way through this process.
I guess, what I would say about the magic spot, it’s a transformative moment where sometimes it’s as simple as realizing your part in the breakup. Oftentimes, women in the beginning or anyone in the beginning thinks of things in a very black and white way. We hold on to this life wrath, like, “He’s an asshole, and I was an angel. He did this to me. I was the victim,” but if you wrestle with the narrative in a really honest way, it often will show you ways in which you are part of that dance and not in a way that just makes you feel like, “Oh, I’m a jerk too,” but in a way that also allows you to realize like, “That relationship wasn’t working for me either, and here’s why.”
In a way, that also gives you agency for your future. I realized through that breakup process that I wasn’t able to whatever it was deliver this in the relationship because I really needed this or something that unlocks for people not just the real story of the breakup, but a way to embrace who they are and what they need going forward and what they dream about accomplishing in the second part of their life.
Jennifer Butler: Absolutely. I love your example about writing about something that you’re ashamed of. It reminds me of it’s a quote or I’ve heard before, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” Once you are willing to bring it forth and give it a new narrative, it’s no longer shameful.
Elise Pettus: It doesn’t rule you anymore, and it doesn’t squash you into a tiny little meek person. I mean, it takes enormous amount of courage. When we do these writing workshops, we hear from essay writers who are really accomplished, who are in the room telling us, “Believe me, it was scary to write about whatever it was, my most humiliating moment,” but the women who are taking the workshops see the value of being brutally honest with themselves, not just to become an accomplished writer, but to take their own life back in some way.
Jennifer Butler: Not only doing the exercise but doing it in a community where the energy of just the support and the camaraderie and the compassion. I mean, it really is just a way to empower women and give them that ability to break free.
Elise Pettus: It really is. I mean, I wouldn’t say that therapy isn’t hugely helpful, but there’s something about having other women in the room or others in the room who can relate and give you honest feedback on your story. That is so helpful. It is so freeing,. It is so affirming. In that way, I think the community piece is really a big one. It’s really important.
Jennifer Butler: Absolutely. In your words then, so what would you say to our listeners who are listening, who they’re still on the fence? They’re still kind of treading water. They’re not sure. They really just feel taking that step. As you said, it’s a step of courage to connect with a group or a community. They’re just still a little scared. What would you say to them?
Elise Pettus: Well, I think that there are increasing numbers online places you can tap into. I know we have a close Facebook group, but if people want to join, they’re welcome to. It’s the powder room, and it’s UNtied’s close Facebook group, but places like that, even if you aren’t able to speak, you can at first just listen to others and hear what they have to say. When you do share something, you are getting affirmation and connection with others, even if it isn’t in the room. That’s a tiny little step. I’m sure that there are groups. Churches often organize meetings for people who are splitting in different communities.
There are places, and I would just say attempt it. Attempt it and if it’s not in your town because it feels too scary, go to the next town over. I just feel like there’s a lot to be gained in taking that scary step and trying to connect, however it happens. Maybe it’s contacting old friends that you have heard, but you haven’t been in touch with them for a while, but you know they went through a breakup. That might be an easier place to start, somebody who’s experienced and been in your shoes and knows what it feels like.
Jennifer Butler: Because you really don’t know what you don’t know, right?
Elise Pettus: Right. I mean, we offer online access to all of our monthly gatherings, even though it’s not the same thing as a workshop where you’re telling your own story, but it is at least the knowledge piece. You can livestream our monthly panels. It’s UNtied.net, and you can tap into … You’ll hear the questions. You can ask your own questions of the panelists. That’s a pretty unscary way to be part of a community. It doesn’t necessarily ask you to be vulnerable, but it is at least a start in tapping into and hearing other people’s questions in the room about what they’re asking or what they’re struggling with, whatever the given topic is that month.
Jennifer Butler: You can take little little baby steps forward. I love that. You’ve seen a lot of women come in from the very beginning, and you’ve watched them evolve through over years, I would imagine. From where you sit and your experience with women, what can you share in your words as possible? If women are going through this and they’re at the very beginning or even at those beginning stages, what’s possible for them?
Elise Pettus: Well, I would say it’s a very exciting possibility to choose, to make choices about how you want to shape the next chapter of your life. Going through divorce is unbelievably difficult, and I would say that to get through it with presence will help you build a great next chapter, next 10 years. I guess my immediate words to people would be, “Stay present for it. Don’t run from the hard stuff. Treat yourself with great compassion and tenderness. Find your tribe and ask for help and get as much knowledge as you can.” That will empower you. I mean, there’s no question. That will empower you to make the best decisions for yourself and create the next big piece of life, and you can make it a life that you really love.
Jennifer Butler: That’s beautiful. That’s powerful, very powerful words of wisdom. We have to wrap up. You mentioned before where people can find you, but I’m gonna have you say it one more time. If anyone wants to find you, follow up with you, how can they do that?
Elise Pettus: Well, the URL is UNtied.net. You can also email me at elise@UNtied.net with more questions about the community and how how it can help you. We also have a Facebook group called the Powder Room on all things related to divorce and life afterwards.
Jennifer Butler: Perfect. Well, thank you again for being here with us for talking about community and just how empowering and how elevating it can be for our listeners. I look forward to talking with you again.
Elise Pettus: Thank you so much, Jennifer. It’s really been a lot of fun.
Jennifer Butler: Thanks again to Elise Pettus for joining us and to all of you for listening. Next week, we will be joined by Dawn Burnett, founder of a New Dawn Natural Solutions, and author of her recent book, Connect: How to Love and Accept Yourself After Divorce, where we will be discussing getting out of your own way and creating your own destiny. Make sure you subscribe so you can catch every new episode of divorce and other things you can handle in your weekly feed. If you liked what you hear, rate and review us to help other women like you be able to connect with us too. Find out more at worthy.com/podcast.
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A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, she worked in documentary film and later as a reporter/writer for magazines like New York and Gourmet, before launching UNtied in 2013. A student of all things divorce-related, her passion is to connect divorcing women to each other as well as to the most experienced and competent professionals in all fields related to their needs. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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