When your husband is your "identity" how do you cope post-divorce?

Queen Rania. Michelle Obama. Carla Bruni Sarkozy.
One of the things that gives me great pleasure is sitting in a cozy bookstore with a cup of tea and a slice of chocolate cake, flipping through glossy magazines. That’s exactly what I did this afternoon in a New York City Borders bookstore and one of the magazines I flipped through was March’s Vogue. There were three very influential, stylish and “modern” women profiled: Queen Rania of Jordan, Carla Bruni Sarkozy of France and First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama.
It is from the articles about these amazing women that I got the idea for this post.
I found myself wondering what happens when your spouse is your identity and then your marriage implodes? I think it was something that Carla Bruni Sarkozy said that really got my cerebral cortex stirred up. I wrote down the quote in my little journal (look, there’s a recession and I can’t afford to spend money on frivolous things like magazines; not even Vogue. Sorry!) so that I wouldn’t forget it and it was something like this:

I’ve thought a lot about power. Whatever power I have is what my marriage gives me, my husband’s power, and that’s the power of an elected status. Power is a real profession –Carla Bruni  Sarkozy First Lady of France

I read that paragraph a few times to try to figure out if I was reading the subtext correctly, and I still am not sure that I am, but it seemed to me that
Madame Sarkozy is basically saying that whatever she is at the moment, whatever her “identity” is, that it comes from who she is married to at the moment; it comes from and belongs to her husband? And while there is nothing wrong with attributing who you are to your spouse, necessarily (I mean, to a great extent, I have always admitted to being hopelessly old-fashioned and very much a traditionalist on this issue) it does still seem to me that there is something slightly problematic about what she said. And I wondered if maybe that is not a more widespread problem amongst women, and why so many women have such a tough time finding out “who they are” after they get divorced from a particular man.
In certain echelons of society, even as I write, women are referred to by their husband’s name. For example, you may look at the brochure at the Metropolitan Museum of Art here in New York, and you look at the Patron’s List, say, and it has always fascinated me that most women get lost in the identity shuffle. They become extensions of their husbands in how they are acknowledged and thanked. So, instead of saying Gloria Stevens and Gary Milken (a husband and wife), for example, they would be listed as Mr. and Mrs. Gary Milken. Do you see what I mean? The woman’s identity is almost trivialized, marginalized and wiped out. She is simply a derivative of her husband. And she likes it that way. And, as a society, this is normal to us all. I mean, it is normal to me. And, I guess that is what I am talking about with what Carla Bruni Sarkozy said. She is who she is, she has the power she has, she has the status she has because she is the wife of this man who happens to be the president of France. And it’s fine. I just wonder, say, if that marriage for whatever reason, does not stand the test of time, how then does Mrs. Sarkozy self-identify? From where would she draw her power? Who will she be? What will be her identity?
I am sure she is not the only woman who thinks like this. As I said earlier, I am convinced that this kind of thinking is  deeply ingrained in most women around the world. I am not fully convinced that both Queen Rania of Jordan and Michelle Obama of the United States are not similarly afflicted. And I am not saying it’s a bad thing or anything. I am just observing that it is what it is.
And I really do think that this way of thinking that us women have, is a great contributing factor to what makes divorce so difficult for many women, especially those of a certain class and socio-economic background. Well, actually, I almost think that it doesn’t matter the socio-economic background, or race or whatever group that a woman is part of. In every culture, every demographic, I feel there are women who identify themselves by the man they are with. The man, the husband, validates them and gives them an “identity.” And I just don’t know how healthy that is. For any of us. You know? I mean, am I wrong about this? Am I imagining an issue that just doesn’t exist?
Originally published Feb 28, 2009