Nearly 400,000 divorced women receive alimony — a critical topic when considering post-divorce life, feminism, the pay gap, and women's empowerment — financial or otherwise. I feel very strongly that every single woman (indeed, 97 percent of people who get spousal support are women) should turn down any opportunity for alimony, aka spousal support, as it is a took to keep women to be dependent on men and not take full responsibility for themselves. Just a generation ago alimony was a feminist coup, giving women with scant financial opportunity a way to support themselves and their families in the event of divorce. This made sense when women had scant financial or professional opportunity. Those days are gone, and so, too, should alimony.
In many states lifetime alimony is being challenged, and how the growing numbers of (successful, professional) female judges have little sympathy for women who do not work outside the home, and are denying them alimony.
There is no better truth-revealer for a marriage than divorce. All those horrible things you thought about your husband but were too nice/afraid/kind to say about his mother/underperformance at work/penis size? You say them. All the disgusting things you suspected he believed about you but would never utter aloud about your brother/weight/performance in bed? He shouts them.
Which is why divorce lawyers are such an accurate barometer of what is happening in the relationship zeitgeist. The get the raw, un-adulterated (though often adultering) dirt on how couples think, act and feel.
My friend and neighbor Morghan Richardson, a family lawyer in Astoria, Queens, New York, says that women are often stunned to hear their soon-to-be ex-husbands confess that they never really wanted her to abandon their careers and stay home. And they are stunned, to hear divorce and child support judges demand women work full time — no matter how many or how little their children are. In the mommy wars, the increasing numbers of female judges (who are firmly in the working mothers camp) have their say. And they say being a SAHM does not count as work.
In other words: You can argue all day long that staying at home raising children is a full time job. But the legals system decides, and the legal system disagrees. So does your husband.
I see this attitude in many of the men I date. These are progressive, feminist men who maybe at one point conceded that it made sense for one parent to stay home full time with the children. Then the kids got older. He was under a lot of pressure to be the sole breadwinner and he resented it, especially since there was another educated adult in the family. He went to work each and every day with women — beautiful women — who worked fulltime and raised what seemed like perfectly healthy children. And now they're divorced and he is so, so angry that he pays her bills since she makes so much less than she could have had she stayed in the workforce and “pulled her own financial weight,” which may have saved the marriage!
The reform is the result of petitions by groups who feel that alimony hurts men by making them pay an unfair sum to women they are no longer married to, and who have opportunity to be financially independent. Reform is just beginning.
This new shift away from guaranteed, lifelong maintenance is tough for women who did not prepare for the financial realities of divorce and chose to be dependent on their husbands. I sympathize with some of these women — those who have disabled children who require intense, and extensive care long beyond age 18, women who are mentally or physically disabled themselves, and women who are in their 70s and older and came of age when there truly was not economic gender equality.
But for everyone else, I applaud this move to limit alimony. This is good for women, and what is good for women is good for families and the country. Here’s why:
An end of alimony would force each able-bodied person to be financially responsible for themselves
Suffragists and feminists before us fought bitterly (and joyously, one would hope) so you and I have financial and legal parity with men. We have a way to go, but for the most part in this country women have opportunity to support themselves. With opportunity comes responsibility. You choose to be financially dependent on someone else (like a husband), you take a risk. If that marriage ends and you have little career equity and low earning potential as a result, you must pay the consequences of the downside of that risk.
Take alimony out of the career-planning equation and we force women to take full responsibility for their careers and finances from the beginning of adulthood. This is critical if we are going to close the pay gap, which has little to do with workplace sexism, and more to do with women choosing lower-paying professions and stepping away from careers to devote to family life. This will also address the issue of female financial literacy. One study found that women’s involvement in household finances is directly proportionate to their contribution to family income. In other words, the more a woman contributes to the family finances, the more involved she is with managing them, a fact that would impact these alarming figures on female financial literacy from workplace wellness program firm Financial Finesse:
- One-third of women feel confident about their investment allocation, vs half of men
- 66% of women report a general knowledge of investing, vs 85% of men
- 63% of women report having a handle on cash management, vs 78% of men
- 47% of women indicate that they have an emergency fund, vs 62% of men
Ending alimony would be a boon for family financial security, ringing a clear, screaming alarm that you must plan for the very real chance that both spouses’ income will be likely critical to the family. What will it take for people to realize — and plan for — the fact that divorce rates have hovered around 50% for decades? Divorce is just one risk. Maintaining a career is about being a responsible member of your family. Even if you have the hottest, most committed marriage that lasts until the end of one of your lives, there are other realities you must plan for:
Unemployment. Nearly four out of five U.S. adults will face severe joblessness, near poverty or being on welfare. Men in recent history have been far more likely to suffer in an economic downturn. During the recession – from December 2007 to June 2009—men lost 5.4 million jobs while women lost 2.1 million. Again, this is a numbers game. Betting on your husband to support you and your family simply is not a good financial move.
Disability. Nearly 5% of all eligible adults receive disability insurance benefits.
Life. Crap happens. Accidents, psychotic breaks, natural disasters and fires. You have no idea what is in store. So you do smart things. Like keep a career going, which boosts your family’s financial security by 2x at least.
Researchers at UCLA and Utrecht University in the Netherlands found that the happiest marriages are those in which both spouses are engaged in careers they enjoy. In their book, Getting to 50/50, Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober report that a marriage in which both parties earn about the same and do about the same amount of housework and childcare have a chance of divorce 48 percent lower than average.
But perhaps the biggest reason no alimony is great for women is that without it, each party is allowed to move on with their lives, which is the whole point of divorce.
Depending an ex only keeps you emotionally embroiled in a marriage that is now over
I have a friend who abandoned a thriving small business she’d built for 15 years when she married a successful New York City tax attorney and had a baby. The marriage ended. He pays her a sum each month that keeps her in an Upper East Side two-bedroom, three-story townhouse, while she struggles to rebuild her business. “Tell your readers to never stop working,” she told me recently. “There is nothing worse than being dependent on a man who you are trying to separate from.”
Also, there is nothing better than knowing that your own life is entirely of your making. That is the definition of empowerment — gender or otherwise.
I was on WCCO CBS in Minneapolis speaking about this win my friend, anchor Jordana Green who receives alimony. “Isn't it unfair if you're used to living in a $500,000 house but have to move into an apartment when you divorce?” she asked.
My answer? “If you want a $500,000 house, pursue a career that affords you one.”
As one alimony reform activist emailed me: “Alimony law was created to ‘keep the lesser earning spouse in the lifestyle in which they are accustomed.' Using that logic, wealthy parents should be legally obligated to support their kids throughout their lives.” I agree.
It's irresponsible to build a life around alimony you have no control over
Your ex could lose his job, die, become disabled, chose a lower-paying career, see his business tank, or go MIA. You have no control over that, and if you depend on his income, you live in fear every single day it will go away. Shift that energy into your own income and career, which you do have control over, and watch your life change.
Alimony makes co-parenting very contentious
So does child support. There has never, ever in the history of divorce been a person who pays money to another person who they believe is capable of supporting themselves. Since your ex is angry about paying alimony (and child support), that anger will manifest in all sorts of ways in your relationship, which has now been reduced to coparents. May not be fair, may be court-sanctioned, but you are lesser co-parents because this money came between you.
Dana Lin was a stay-at-home mom for most of her marriage, and admits there was a measure of pride in not pursuing alimony or child support in her divorce, even though she could barely support herself — selling her wedding and heirloom jewelry to make ends meet, and not eating for days on end when her children spent time with their dad. She was entitled to about $3,000 in monthly support an alimony.
Lin, the mother of two grade-school daughters at the time, also didn’t want money complicating her relationship with her children’s father. “I never wanted him to be able to say, ‘I can’t spend time with the kids because I have to work long hours to support you,’” says Lin, who at the time of the split worked part-time as a school office manager for $20 per hour. Today, she says, she has a very friendly relationship with her ex, who “is an amazing father now,” while he was only marginally involved while married.
Alimony hold you back professionally, personally and financially
If you disqualify from money from your ex if you earn too much, you consciously or unconsciously earn less, are less ambitious, less professionally fullfilled, and more resentful as a result. This is bad for you, a bad example for your children, and bad for women and the pay gap.
“I was very ambitious and had great earning potential,” says Lin, 43. “I didn’t want anyone to say I couldn’t make it without him.” Lin pursued her dream of being a screenwriter, today working as a script doctor and ghostwriter. Two years ago with a partner she launched Zen Life Services, which provides stress training management skills to law enforcement employees. “Living lean taught me to be more disciplined,” she says. “Sometimes if you have too much of a cushion you’re not as aggressive in pursuing your dreams.”
The takeaway? Keep a foot in the workforce, even when your kids are babies. Accept as fact you have a 50 percent chance of being divorced, and even if your husband seems to fully support heading a one-income household, deep down he likely feels very differently — or eventually will. Regardless of what everyone feels, the only feelings that really matter are the judge's. And as more women take the ranks of the courts, there is less legal inclination for alimony — especially when the petitioner is an educated woman who chooses not to earn a living.
Alimony? Just say no.
What do you think? Do you get alimony? Do you pay your ex alimony? Do you think alimony helped or hurt you get back on your feet after your split? Share in the comments!
Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.
A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.