The chances are fairly good that if you are a woman with school-age children and you are looking at getting divorced, you are facing a drain on your financial resources with no fast recovery in sight.
While marriage generally has a positive effect on financial health—due in part to tax incentives and thousands of laws that favor married couples—divorce is like trying to maintain a house that’s falling apart, money going out faster than it can come in. While sociological studies show that the net worth of each person in a marriage increases 77 percent over the years, that net worth starts to drop four years before divorce. Divorcees experience an average wealth decline of 77 percent.
And what divorce does to a woman is generally worse, because far more than not, women end up as the primary caregivers for a couple’s children, and children—while fulfilling and precious to women and men alike—are also expensive. Since this is a website for women, it would be easy to dismiss that statement as biased, but of the 13.6 million single parents in the United States, only 16 percent of those are single dads.
Divorce takes women with children’s financial resources and chops them in half and then adds expenses like a reduction sauce to the leftovers. For women without paid work of their own and full-time custody of their children, it is often a low-income existence, with approximately one in five women becoming impoverished as a result of divorce. Add to that the fact that, while they’re still married, women are more likely than men to leave paying jobs outside the home to care for the children, thereby siphoning off their financial independence and their workplace skills. And if they needed to file for disability, their lack of “points” in the workforce can later lead to a denial of such claims, leaving them hamstringed by health issues as well as poverty and the lack of mobility that comes with daily childcare.
“While the downturn and the weak economy of recent years have eliminated many of the jobs women held, a lack of family-friendly policies also appears to have contributed to the lower rate. In a (poll) of nonworking adults aged 25 to 54 in the United States, conducted recently, 61 percent of women said family responsibilities were a reason they weren’t working, compared with 37 percent of men,” write Claire Cain Miller and Liz Alderman of the New York Times. “Of women who identify as homemakers and have not looked for a job in the last year, nearly three-quarters said they would consider going back if a job offered flexible hours or allowed them to work from home.”
Pair that inclination to choose child-rearing over career and cost-crippling daycare (or at least the decision to postpone careers until the children are older) with the changing requirements of the work force, and then, add in the tendency in the U.S. toward employment policies that do not favor families or flexible schedules. According to Miller and Alderman, 1993 was the last time the U.S. Congress passed legislation that was family-forward, providing certain workers with 12 unpaid weeks with their newborn babies. All combined, and you have divorced American mothers with a stunted ability to make money.
“Women who worked before, during, or after their marriages see a 20 percent decline in income when their marriages end, according to Stephen Jenkins, a professor at the London School of Economics. His research found that men, meanwhile, tend to see their incomes rise more than 30 percent post-divorce. Meanwhile, the poverty rate for separated women is 27 percent, nearly triple the figure for separated men,” writes Darlena Cunha for The Atlantic in April 2016.
“The main reason women suffer the brunt of divorce’s financial burdens, according to Jenkins, is that during marriage, they are more likely than men to stop working in order to raise kids. ‘The key differences are not between men and women, but between fathers and mothers.’”
But here’s what’s interesting: the research also indicates that women will ask for that divorce anyway, despite the financial strain of it.
In 2015, one Psychology Today source cites a study of more than 2,000 heterosexual couples, stating that women initiated nearly 70 percent of divorces. Another source claims 80 percent. And if newer research is to be trusted, women may have less money and more limited ways to make it after divorce (which does change and can continue to improve, if slowly), but they are also discovering happiness is the surprise that awaits them.
The Huffington Post published a July 2013 article featuring research from London’s Kingston University—research that spanned 20 years and drew feedback from more than 10,000 United Kingdom residents between the ages of 16 and 60. Researchers asked subjects about their happiness before and after certain life events, including divorce. Women generally reported being more content than usual for several years after their divorces, leading the study authors to theorize that:
Women who leave unhappy marriages may end up feeling more unshackled by the break-up than men.
Another survey of 1,060 divorcees discovered that 53 percent of women said they are “much happier” after divorce—using words like “glad,” “celebration,” and “excitement”—while only 32 percent of the men interviewed made the same claim. Other writers have noted that 35 percent of U.K. women surveyed in 2018 said that they felt “less stressed” following the termination of their marriages, and while only 15 percent of men felt higher self-esteem post-divorce, 30 percent of women felt a boost in that regard.
So, what divorce often does to a woman is leave her struggling financially but coming through a divorce also seems to have the effect of making women feel stronger, more alive, and more authentically themselves.
For myself, neither my Ex of 13 years nor I have children of our own, though he is now a stepparent. (I never wanted to be a mother, so this is a happy circumstance for me, though I understand the profound pull to motherhood and respect it—especially if it’s done with thoughtfulness, self-knowledge, and preparation.) He and I had always kept separate bank accounts, yet shared the mortgage and bills equally, and we ended our partnership well, with our friendship intact and financial benefits on both sides. I’m very, very fortunate in this. We ended our partnership because we wanted to be happy and knew we’d taken that path as far as we could with each other. It’s difficult to speak legitimately to what children need when you don’t have any, but I do think that children benefit from having parents who are whole and authentically happy, not just making do, or, far worse, hiding the bruises or crumbling under the insults.
But whether you have children or not, it’s important to understand how divorce can affect your finances. In a 2017 article in The Guardian, a woman named Tracey McVeigh said that, “If I had any advice for women now thinking of getting married, I’d say never, never, never give up your financial independence. No matter how difficult it may seem, keep one toe in the water: it may make the difference between sinking and swimming.” We want you to swim, always. No matter where you are on your divorce journey, keep your head above water.
Jennifer Bent is a freelance writer and former journalist living on the West Coast. Nicknamed Verbose at a young age, she loves word craft but has to keep a short leash on her fondness for the profane. Jennifer enjoys her cat’s input on her rough drafts (talk about snark) and the freedom of being her own partner. Connect with Jennifer here.
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