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Who Wears the Pants in Your Family?

Joy Rosenthal’s Mediation Blog

When I was growing up, the expectation for middle-class marriages (which were always between women and men) was that it was the man’s job to earn enough money to support the family, and it was the woman’s job was to have children and to contribute to the economy by spending money.  [Of course, I recognize that working-class women (particularly those of color) have always worked.]  Couples were expected to stay married for life, and it was very difficult to get a divorce.  If, on the off chance, the couple did get divorced, in most cases, the man was expected to pay alimony to his ex-wife for the rest of her life.

Expectations changed in response to the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 70s, as more middle-class women went to work and as divorce became more normalized.  In 1980, the New York State legislature overhauled some of the divorce laws in response to these changes and declared that, when it came to dividing up marital assets, “Marriage is an economic partnership.”  This is still the prevailing law. This theory rests upon the concept that non- financial contributions to the marriage are as important as financial contributions.  It recognizes that unpaid labor, such as childcare, housework, and organizing the family are significant parts of home life.  Over time, the alimony laws have also changed.  Now the higher wage earner must pay the lower wage earner, no matter which gender.  But perhaps the biggest change is that alimony is now expected to last only until the underemployed spouse can become self-supporting.

I’ve been surprised to find that many of the heterosexual couples I’ve worked with followed gendered stereotypes in family structure during the marriage. This is particularly true for couples where the man earns a large salary – for instance when he works in banking, finance or technology – and the woman is largely home with the kids. 

Often, she was smart and well-educated, and was managing the finances and starting a lucrative career before getting married.  But over time, she may take a back seat to her husband when it comes to managing the finances, and a widening gap emerges between them in terms of financial literacy.  She may be very involved in organizing the children’s activities, and can tell you everything about the children’s teachers, schoolwork and the expectations of the other moms.  But she may not be paying attention to how much the household budget is, the size of the credit card bills, and the cost of running the household.

This can be a fine division of labor for many couples.  However, it can also lead to stress, particularly if the couples don’t discuss their priorities and their goals, and if they have different values around saving and spending.  There was a terrific article that addressed this in the New York Times recently called “How to Make Your Marriage More Financially Equal” by Ron Lieber.  

But if the wage earner dies or the couple gets divorced, the wife may be at a huge disadvantage in terms of understanding and managing her financial circumstances.  

Naturally, this can be the source of tremendous fear and anxiety.   All of the sudden, the wife has to look for a job after being unemployed or under-employed for several years.  She has to understand what she will need to live on and how she can earn enough to make ends meet, how she can find a job that will allow her the flexibility to be with the kids after school and to work from home when the children are sick.  Remote schooling due to Covid has only made the situation more complicated.

[Of course, it is not always the wife who is in this position.  It may be a woman or a man in a same-sex marriage, or the man in a different-sex marriage.  But this can be devastating in any case.]

A Certified Financial Planner or a Divorce Financial Analyst may be of help, particularly if they have expertise in divorce.   These are advisors who can help someone in this situation understand what her resources are, what she needs, and to make a plan for closing that gap.  Savvy Ladies –, is a great resource geared to helping women gain financial literacy.  

Next time I will write about working with a financial neutral in a mediated or collaborative divorce.

It can be scary to face our financial reality when our circumstances change as drastically as they do during a divorce.  But there are tools available to help us see what we can and cannot afford.  All of us need to understand what is coming in and what is going out – and to have a realistic plan for meeting our needs.  All of us need to wear the pants in our families!



Joy Rosenthal

Joy S. Rosenthal, Esq. is a compassionate mediator, a skilled negotiator and an intelligent litigator with extensive background in the private and public sectors. Joy served as a Staff Attorney at the Legal Aid Society's Juvenile Rights Division for nearly 10 years, where she represented hundreds of children and teenagers… MORE >

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