It was supposed to be the perfect storybook romance. Laura Viozzi, a whip-smart attorney from Hershey, Pennsylvania, met a dashing prince named Thomas [Tom] Haldis who was finishing medical school. Laura, eager to move beyond the cutthroat environment of her legal firm, dreamed instead of being by her prince’s side, supporting him through his schooling and career, eventually becoming a mother and raising a family. He, too, wished for a full-time companion who would understand the demands of his career and embrace the role of chief family caretaker.
It seemed all the chapters in their storybook romance were ready to be written.
The twist in this story, though, is while Laura and Tom have both found happy endings, neither is with each other.
In Philadelphia, Laura worked with another attorney on a federal drug interdiction program while Tom completed medical school. He had intentions of becoming a cardiologist so he and Laura moved to Danville, Pennsylvania for Tom’s residency and fellowship. They married when Laura was 28. Like Laura’s mother had done for her physician husband [they later divorced], Laura gladly gave up her career to support her husband and take care of their family, which, at the time included four boys - Luke, Casey, Gavin, and Jack.
“We both wanted a bunch of kids, but since we didn’t get married until we were around 28, we felt like if we wanted a bunch, we had to have them close together,” says Laura.
When Tom was offered a job in Fargo at Meritcare [now Sanford] as an Expert Interventional Cardiologist, Laura and the kids dutifully followed. Laura and Tom’s youngest child, Jack, was only one-year-old at the time. Shortly after arriving, the couple welcomed their fifth child, a daughter named Lucy.
“She loves her kids unconditionally, there is no doubt about that,” says Tom. “She’s always worked very hard to be a great mom. She’s done a fantastic job. She’s a master.”
When you talk with Laura now, she is open, warm, an active listener, and present in the conversation. She is both engaged and engaging. But in her marriage, Laura will admit she was worrisome, overly analytical, hyper-organized, and had a tendency to interpret things said to her beyond intended meaning. Tom could be hot-headed, quick to judge, and lack patience.
Combined with the stress of Tom’s profession, and Laura living in a new environment and raising five children, Laura and Tom’s communication skills deteriorated. Feelings got hurt. Anger was buried, left to smolder like molten lava. Fights erupted. Sparks would fly.
Then Laura and Tom’s marriage imploded completely.
It was ugly. Brutal. Nasty. Everything you’ve come to expect a divorce to be. She said. He said. She lawyered up. He lawyered up. They battled over money. Custody. Homeownership. Retirement. Assets.
“I went to law school thinking I could help other people like my mom,” says Laura. “I did all the same things she did that people said I shouldn’t do. Become a stay at home mom. Give up my career.”
So, Laura fought like hell to make sure she wouldn’t end up feeling like her mother, jilted after 20 years of marriage. The years of anger and resentment, hurt and sadness, burst through the barriers Laura and Tom had each built up to protect themselves.
“I had several eye awakening moments early in divorce,” says Tom. “It was super rough. It was scary. It was threatening.”
There were vicious arguments over the phone and times when they wouldn’t speak at all. The attorneys relayed messages.
“We had adversity in our divorce. At times, we both did things where we look back and say we wish we hadn’t done that,” says Laura. “There are consequences we didn’t intend.”
They each played their roles perfectly. The stubborn and defiant husband who refused to give an inch. The vindictive wife who demanded money and respect.
“It’s easier to be angry. We’re programmed to hate paying alimony and not like the ex,” says Laura. “Divorced couples are not supposed to get along. They’re supposed to thrive on the latest and most awful story.”
But there is a toll on taking the easy road. As much as Laura and Tom tried to keep their arguments private, the children knew. They read their parents' body language. Listened to their hushed, choppy words. Watched eyes roll and jaws clench. They became familiar with words like "attorney", "alimony", and "parenting plans". Words children should never have to hear.
Something had to change.
Laura and Tom tried mediation, where a trained neutral third party helps divorcing couples resolve conflict and find comprises to reach a settlement using specialized communication and negotiation techniques. As was the case with Laura and Tom, mediation is usually the last step before taking a divorce to court.
Laura and Tom reached an agreement. Paperwork was drawn. Laura and Tom signing to affirm the dissolution of their marriage. A judge’s signature making it final.
Laura was now a single mother of five children, living away from home with no extended family support and no job.
Two years of confusion, disappointment, and relentless arguing with Tom followed. Laura continued the same emotional holding pattern: she’d get angry or disappointed with Tom, lash out at him, then feel mad at herself for allowing her emotions to control her narrative. She was stuck.
Then, Laura’s attorney sat her down and gave her the cold, hard truth. “My attorney said, ‘We have a great settlement, but alimony won’t last forever, Laura. You’re going to have to pursue work.’”
It was just the push Laura needed to get out her own way. She needed to focus on something bigger than herself. She needed to return to the roots of her work in law, her desire to help others. Only this time, she wouldn’t be a practicing attorney, but rather the very person who helped her navigate her divorce settlement.
“I became intrigued about mediation,” says Laura. “I wasn’t interested in sitting for the bar again. I was interested in the idea of becoming a mediator so I could use the skills I’d built as an attorney.”
In 2015, Laura put her new mediation certification skills to work as a regional leader of the successful legislative initiative, Marsy’s Law, to codify victim’s rights within North Dakota law. That lead to another job opportunity and the confidence to land a date on Match.com.
The meet [again]
His name was Troy White, a divorced father of two girls, who’d spent a great deal of his adult life advocating for survivors of abuse, something he experienced as a child. He liked Laura’s “feisty sense of humor” and the personality she showed through text messages. One day she sent a picture of her and Lucy.
“Is that your only kid?” Troy asked Laura.
“Are you sitting down?” she joked. “I have 5. If you don’t want to talk to me anymore, I understand.”
“Well, that’s a lot of kids,” is all he said.
The two began dating almost around the same time Tom was finding love with a woman named Nicole, who was divorced with no children and living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. They met on Tinder.
“Prior to going on our first date, he told me on the phone how many kids he had,” says Nicole. “I was like, ‘Whoah, that’s a lot of kids.’ I’d never dated anyone with children before in my life.”
Tom was ready and open to having a new companion in his life. “Once you get through that difficult period, it’s just time to rebuild again,” he says.
Even though Laura wanted to be with Troy, she was still struggling with lingering trust and resentment issues. Then the duo, who, because of their combined interests in advocacy and mediation, had the opportunity to take a class on Emotional Intelligence and Personal Empowerment. They each became a Personal Empowerment Facilitator through Twin Cities Rise in Minneapolis.
Although she was taking this course for professional development, Personal Empowerment impacted Laura’s personal life more than anything she had previously experienced.
“Laura was still hurting from the divorce. It’s a painful thing,” says Troy. “Through this process, she was able to forgive and trust and be happy for herself and for Tom. She let go of resentments. It freed her.”
The Personal Empowerment Facilitator course taught Laura how to actively listen without judgment again, how to hear a person’s words without trying to interpret them, and how to re-develop her communication and coping skills.
“This empowerment training saved my relationship with Troy, but it began to make incredible changes in the relationship I had with my former husband,” says Laura. “What I used to see in Tom as being inappropriate or difficult, I could now better understand why he was reacting that way. That course helped me figure out the real way to understand and process and restructure my thinking about my relationship with my children’s father. If the outcome I want is a peaceful life for me and my children, I needed to learn how to model that for them.”
Shortly after taking the course, Laura and Troy’s trust was broken while working for a local organization, resulting in a significant financial setback. Scared, vulnerable, and embarrassed, Laura did what the Personal Empowerment course suggested she should: open her heart, share her fears, and ask for help. Guess who she turned to?
“Having Laura’s best interests in mind and really trying to help as opposed to being indifferent, that was important for us,” says Tom, who assisted Laura and Troy during this tumultuous time. “When Laura felt comfortable confiding in me her struggles, that was a real turning point. When the kids see that, it’s just a really good example.”
The happy ending
Laura and Troy recently opened Upstream Growth Consultants, a training, coaching and consulting service in Fargo centered around their proprietary Transformative Empowerment curriculum. Laura assists couples seeking a collaborative, conflict-free mediated divorce using a variety of techniques such as conflict management, effective communication for co-parenting, and positive action planning to continue removing the “script” society dictates divorcing couples follow.
“We can do divorce differently,” says Laura.
Laura now takes pride in telling people she gets along with her former husband; that they are good friends. “My mom saw herself as a victim. She looked back at everything she didn’t have and blamed my dad. I understand that- it’s the status quo,” she says. “But I choose to look at my divorce and my role in it and after it as my choice. And I choose to look at Tom and his success and happiness as being good for him, my kids and good for me.”
Tom and Nicole recently celebrated their one-year anniversary. Laura and Troy are engaged. While the couples are obviously thrilled with their happy endings, it’s the children who are really the biggest beneficiaries. Birthdays, graduations, and holidays that used to be spent at separate homes, alternating on calendar years, are now huge family gatherings where everyone shares space.
“You can tell they’re very happy when they see us all hanging out together,” says Nicole. “They spend more time talking to us and hanging out with us when they see us all hanging out. Before they’d spend more time in their rooms or on their phones.”
If Laura’s latest chapter is any indication, the story of her life is even better than she imagined. She is a professional working mother with children who love her, a man who supports her, and a blended family who believes they are better together.
“We all deserve happiness and to be successful,” she says.
Laura didn’t get her perfect storybook romance. And that’s okay. She rewrote the book.
Editor’s note: This story was written by Tricia O'Connor and originally published in the June/July 2019 magazine. Forum Communications Company is re-publishing these stories as On the Minds of Moms staff members develop a new online community.