I have a friend who had been married for 20 years. He had a high-earning career, and after spending her 20s in low-paid retail jobs, his wife stayed home full-time with the kids, until they were in high school, then worked part-time retail, tried to start a couple of craft businesses that went nowhere, and then started fucking her massage therapist.
When they divorced, they stayed on mostly friendly terms and would get together with the kids, who were by then in college. His career continued on while she struggled bitterly. Since they broke up in the middle of the housing and stock market bust, there weren’t many assets to divide. The kids were out of the house, so there was no child support. He paid no alimony.
She went from a very comfortable life as a suburban housewife, to struggling very hard to get by, living in a shared apartment.
At the time, I was incredulous about this. I blindly grew up and into my 30s assuming the standard-issue feminist party line: Women’s work is uncompensated and undervalued. When women become stay-at-home mothers, that benefits men’s careers, and when the marriage ends, she should be compensated for that lost earning potential. Both partners’ lifestyles should be the same when marriage ends!
Then I grew up. I began to consider critically about what alimony is really about, researched its ramifications, and simply gave it a hard think. The verdict: There is no place for alimony in 2018.
Alimony was a huge feminist coup in the 1960s and 1970s when divorce rates first skyrocketed, and women had scant professional, education, legal, political and financial standing (Sisters: we were not allowed to hold a credit card in our own names until 1973!). Since then, the world has changed, laws and opportunities have changed, and so, too, must what we expect from marriage — and life post-marriage. Thankfully, alimony reform is underway in almost every state in the United States, and lifetime maintenance is more or less over.
Despite the blaring reality that men and women should always have a way to support themselves, women are still pressured painfully to be full-time stay-at-home moms. Pew Research found that 40 percent of Americans believe it harms children when mothers work outside the home, and 80 percent of respondents told Working Mother magazine they feel guilty for working. Nevermind the fact that the vast majority of mothers need to work so they and their children can eat, or the mounds of both research and anecdotes that prove that children, mothers, marriages and the economy thrive when moms are employed — we are still told that at-home is best.
I talk about this on this blog, my podcast, and book, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), and am very proud to say I have converted many moms to getting off the alimony gravy train (one of my favorite reader book reviews: “Thanks for ruining alimony for me forever, Emma!”). Many women say that this message has propelled them into a life of autonomy independent of the man to whom they were once married.
Nonetheless, there continue to be lots of vintage thinking about money, marriage, family, and gender, and in this post, I explain why all the typical arguments in favor of alimony are wrong.
Related posts on alimony:
Argument: We had an agreement — He would work and earn, and I would stay home with the kids. He broke that agreement and now owes me.
I am all about approaching marriage as a business deal, and in fact, you did have a deal. Business deals end every single day, and I know of zero exits in which one business partner is ordered to compensate the other in perpetuity for hurt feelings and lost earning potential.
Divorce, just like in business, includes splitting the assets, debts, and finding an equitable way of managing and taking care of any outstanding obligations (like child rearing). In business, no one is monetarily punished because the cafe couldn’t turn a profit, or the bicycle shop burned down, or the software company went belly-up in a recession. In business, when shit happens, both partners suck it up and do their best to move on with their respective lives, like two adults.
Even if we agree that being a full-time stay-at-home mom is full-time work (which after about age 3 it is not, because unlike our great-grandmothers, housework is no longer a full-time endeavor. It is nearly all automated and outsourced to clothing and linen manufacturers in China, commercial farmers and food manufactures, makers of washing machines, dishwashers, coffee makers, vacuum cleaners, self-cleaning ovens — and every other modern convenience that makes the idea of a “housewife” laughable).
Child care and housekeeping do of course still need to be done, and those tasks have a market rate. Child care centers costs on average, nationally, $4.90 per hour, according to a survey by Care.com, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that house cleaning averages $11.46 per hour. That means that if you were enjoying a lifestyle that corresponds with more than, say, a $20,000 annual income, you got a great bargain. And if you were living at or below the poverty line during your marriage, then a judge probably wouldn’t grant you any of your ex’s income — because there simply isn’t enough to go around.
It is not fair. I forsook my career and earning potential to stay home / work part-time / take a lower-paying job, which allowed him to build his career, and now I am SOL. He needs to compensate me for that lost earning potential, and for helping him to build his career.
First of all, you say that this was a mutually agreed-upon arrangement, and perhaps it was. But, the real story likely includes some element of at least one of these scenarios:
- You got laid off/ fired / your business tanked and you just never got back in the career saddle.
- You weren’t very good at your chosen career. Your business never worked out, or you never had much of a career to start with.
- Your husband urged you to work. Begged and pleaded with you, and you refused.
Maybe it is a little bit of all those stories. These things can be complicated, open for interpretation. Child care is crazy-expensive, and at the time, it very likely seemed like you had no choice but to stay home.
No matter. The reality: You took a risk, and decided not to have a career — or down-ramped to a lower-paying job with less potential. You chose to be dependent on a man, even though there are no financial experts in the world who would support that as a wise move. You knew very well that divorce rates have hovered around 50 percent for 40 years, yet you did nothing to financially protect yourself or your children against that. Breakups aside, there is pretty much a 100% chance that your husband would a) become disabled, b) become unemployed, c) become chronically ill, d) die. You likely have life and disability insurance, which you are far less than 50% likely to need. But you did nothing to maintain your earning potential which would protect your family in any of those scenarios, either.
That was a risk you took. It didn’t work out, and you lost. I’m sorry about that. I really am. But it is not another person’s responsibility to compensate you for your loss. Scratch-off didn’t win? You don’t sue the bodega owner.
As for the notion that you made your husband’s career … OMG. First, if you were, in fact, a co-owner of a business, then hopefully you got that legally locked down, and then there are mechanisms for divvying that up, or, in some cases, ex-spouses go on to successfully co-run businesses. Pretty cool.
But if you think that taking care of the kids and house makes a man, guess again.
- That man goes to work every day with successful women who are also wives and mothers — many of them single mothers. And plenty of them are really hot. Women can and do it all. But not entitled ones.
- Increasingly, judges who insist that stay-at-home moms get back to work ASAP are often females — judges who themselves had to claw their way to the bench in a chauvinist industry, while their children enjoyed perfectly nice child care. Male judges are sick of educated, competent, healthy women arguing that they should not have to work — many of whom have professionally hard-working wives (or ex-wives to whom they bitterly pay alimony). The sympathy for this thinking is simply out of step with the times.
I do work! I am building a business / doing art / going back to school. We agreed I would get this off the ground, and he would support me!
Again, I get that was the verbal contract, and it is now not being honored. That happens, and it is often unfair. I am sorry.
In the real world, every upstart endeavor has its limits. Startups answer to investors who demand returns on their funding. Art patrons expect quality, marketable work after a certain period — or other favors. You were in a cushy arrangement in which you did not have to answer for your lack of success. The good news is that I can attest to hearing countless stories of women who left an unhappy marriage, only to find themselves surprised by their success — and a bit dismayed at the realization that they’d held themselves back professionally, creatively and financially for the sake of pandering to a man’s ego. That was my story.
Ladies, the free market is a beautiful thing. Too much cushy support with no accountability is good for no one. This is scary, I know. You can do it. Trick: When I find myself really scared about making it, screwing up my kids, living on the street, I have a mantra:
Dumber people have done this successfully.
[Aside: Like a marriage with vast economic imbalance, artist-patron relationships have historically been poised for exploitation of the receiver of funds. From a New York Times article on a new wave of art patrons:
“Historically, many patron-artist relationships have been troubled, defined by an extreme imbalance of pecuniary power. White female patrons of Harlem Renaissance artists became collectively — and critically — known as “Miss Anne” for their imperiousness. The Gilded Age painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler felt so exploited by his patron, Frederick Richards Leyland, that he vandalized a wall in Leyland’s home … More recently, a young patron-art dealer named Stefan Simchowitz has come under fire for flipping work repeatedly among a small circle of people to artificially inflate its price, and for underpaying artists who are financially strapped.”]
He has so much more than I do. It’s not fair.
You know who has a lot more money than I do? A whole, whole, whole lot of people. Some of them I know personally. Do I expect these rich people to write me a check every month to equalize our lifestyles? No, because I didn’t earn their money.
You are no longer married to this man. You do not get to enjoy a lifestyle you did not earn just because once upon a time you were attractive to a man who was able to provide a lifestyle higher than one you earned yourself. I don’t care if you are very, very beautiful, charming, from an impressive family or have a golden, fur-lined pussy. You are not entitled to anyone else’s anything if you did not earn it yourself.
He is free to go on and build and enjoy whatever lifestyle he wants. You are, too. That is the beauty of divorce. The sooner your bank accounts and homes are separate, the sooner you will both go forth, and hopefully, create happy lives.
Perhaps you have a career — even a very successful one — that happens to earn a lot less than your now-ex. Again, that is your choice. You chose that career, knowing its earning limitations. Your ex chose a different career — one with a higher cap. Perhaps you love your work, and he hates his. Do you owe him a slice of you professional fulfillment each month?
Now look, I know and, you know, the dismaying statistics around finance and women and divorce and moving on after you have been out of the workforce for a long time. Those numbers are real, and I hope that women far and wide read and heed those facts so that one day we can all stop talking about alimony and gender equality, and move on to repairing the environment and wealth disparity.
Here are some other facts: Women get on with it every single day. Figure it out. Start new careers, rejuvenate old ones. Launch and build businesses. They do incredible things. Things they never dreamed they were capable of. Things they could not imagine.
These women all have one thing in common: They are not entitled. They are not sitting around waiting for someone to hand them anything. They did not take anyone to court for what they felt entitled. They did not refuse to marry their longtime, live-in boyfriend so they would qualify for alimony (who are these greedy emasculated boyfriends? So much wrong here).
The women who thrive after divorce — including those who had little or no money of their own — hustled their asses off and got results. These women have something else in common. They will all tell you this: There is nothing as delicious as money you earn your own damn self.
This is not money for me; it is for the kids.
No, and you know that. Child support is for the kids; alimony is for the lessor-earning spouse to “maintain the lifestyle in which they are accustomed.” To fulfill that promise, you are putting untold energy, time and money into finding ways to get money from a man with whom you are no longer romantically involved. If you get that money, you will be forever financially dependent on him.
That isn’t a good look.
I was always taught that it is best for children and marriages when the mom stays home, and if the marriage ended, then we were protected by alimony. Now we are all SCREWED.
If you have been arguing with me as you read this, you are likely really angry at your ex, the world, and there is likely a deep sense of shame about decisions you made. I understand. I was a stay-at-home mom for about a year, and I decided to leave a high-paying career that I loved passionately, without any critical thought at all, because I blindly bought the presumption that being a full-time stay-at-home mom is what is best for children. Pew Research found that 40 percent of Americans believe it actually HARMS children when their mothers work outside the home!
Turns out, you and I were totally wrong. Research by Harvard’s Kathleen McGinn found, after studying 30,000 families in 20 countries, that both boys and girls with working mothers fared better than those with stay-at-home moms. And a University of Maryland meta-study of more than 30 other pieces of research concluded that after age 2, it doesn’t matter at all how many hours parents spend with their kids. Stunning. Totally against what we were taught, and what we assumed.
Which brings us to your point: This isn’t fair. It isn’t fair. You were fed one line, a path for success and family health, and you obediently obeyed. Then the script changed, you divorced, and you are left high and dry.
Here is what no one will say to you: I’m sorry, but too bad, you still have it damned good.
We are in the middle of a war on sexism. A revolution for gender equality. In war and revolutions, there are casualties. Historically, these casualties are lives and limbs and eyesight. Today, the fallout is that you might have to move from a large house to an apartment. Or from your own apartment to sharing a home with a relative or friend. You may have to work in a job below your education level. I imagine that is hard and embarrassing.
Yet, you are not dead or dismembered.
Here, in the divorce wars, the casualties are children — and it is all connected to money. Statistically, the #1 reason for divorced spouses returning to court, again and again, is alimony. When you are fighting with your ex, you cannot co-parent. When money is at stake, lesser-earning parents (moms) are prone to fight for unequal parenting time, so as to qualify for more child support. When parenting time is unequal, the lesser-time parent (dads), are statistically likely to check out of their children’s lives. Fatherlessness is a critical issue in this country. Money is central to it.
The goal is to raise young women and men to presume financial and logistical responsibilities for themselves and their children. That won’t happen if mothers and grandmothers are modeling financial dependence and presumed traditional gender roles. That won’t happen if young people do not see this model.
When you are going through the life-fuck that is divorce, you likely feel powerless. Every vertical of your life is in upheaval, and the sense of loss of control can be crippling.
The reality is that you have enormous power here. You have the power to focus on your beliefs and morals and act accordingly. When you tell your ex: “I know I can go after more of your money, but I won’t so we can both get on with this,” or “You know I am totally broke here, so if you can agree to pay me alimony for 18 months so I can get back on my feet, we can both move on with it already,” you are so powerful. You are expressing to him grace and maturity (even if he doesn’t deserve it, and I understand that he may not!). You are expressing to your children the importance of co-parenting, and therefore their well-being and security. You are telling every young woman who is watching you the importance of caring for her own financial self throughout her life. And you are modeling to everyone watching you the power of forgiveness and strength in the face of adversity — and that includes forgiveness of yourself.