A commenter called Guy recently described his desolation after his wife announced her decision to divorce. He asked how he could delay proceedings, because he didn’t want to “lose” his children. You can read my replies to him here. He isn’t alone. Other readers face similar plights. In the last few days I have found myself advising a woman who is the breadwinner in her family, and whose situation resembles Guy’s.
People in this situation are often unhappy to find themselves on the back foot. They bitterly complain at what is happening and resent having to fund the lifestyle of a stay-at-home parent with the proceeds of their hard work. The situation, as so many in their place will agree, tends to overlook their own contribution to household chores and childcare. They are in free fall and think that nothing can be done. They resign themselves to what seems like an inevitable set of financial consequences, as well as the loss of their children and home – all to a stay-at-home parent.
Welcome to the wonderful world of equality! We women have fought for years to have the same lifestyle as men, and now we have it. But having got it, women now don’t like it when the consequences mean that the stay-at-home husband can continue to be kept in relative comfort while they have to keep working. In fact, they find themselves in exactly the same position as the working husband with the stay-at-home wife.
Many divorcing couples don’t want to change what they do. They may go to work or stay at home (or more likely do both), but going forward they don’t see any need to alter their respective lifestyles.
So what of the working spouse who bitterly resents how the non-working spouse lives?
As a lawyer I would say there is no point in complaining about it. Instead they need to get a grip, focus and deal with it. They need to consider whether they can make a change to their lives. In short, they need to think about themselves and their needs, alongside obligations and responsibilities held to their families, and then see if it is possible to alter their lifestyle in a way that suits everyone.
My blunt advice to such clients usually comes as a surprise. Why, I ask, are they allowing themselves to be targeted as sitting ducks if they don’t like what is planned? Don’t they count too? Of course they do. The law must consider both parties’ reasonable needs within the context of the assets.
Usually, clients answer that they haven’t given themselves much thought. They weren’t aware that they do count. Caught up in what is clearly an emotional maelstrom, they feel that they have no option other than to keep going, earning the family’s money.
When a couple gets married, both of them will probably go out to work, at least initially. That decision may change as their circumstances change. Two breadwinners may become one main earner and one stay-at-home parent after babies arrive. This arrangement may be intended as permanent or temporary. Not every couple goes into fine detail about their future. Most are content to survive as best they can through the childrearing years. In my experience, however, few women are content for the stay-at-home husband to remain at home in perpetuity, without doing his bit to contribute financially. And some husbands feel the same way about their wives.
The working parent may also be deeply resentful of the stay-at-home parent’s lifestyle. He or she doesn’t stop being a parent when the front door closes at the beginning of the working day. There will be no sloping off for quick drink in the pub after work. Instead the working parent will rush home to spend time with the children, with no rest or relaxation until they are all safely in bed.
It’s an exhausting, thankless and relentless treadmill. Most couples tend to simply cope, rather than enjoy it. Trying to earn, and run a home and family, puts many couples under strain. It’s no surprise that many marriages crack up under the pressure, particularly during a recession.
Making a success of the work-life patter ultimately depends on the compatibility of the couple, and the strength of their relationship – especially when the typical roles are reversed. If a resentful working wife sees her husband enjoy being a stay-at-home parent, but to his lesser standards as opposed to hers, as she works all hours to survive, it’s all too easy to lose respect. Love inevitably flies out of the window as the easygoing guy she fell in love with becomes, to her mind, a sponging, lazy parasite.
Exactly the same can happen with the working man. I frequently receive comments like: “What does she do all day? Now the children are old enough, can’t she do something”.
And then, to add insult to injury, the working spouse (who may be working too hard to even think about the state of the marriage) can on presentation of a divorce petition be asked to divvy up the income and the capital, paying over more to the stay-at-home parent.
Of course some spouses don’t mind their different lifestyles. They have their roles and like them; they don’t want to swap. But many have an arrangement that only works, because it has to work. There is no choice.
And what may have worked pre-divorce in one home, may not work now. Parents may desperately want to spend more time with their children, so if the children come first rather than the money, they will come up with a sensible, workable arrangement that allows them to do it. You can’t be forced to work, staying in a job you hate just because it earns a lot of money. However there is no point in having your head in the clouds either. If you want to share childcare you must demonstrate that it can be done, rather than using it as an excuse to get out of paying spousal maintenance.
In these sorts of cases, when resentment bubbles to the surface, I think the answer begins with the consideration of the need for radical change. And that begins with the arrangements for the parenting of the children going forward.
If you want to parent your children, you will find a way to do so even if it means downsizing. And if you are deadly serious about parenting the children, don’t agree to move out of the home until arrangements are in place, or you may be perceived as abandoning your children.
Once parenting arrangements have been agreed, the stay-at-home spouse is free to start earning. Under s25 (2)(a) Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 the court can expect both parties to earn an income, and freed from the responsibility of all the child care a stay at home parent can also go out to work. You may agree to share your respective incomes because the back to work spouse may earn less, but either way it just might work.
And what do you need to provide?
Both parties need homes for themselves and the children, plus an income. Things will undoubtedly be tighter for most couples. But the change in lifestyle and the benefits to the children of two parents who are more hands-on and less resentful, may make for a happier family overall.
Alternatively, the resentful spouse may weigh up the options and decide that on balance, even if they choose to keep the job and maintain the family at a higher level, at least it will be through choice. Better that, than a decision that is simply imposed on them during a period in which they think they can do nothing about it.