Divorce is hard for women because we want men to pay our bills

I am endlessly fascinated by why we think about money the way we do. I view money like sex or food – it is just one part of everyday life that can be used to create a wonderful existence. Or we can use it to destroy ourselves. The path we chose has something to do with societal messages, how our parents messed us up or didn’t, and the type of people we are at our core. When someone says, “Gosh, I’m just lousy with money! What can you do?” I just don’t buy it.

Kate Levinson, PhD, thinks about these same things – a lot. She is a therapist specializing in money issues, and the author of Emotional Currency: A Woman’s Guide to Building a Healthy Relationship With Money (Random House, 2011). Last week Kate and I had a fascinating discussion about the mental and emotional pitfalls that divorcing women often face, and why money fears keep us in bad places.

Why do women become so paralyzed with fear about money when they face divorce? Even professionally successful women?

It is so internalized that we are the dependent gender. It is how we are acculturated. There is a part of us that wants to be taken care of, no matter how much money we make. Because of that, women often stay in disagreeable or abusive situations because they can’t get past this fantasy of being taken care of financially – and see that they can make it on their own.

I find that hard to accept. Here we are, second- and third-wave feminists and at least the second generation of women being raised by single mothers. We outnumber men in the workplace and universities, etc. And you are telling me that we still want some guy to pay our bills?

There are a lot of conflicting messages.

Every person has an underlying need to be taken care of. For many women, that means cared for financially. It goes back to that primitive belief that men go out and hunt and women stay home and gather, and women are the masters of the homeplace. If we want to stay home for some years and take care of young children, we need a man to care for us financially.

We get these traditional gender-role message alongside messages that we can succeed professionally and academically. Historically very few women earned enough to support herself and her children. It will take several more generations for us to accept these new gender roles.

So what happens to these fantasies and messages when we face divorce?

The fantasies we have about how we want our lives to be are powerful. It feels like a failure when a marriage fails. Also, we don’t have a lot of images about women making it on their own financially – especially with children. When facing single motherhood, women immediately think about welfare moms living on the street. That is why it is so important to connect with other women in similar situations and seek help and support.

I know I’ve felt compelled to do everything on my own. And that is just not reality – I need practical help in terms of child care and household help, but I also need other people around to help me love my kids and support me emotionally. Talk to me about single moms and getting the support we need.

There is that message in American culture that you should be able to do it on your own, and that just isn’t how people operate. I’ve seen women feel guilty because their ex-husbands pay child support, and many women feel it is a failure if they accept help from their parents or a friend or colleague. We are social, communal beings, and we are not meant to be alone.

Women are naturally supportive of one another, and inherently good at building networks and communities. It is a survival skill to figure out what you need, then ask for help. Our friends want to be there for us. And we need people around us who are supportive and encouraging, and can help us see that a tough time won’t go on forever

In my own experience, as well as what I have seen in other recently divorced, professional moms, women can really thrive in their careers and income when they are removed from bad relationships.

Money motivates us. When we’re on our own we can find ourselves more motivated to take risks and opportunities than when things were cushier.


Emma Johnson

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.

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