As More Women Become Breadwinners, They’re Also Stuck Paying Alimony
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If you haven’t ever tuned into A Girlfriend’s Guide to Divorce, the Bravo series that is about exactly what it sounds like only exponentially funnier, add that to your to-do list. (It’s on Netflix so you don’t really have an excuse.) If you have watched the series, which winds down after five seasons this summer, then perhaps you’ll remember the moment I’m about to pull out from the very first episode.
Lyla — a high-powered, high-rolling Los Angeles divorce attorney, played by the ever-acerbic Janeane Garofalo — is on a mini-rant about her ex and how he’s going after her money. “$50,000 I give that man a month and now he’s after my pension?” she says, furious. “All I need to do is prove him unfit. Then I get the kids and he can’t live off the child support.”
“He’s entitled to half,” her friend Abby retorts. “If he were a woman, you’d say the same thing.”
It’s a quick exchange that sets up a plot line of the first season — those are details for another day — but it also puts a fine point on an upward trend in breakup culture: While once it was almost exclusively men who paid their ex-wives spousal support after a split, these days, as women become higher-income earners and, increasingly, the breadwinners in their relationships, and the quest for gender equality continues to sweep across American culture, the dynamic has changed.
The tilt has been illustrated in the celebrity realm by the likes of J.Lo (who reportedly settled with her ex, Cris Judd, after nine months of marriage for millions) to Janet Jackson to Halle Berry ($16,000 a month to her ex, Gabriel Aubry!) to Britney Spears (according to sources, Spears and ex Kevin Federline are supposedly back at the negotiating table these days, more than a decade after their divorce, because he feels that the $1.3 million settlement he received, and the $20,000 in child support, are no longer satisfactory).
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Female celebrities are, unsurprisingly, the prominent faces at the front of this particular gender shift, not least because the world is watching when famous people get divorced. “Women in Hollywood are making big bucks and often attract a non-celebrity spouse who can never earn at the same pace,” explains divorce expert Vikki Zeigler, whom you may also recognize from her Bravo series Untying the Knot.
But it’s a phenomenon happening more often in the world at large, too, among people whose lives are more relatable. A 2018 study of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) found that 54 percent of the attorneys have cited an increase in the number of mothers paying child support during the past three years, while 45 percent have also seen a rise in women being responsible for alimony, and 78 percent saw an increase in parents having shared custody of children.
All of which makes sense. Over the last decade, a lean-in generation of women have come to command more power — and money — in the work world, while men slowly, but increasingly, take on more responsibilities in the domestic sphere. When it comes to spousal support, the specifics vary from state to state. But the law is neutral, not bent one way or the other when it comes to gender. The court of public opinion, however, is still deliberating on a loaded subject: fairness.
“I paid alimony. Whoever supports the marriage supports the divorce. It’s an equality thing and I had no problem whatsoever doing it,” explains Jane*, via Twitter.
But people, both men and women, don’t always see it that way, says Robert Wallack, a New York City-based divorce attorney with expertise in celebrity splits. Sarah* tells me that she expected neither to receive nor to pay alimony. “Marriage is a partnership, and when that partnerships ends, it feels unnecessary to support it, if there aren’t kids involved,” she says. “Personally, I always plan to work and would hope the same for my partner. Our successes and hardships can be shared as a couple, but when you part ways, it feels too close to continue to do that, especially from a monetary standpoint.”
But from a legal perspective, it all comes down to one question, says Wallack: “Shouldn’t it be fair, if the woman is earning much more than the man, for her to pay him, if it would be true the other way around?”
To better understand that question, you have to turn — where else? — to history. Hammurabi’s Code declared that a man must provide sustenance to a woman who had “borne him children”; far from baubles imbued with a promise of undying affection, engagement rings were originally symbols of ownership as well as an insurance policy for a woman whose value would be decimated if her betrothed broke things off.
America saw the rise of spousal support in the mid-century — “around the time that the courts had to do something to provide that a spouse, a wife, didn’t become destitute if her husband left her,” explains Wallack. The paradigm changed again in the 1970s, as “no-fault” divorces became a norm; ultimately, in the landmark 1979 case Orr vs. Orr, the Supreme Court ruled against gender bias in alimony awards — i.e. that laws that require only men to pay alimony are unconstitutional violations of the equal protection rights of men — and opened the door for men to seek it, too. The laws continue to evolve today.
Still, men receiving alimony is the exception to the rule. ““I have seen courts hesitant to force a high-earning woman to pay alimony to a man,” says Wallack.
But if women desire equality at work, at home, and in their relationships, then it reasons that they should accept it in their divorces, right? The answer is, in modern parlance, complicated. “Women feel as though they are tasked with doing it all,” says Zeigler, “paying their soon-to-be alimony from their hard-earned employment, especially when they have a stressful job and work late nights and weekends; tasked with all of the children duties; scheduled and attending pediatrician and dental appointments, enrolling the kids in activities, scheduling playdates, and shopping for their clothes, snacks, and more.”
Her point is that even as parents increasingly share joint custody of kids in situations where women out-earn their former partners, the lion’s share of work still, often enough, falls on women’s shoulders. Bluntly: Men don’t always feel the same societal pressure that women do to both take care of the kids full-time and hold down a full-time job — and women paying child support, or maintenance, may resent an arrangement where they work, jointly share custody and responsibilities for the kids, and continue to support their ex-partner for however long the arrangement is set to last.
“Add to that the gender wage gap, and the fact that for every dollar a woman has to pay to her ex-husband, she has to work that much longer, and it is certainly a bitter pill to swallow,” Arthur Ettinger, co-chair of Greenspoon Marder’s New York Family Law Group, says.
Sometimes, paying that support stings — but it’s still easier than fighting for what seems “fair.” When *Kara and her ex decided to divorce, they agreed to split things pretty equally. They sold the condo they shared, and she gave him back the money from the deposit, which had originally come from his mother. The stress of the divorce, and the affair she later found out he’d been engaged in, ultimately contributed to him losing his job. Her former husband, who had been the breadwinner through the early years of their relationship, then asked the court to award him alimony payments, until he found another job.
“I was annoyed because he had been making more than I had, and had spent a large chunk of what should have been shared assets on on his affair, unbeknownst to me,” she explains. But it was difficult, and exhausting, to prove anything. In the end, Kara and her lawyer decided it would be more cost-effective to just pay her ex and move on. “I wrote him a check for $1,500 for about six months, mostly just to get the whole thing over with,” she says.
While just a few years ago, though, a woman who questioned the “fairness” of the alimony might have been stereotyped as an “angry ex-wife,” that attitude is adjusting. As we continue to reckon with the discrimination that women face at work, and the imbalance of labor that persists at home, their frustrations may be, increasingly, perceived with more validity.
In Kara’s case, she notes, it was interestingly the men in her life who were the most appalled by what was happening. “My male friends, who I thought would react one way, were actually pissed off for me about it.” She suspects that it’s because it offended them, “as a gender.”
What hasn’t changed is this, says Zeigler: “Marriage is a tricky proposition. Know the laws in the state in which you reside, and get good tax advice as well as estate planning and family law input.” In other words, it’s best to go into it — and out — with your eyes wide open.
*Names have been changed.