The De-Gendering of Divorce: Wives Pay Ex-Husbands Alimony Too

Women who outearn their husbands are not so willing to accept the old obligations of spousal support when the marriage ends

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Divorce papers filed by singer Britney Spears in Los Angeles Superior Court on November 7, 2006

Not long ago, after giving a talk about the growing number of women who are breadwinners in their marriages, I was approached by an audience member who identified herself as a lawyer. She said that she was definitely seeing this trend in her practice — nearly 40% of working wives now outearn their husbands — and that while economic power is a good thing, overall, for women, it can have one negative outcome many don’t anticipate. Among her divorce clients, she said, more and more were women who found themselves ordered by a court to pay spousal support to ex-husbands. “And boy,” she said, “are they pissed.”

(MORE: The End of Alimony: How American Divorces Are Changing)

That these women are angry is to be expected: men don’t like paying alimony either, and writing a check every month has long been, for men, one of the prime impediments to postmarital bliss. But their reaction also suggests that women, while eager to benefit from progress and expanded opportunities, are not so willing to accept the more painful consequences of our success. What’s sauce for the gander is, alas, sauce for the goose. It may or may not make it easier on these check-writing ex-wives to know that they are part of a larger movement: the degendering of alimony and divorce, which is a natural outgrowth of the degendering of roles in marriage.

Once upon a time, the point of alimony was clear: it recognized the essential deal underlying marriage back in the days of “separate spheres,” when it was a husband’s role to provide, and a wife’s role to stay home, raise the children, run the household and enable the husband to be hard-working and high-earning. The economist Gary Becker famously argued that this was how couples maximized their efficiency: dividing the labor enabled both to succeed in their respective spheres. When marriages fell apart, alimony provided legal and economic recognition of the fact that a wife had sacrificed her earning power to maximize that of her husband and enhance the welfare of their family.

(MORE: Women, Money and Power: How Women’s Wealth Is Changing Society)

Now that the separate-spheres marriage has been replaced, in many cases, by the dual-earner version, there is a move to abolish permanent alimony altogether. As this TIME story documents, in some states the crusade is being supported by second wives, many of them working women, appalled that their earnings (in some cases) are going to pay the alimony of first wives who stayed at home to raise children. The animosity between those two groups is in some ways one more iteration of the mommy wars — the lingering gulf that exists between women who work outside the home and women who work within it. But it’s also a sign that the bargain of marriage has changed and splintered; there can be any number of deals now, including deals where the mom stays home; deals where both spouses work; and increasingly, deals where the woman is the primary earner. The ranks of stay-at-home dads are small, but they have doubled in the past decade. And in dual-earner marriages, there are more and more where it’s the wife whose career takes center stage and the man’s that becomes supplementary.

(MORE: TIME’s Exclusive Excerpt of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In)

As a result, it’s not only women who are wrestling with new emotions: after publishing a book on female breadwinners, I also heard from a bank administrator who quit his job after his first child was born, enabling his wife to more fully pursue a lucrative career as a lawyer. He said that he loved and trusted his wife, but sacrificing his career and paycheck did make him feel “rather vulnerable.” Just as women may find themselves angry, men may find themselves uneasy, as both sexes get used to the fact that some of the old patterns will persist, shorn of gender, and so will some of the old obligations.

78 comments
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KathyMorris
KathyMorris

I suspect that most; if not ALL of the men presenting comments here even pay alimony, or evr have....much less know how it is to be a woman in a man's world.

Thus.....your opinions are ignorant and mean nothing.

BrianKFrancis
BrianKFrancis

@KathyMorris you are the most obtuse person i know. despite all the efforts made to promote women you still say its a man's world while women are now thriving, pay up just as you expect men to its simple common sense, the law is a double edged sword, suck it in

DatteHakamura
DatteHakamura

So NOW that women are affected too, there's talk of reform? Only now? Society (and women) doesn't care about men. It's sick.

MGTOW

cjn159u
cjn159u

It's funny that when the tables are turned it's considered outrageous. It IS outrageous, but it may take a little more outrageous for it to be acknowledged by the public.
 Even then I feel nobody should be providing for ANYBODY, it shouldn't be anyone's job to provide for another after the relationship is over.

BrianKFrancis
BrianKFrancis

@cjn159u if by some chance and i hope not that u are in the same position, that you don't demand alimony.....

NannetteCobb
NannetteCobb

Lifetime Alimony keeps an adult former spouse forever dependent, paying often times two or three times the length of a marriage. Lifetime Alimony is often awarded to second, third and childless marriages, it's not reserved for first wives that stayed home to raise children. Doesn't matter who files for the divorce, the lower earning spouse will be awarded Lifetime Alimony on Marriage 9 years and up...if the laws were fair than why the outcry for reform? Lifetime Alimony is routinely awarded when the higher earning spouse is at the top of their earning potential, it does not allow for aging, illness and job loss, then the payee must decide jail or pay to play in our court system....time for end dates on all divorces.

RobGenaa
RobGenaa

I would NEVER pay alimony. My jobs would be CASH jobs and all my assets would be in the name of a trust. I would quit working and live in a box under a bridge before I would pay an American parasite a dime!


But that's just me, America is full of whiny manginas who would rather be slaves and pay and gripe rather than do the courageous thing and get themselves free.

RobGenaa
RobGenaa

This article is basically irrelevant as over 96% of those paying alimony are men. It does show how when a small handful of women have to pay men, FOR ONCE, NOW it needs to be done away with. That's eeekwalitee for you.

KathyMorris
KathyMorris

You are very opinionated for someone who "would never pay alimony".....so obviously doesnt so your opinion means nothing.

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devilfish
devilfish

96 percent of all people who pay alimony are men. Only 4 percent of them are women even though in today's society which is far from equal is still closer to equality than it ever has been. Women make 80 percent what a man makes and 34 percent of all marriages show that the women make more money than their husbands. And yet, I know at least one woman who is  trying to skirt her responsibilities and  is not willing to divide assets equally after marriage. 

JustinTC
JustinTC

@devilfish Actually women have closed and reversed the pay gap and nowadays (2014) most women earn more than most men.

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SheilaTaylor
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PAI never believed in permanent alimony. I worked since I could babysit at age 12 and continued to work full time, sometimes working two jobs, my entire adult life. My ex-spouse was not so energetic. So when he left me, after 25 years, for another woman, I was stunned to discover that, because I made more as a nurse, I would be required to pay him alimony! I have subsequently learned that there are many others, including women, who are forced to endure this painful and unjust sentence. I am dedicated to support alimony reform in NJ and look forward to a day when we can be free.

KathyMorris
KathyMorris

Your situation and mine sound very similar with a few differences. I left him....but I also am nurse, and he didnt work for 10 years of our 20 year marriage and got disabilabled due to health issues related to obesity about 2 years before I left, and I get to pay for him a retirement plan that he did not earn.

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KathyMorris
KathyMorris

Wow.........do you have a psychiatrist? .......

ZimbaZumba
ZimbaZumba

Feminist jurisprudence coming round to bite them in the butt, ha ha.

atandasulli
atandasulli

Well then - they're not really feminists. 

RobGenaa
RobGenaa

@atandasulli I have never met a REAL feminist. Women ALWAYS seek the benefits that their gender will yield for them, 100%!


Some like to pretend that they are egalitarian but that's called denial, as they ALL take female privilege without even thinking about it.

JustinTC
JustinTC

@RobGenaa I've never met a "real" feminist either. Apparently they're like unicorns or something.

KathyMorris
KathyMorris

It sounds like you find humor in this......so, why?

Do YOU pay alimony???

I was never part of the feminist movement....couldnt care less, and i would never stoop as low as to expect any man to pay for me to live a certain lifestyle.

I dont support it for men OR women.

KathyMorris
KathyMorris

REALLY????

Dang.........you seem so very knowledgable about what women want.....so, how did you acquire all of this vast knowledge???

KathyMorris
KathyMorris

And from what life experences are you speaking of???

KoldKrush
KoldKrush

So all was well when men were the only ones forking over thousands to an ex wife but now since a small number of women are speaking up because THEY got the shaft in divorce court it is all of a sudden a problem? I don't think alimony should have ever existed to be honest because adults should pay their own way and children already get child support and that is perfectly fair. Its just ridiculous how NOW its and issue because women realize that they too can be forced to pay. The same thing happened with Halle Berry and her model ex husband. Women were ready to rip him to shreds. Hypocritical much?

At this rate marriage will be completely obsolete.

KathyMorris
KathyMorris

Not ALL women ever supported alimony!!!

Some of us have enough pride not to ever ask. Dang MAN for anything....and guess what?

It is likely those of us who would not have ever sought it from a man, that are paying it to the man!!!