In this Q. and A. for First Wives World, Lili Vasileff discusses the trend of women paying alimony and how that reflects on gender roles in marriage and divorce proceedings.
Question: Do you see women paying alimony as a new or increasing factor in divorce?
Answer: As men set their sights on women’s earnings, their entrepreneurial spirits, and sometimes, their celebrity value, women are increasingly finding the picture of so-called equality looking very strange.
The most recent study completed in 2002, reflects that 24% of working wives in dual income households earn more than their husbands. Add that figure to 6% of working women married to unemployed men, and you’ve got an amazing statistic – almost one in three married women makes more money than their spouses do.
And it’s not just high earning women whose paychecks trump those of their mates. In only 3% of the cases in which wives out earn their husbands are their salaries greater than $75,000, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This economic statistic is certainly a factor why women increasingly are paying alimony.
Q. Briefly what factors count toward the award of alimony in divorce?
A. In every state there are specific legal statutes for determining alimony. For example, length of marriage, occupation, relative income of both parties, education, health, age of both spouses at time of divorce, age of children, etc. These factors are weighed in each case and negotiated to arrive at term and amount of alimony.
Traditionally, alimony was awarded to the wife and paid by the husband. However, during the 1970’s and 1980’s judges began to award alimony to the husband depending upon the circumstances. Alimony is awarded to either spouse in an effort to maintain the standard of living that both parties were accustomed to during the marriage.
Q. So what may happen when she makes more than he?
A. As with any marriage, gender expectations and communication appear to be key as to whether it thrives or fails.
If a marriage is failing and heading toward divorce, it comes often as a surprise to many breadwinning women that they are at risk for paying alimony.
Q. Why are these women surprised to have to pay alimony if they earn more?
A. For one thing, it is a fairly recent phenomenon. Secondly, for many women who are breadwinners (in a failed marriage), it’s not as if they ever expected to out earn their husbands or do all of the heavy lifting or end up giving him spending money as you would do with a child. Usually, neither party saw this day coming – and neither really ever welcomed it. It snuck up on them.
Q. Are you suggesting that after all of our fighting for gender equality, that women may not view paying alimony as a gender neutral issue?
Exactly. In spite of her making more money than her husband, women often feel cheated by the legal system because it is possible that they have to reward a sit at home bum.
The wife’s sense of being the victim is intensified when children are involved. Even when some stay at home dads are excellent fathers, surveys confirm that women share disproportionately the burden of:
- arranging playdates,
- arranging after school child care
- scheduling medical appointments
- doing the housework and house chores
- setting the table and cooking
- soothing their spouse’s sense of worth and ego
In 2003 a team of Australian and US sociologists found that even when women earned 50% of the household income, they did over 40 hours of housework a week, nearly double that of their husbands. And the same study showed that when women start contributing more than 50% to family income, the amount of housework the husband actually does begins to fall and continues to fall as the wife’s earnings climb. And the really depressing part: when a woman is sole provider in her family, she often does even
more housework than when she only contributes half of total family income.
Q. Will women increasingly pay alimony?
A. The answer is probably yes. As a husband increasingly perceives alimony as his “right” and overcomes the perceptible stigma of accepting alimony, higher earning wives increasingly will pay alimony. However, the “uber” women may gradually better grasp their spouse’s entitlement to alimony when they begin to take hold of the power that being a breadwinner gives them.
It is a choice of free will to conclude that a breadwinning wife’s time and energy are equally valuable to her husband’s, both at work and at home. It is important to emotionally adapt to a new “power crisis” at home. Higher earning wives will continue to feel victimized in divorce unless they stop perpetuating dangerous gender roles and begin to value themselves and their time in the same way men do.