BY LAURA ALBANESE | Special to Newsday
It was something of a joke at first.
A patient of Dr. Stephen Greenberg, a plastic surgeon based in Woodbury, had remarked in passing that the office should really consider offering a divorce package – a one-stop shop for all those little nips and tucks that people re-entering the dating scene would want.
Botox, tummy tucks and breast augmentation can add up to an imposing bill, even for a high-end clientele. Greenberg, though, was already thinking along those lines. The practice, which offers luxury packages, bridal packages and mommy makeovers, was looking to venture into something new. The divorce package seemed like the next logical step. It was certainly one that paid off.
It’s been a year since Greenberg started customizing his divorce packages for the suddenly single, and he’s had more than 100 participants. The clients, 65 percent of whom are women, sometimes come in groups of two or three – all recently divorced, all looking for a boost. “People say, ‘No one has seen my abdomen or my breasts but my husband or wife,'” Greenberg said. “‘And now I’m going back out there.'”
The sentiment is a common one, and the result, even in difficult economic times, is a growing cottage industry that caters to the needs of Long Island’s divorcés. David Mejias, a Nassau County legislator and divorce lawyer whose practice is based in Glen Cove, said he believes the trend will only expand from here. Divorce, Mejias said, is losing much of its stigma, and some people find themselves untying the knot with relish.
Accordingly, Mejias is planning a divorce expo for March 24 that will boast hundreds of vendors and consultants – everything from male enhancement booths to therapists. The event, which will be held at the Harbor Links Golf Course in Port Washington, will be free to the public and is expected to attract around 300 people. Though Mejias hasn’t seen a significant drop-off in businesses, national numbers indicate that the sometimes prohibitive costs of divorce means that disgruntled couples may be staying for a little longer than they otherwise would. In New York, uncontested divorces can range anywhere from $250 to close to $3,000. When the divorce is contested, the price balloons – with lawyers making anywhere from $175 to $450 an hour, according to DivorceNet, an online resource for couples seeking divorce. Accordingly, a national survey conducted by the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers found that 37 percent of its members (all divorce lawyers) have seen a decrease in couples seeking divorce.
After divorce, many people look for greater personal changes – be it plastic surgery, a new wardrobe or therapy, Mejias said.
“You see our clients come in, and you see the change,” he said. “You see someone who has been demoralized by her husband no longer be at [his] mercy.”
These days, clients come into his office well-informed. They know how the divorce will affect their pensions and have even picked up some of the legal jargon. People host divorce parties to celebrate their new status. Even the expo will have a party atmosphere, with a dance floor and catered food.
“It’s such a difference from 10 years ago,” said Randi Milgrim, a partner at the firm. Added Mejias: “When we first started doing this … people wanted to come in when no one was there.”
But while divorce may no longer carry as negative a connotation as it once did, the outlook hasn’t actually changed all that drastically, said Joan D. Atwood, a professor of marriage and family therapy at Hofstra University.
Seventy-five percent of all divorced people remarry, she said, indicating that single life is still not a desired state for them. Additionally, while people may speak more freely about their divorces, the U.S. divorce rate has been at a steady 50 percent for years. Out of 42 reporting states and the District of Columbia, the divorce rate in 2005 was 3.6 for every 1,000 in the population, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. The marriage rate, meanwhile, is 7.5 per 1,000 – meaning that the divorce rate remains at roughly 50 percent.
On Long Island, the divorce rate actually fell about 5 percent between 1997 and 2005, from about 7,500 to 7,100 per year.
And people who celebrate with divorce parties “are the exception rather than the rule,” Atwood said. “Even colleagues and students, when they’re going through divorce, they’re not happy campers,” she said. “Marriage is still the preferred social norm. Ask any 30-year-old female; she wants to be married.”
Women are especially hit hard by divorce, she said. “I’ll have a woman with four children who will say she doesn’t have a family anymore,” Atwood said. “Women who are divorced are [often] poorer. You’re dropping a social class. It’s not going to … be hunky-dory to be divorced. It’s still a stigma.”
In fact, many divorcés are reluctant to speak candidly about the breakup of their marriage. Pete, a 33-year-old law enforcement officer from Hicksville, divorced his wife of 2Â½ years with Mejias’ help. He declined to give his last name out of respect for his ex-wife.
“This isn’t an easy way out so I can just get [re]married indiscriminately,” he said. “It’s not a quick fix. It’s substantially saddening.”
Celebrating a new beginning
Like at least a few divorcés, though, Pete ultimately felt his divorce was liberating. When it was finalized, his friends rented a car and took him to the city for drinks. It was his personal version of a divorce party and one that he’s seen repeated a few times.
“It’s almost like a wake,” he said. “We’ll be telling stories of our own experiences and trying to get back to when we didn’t have the worries we have … it’s an old-fashioned college night.”
His outing was low-key, but a number of people have gone a more formal route. Donald Zauner, general manager of the Harbor Links Country Club, said he’s seen a few divorce parties flit through the banquet hall doors.
They vary in theme, though they’re generally small gatherings, and are usually a bit edgier than the standard weddings and bar mitzvahs. He likes to recall the one with the divorce cake that cracked in half between the little bride and groom sitting atop the frosting.
“People look at it as a [new] beginning,” Zauner said.
Christine Gallagher, a Los Angeles-based writer who started the self-explanatory Revengelady.com and who sells her book, “The Divorce Party Planner,” nationwide, said she feels that the emerging post-divorce culture “really hits a nerve with people.”
“In the past, people really isolated themselves. It wasn’t like other life events. No one surrounded you.” Now, even some churches are offering ceremonies to commemorate divorce. The United Methodist Church is among several that have written divorce services for pastors and couples to follow, according to Gallagher. John Shelby Spong, an Episcopal bishop in the Diocese of Newark, has also reached the conclusion that “the church must reach out to her hurting people with a faith that embraces the past in forgiveness and opens the future in hope. It cuts across all levels.”
Even some that might not seem readily apparent.
Clifford Morgan, the chief executive of Gamma Labs in West Babylon, said the company’s testosterone supplement, Gamma-O, seemed especially suited to the newly divorced male. Thanks to some interest in his product, he’ll be showing it at the divorce expo.
The supplement was only released about six months ago and helps boost sex drive, stamina and mental alacrity, according to Morgan. In its short time on the market, sales have dwarfed those of his other products, he said.
“Married guys sometimes tend to be a little more complacent,” Morgan said of the product’s popularity with divorced men. Women, he said, take his menopause supplements. “When you find yourself suddenly single, things become important to you.”
And, while Morgan’s customer base will likely be predominately male, Robert Yeganeh, owner of Love My Shoes, a Long Island-based shoe chain and Web site, will look to cater to a female crowd at the expo.
Competing against big-box shoe stores is no small feat, he said, but the company sees real potential in the divorce market. Yeganeh says he hopes to hold a divorce party in his own store, with manicures, pedicures and food, and other promotions.
“You’ve got to do some out-of-the-box thinking,” he said. Using the divorce niche was “creative marketing.”
While Yeganeh took the theme in stride, Morgan admitted he was slightly surprised at the idea of the expo.
The company generally assists two or three trade shows a month, but this, he said, was untested ground. “It’ll be interesting to see what happens and whether people go for the vendors or go to meet other people.”
HAVE A PLAN FOR DIVORCE PARTIES
Throwing a proper divorce party can be a balancing act, says Christine Gallagher, author of “The Divorce Party Planner.” The most important thing is that it be fun, cathartic, and not make (too many) people feel uncomfortable. Gallagher offers a few tips for people looking for loud ways to say, ‘It’s Over!’
Think of a theme. Is it going to be a plain bash or a meaningful ceremony meant to give closure? It’s important to set the tone beforehand, or it can be jarring.
Be careful whom you invite. No kids, please. Same for your mother-in-law.
Plan for games and activities. No one wants to sit around mulling about broken marriages. The party should be about new beginnings.
Try to find closure. Burn something like an old photograph. Don’t be afraid to throw out some vestiges of your old life. – LAURA ALBANESE
TIMES CHANGE, SO DOES DIVORCE
Though the divorce rate in New York has long remained at a steady 50 percent, it’s miles away from what it was decades ago – when divorce was an anomaly and heavily stigmatized. Some reasons for the change, according to Joan D. Atwood, a professor of marriage and family therapy at Hofstra University, include:
Longer life spans. In the early 1900s, the average life span was in the 40s. With people living late into their 80s, the prospect of spending another 40 years or so with someone you don’t like can be daunting.
Female financial independence. Women can afford to divorce now, whereas previously wives often depended on their husbands for all financial stability. Most educated women in the workforce now are capable of providing for themselves.
Birth control. Many couples who don’t have children are more likely to leave a marriage that isn’t working.
Relaxing of social norms. Divorce has gained steam in the past few years – enough that people may no longer be worried about negative opinions when they decide to end their marriages. – LAURA ALBANESE