Traditional assumptions about gender roles in marriages may be weakening in today’s marriages but they are going strong in divorce. Women don’t want to pay alimony. Frankly, men are uncomfortable receiving it. Women are often more reluctant than men to share their retirement savings or investments and more likely to think their soon-to-be ex-spouse will land on his financial feet. These may be generalizations but in most “gender reversal” divorces they tend to be true at least to some extent.
Despite the feminist movement, most divorcing couples in my practice report that they did not enter their marriages expecting that the wife would earn more than the husband. Higher earning wives often feel that they have both managed the family, raised the children and brought home the bacon and are displeased to say the least at the idea that they might be rewarded for all that work by sharing their hard-earned assets and with the ongoing financial obligation to support their ex-husband. On the other side, their husbands feel they have contributed to family by shouldering household responsibilities perhaps more so than did their fathers and should be recognized for those efforts.
Women have outpaced men in education and earnings growth in recent decades. As a result, there are a growing percentage of families in which the wife earns more than the husband. The Pew Research Center has concluded that the wife is the higher earner in roughly one third of all married households based on recent census data. If those statistics translate to divorce, in about one-third of all divorces, the wife may be the primary breadwinner.
The impact of gender reversal on marriages is not clear. The NY Times reported in 2010, “Over all, the evidence shows that the shifts within marriages — men taking on more housework and women earning more outside the home — have had a positive effect, contributing to lower divorce rates and happier unions.” However, anecdotally, many marriages appear to suffer including the recent split of Bethenny Frankel and Jason Hoppy whose marriage reportedly faltered because of the financial success she realized from her reality shows, bestselling books and Skinnygirl products. Mr. Hoppy allegedly saying in 2012, “My balls [were] cut off two years ago” referring to the disparity in their income.
Mr. Hoppy and other husbands like him may feel threatened by their wives’ success. Would asking for ongoing support from her compound the problem? In my experience, men do not want to feel dependent on their exes and women often fiercely believe their former husbands can and should be self-supporting. Inside and outside the courtroom, alimony is almost always a hotly contested topic in the negotiation of the terms of divorce. The challenge is heightened when the wife earns more money.