Family mediator Rosanna Breitman tackles one of the thorniest issues facing couples in the separation and divorce process—spousal support and whether a stay-at-home parent should be able continue to stay off work indefinitely. Here’s a look at the differing points of view that make support such a sore point after a relationship ends.
Spousal support. Child support. How much is owed? For how long? What about extra expenses? When does the support recipient have to “step up” and start making more money instead of continuing to rely on her ex? Not only is this one of the most common constellation of issues faced by my divorcing clients, it is usually one of the most contentious.
Why is financial conflict so difficult to resolve? If the poorer spouse and the kids clearly need support, shouldn’t the richer spouse just agree to pay? Shouldn’t it be as simple as making a budget and figuring out how to fairly divide the overall income “pie?”
If financial conflict were only about money, then yes, it would be very simple to resolve these issues. The problem is that in reality, financial conflict is usually just the tip of a huge iceberg; below the surface lurks major anger and resentment fuelled by years of relationship conflict.
When my clients describe their financial conflicts to me, they do so in the context of their own particular values and worldviews. In other words, there is a lot of emotional baggage attached to these discussions. Their conflicts are not simply described in terms of dollars and cents. Instead, they wrap their stories in intense emotion, exposing years of pain, disappointment, and inability to find common ground. They attach moral significance to their actions and views, as well as those of their spouse. They become visibly angry or despondent when discussing these issues.
A lot of the time, financial disputes are over minor things that have been blown out of proportion by the emotions they’re feeling. For example, a woman may want her ex to pay a bill of something they bought together but then he let her keep her engagement ring (which he doesn’t have to do). She can just look to sell the engagement ring quickly and use the money to pay the bill. Sometimes emotions are running too high to realize the simpler option.
Fortunately, unlike court, the mediation process provides them an opportunity to gain insight about what’s blocking them from moving towards resolution, which is generally this: People have very different values, and the very differences in values that pull them into conflict during the marriage become magnified, creating even deeper conflict during the separation and afterwards.
Notwithstanding this obvious fact, people who are separating can be very unrealistic, and often wrongly expect that if they make a persuasive enough argument, their ex-spouse will, at long last, magically see the light and agree on the “right” settlement. In reality, it just doesn’t happen this way. If anything, people dig in their heels even more after separation, because there’s even less incentive to “be nice” once there’s no longer any hope of staying together.
No, the way to achieve a settlement is not to make the most brilliant argument possible while trying to make the other person look like a total loser. That’s not how you resolve your case—that’s how you fight your case in court.
If you really want resolution, a good starting point is to choose a non-adversarial process like mediation as a forum for discussing these highly emotional issues. One of mediation’s many benefits is that it often enables divorcing spouses to gain significant insight, ultimately coming to realize that their values – and their ex’s values – around work, money, and childrearing are deeply rooted in their childhoods, personalities, and life experiences, and may differ dramatically. They come to realize that neither person is “better” or “worse,” “right” or “wrong”—rather, they can acknowledge that have both done their best, using the tools that they had in their incomplete toolboxes, to make the marriage work, and they can both share the blame for the fact that it didn’t.
In contrast, people who choose to blindly believe that their views are “right”, without seriously stopping to consider the views of others, are primed to take extreme positions, and to denigrate those who don’t share their views. I have worked with many clients who have made this mistake. Sadly, just as extreme religious values can drive some people to kill those who don’t share their beliefs, blind adherence to subjective “values” or “principles” can drive some people to try to destroy their former spouses in court. That’s tragic, especially for the kids.
So how do you break an impasse over financial values without going to court? In order to do this, you need to make the essential shift from viewing your values as “right” and the other person’s as “wrong” to viewing your values as subjectively meaningful to you, and your ex’s values as subjectively meaningful to him or her, and then find a way to balance the two so that you can both live with the settlement. You also need to consider what the likely legal, financial, and emotional fallout will be if you fail to do this—that’s usually pretty good incentive to find some common ground.
Sounds like a tall order, I know, and it’s easier said than done, but with the right professional support, it’s actually very doable.
Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. The following exchange between a fictitious couple, “Kevin” and “Suzanne,” is typical of financial disputes I often encounter in my mediation practice. It illustrates the extent to which financial conflict can be wrapped up with the often wildly different worldviews, or values, of two very different people. As you read Kevin and Suzanne’s points of view, you’ll see that they aren’t just arguing about support here—they’re venting their anger over an emotional impasse that has existed almost as long as they’ve been married.
Kevin: “My ex-wife, Suzanne, feels that she’s entitled to be a stay-at-home mom forever. That was fine when our kids were young and we were still married. But now that we’re divorcing, it’s unrealistic of her to expect me to keep supporting two households. Not only can I not afford it, it’s not morally right, especially since she was the one who left me. Actions have consequences and she needs to face the consequences of her decision!
“I was a good husband. I never cheated on her. I acknowledge that I worked very long hours and travelled a lot, and I know I wasn’t around much. But we agreed that I would be the breadwinner and that she would stay home with the kids. There’s a price to be paid for that. And frankly, I paid most of the price. It’s incredibly expensive and stressful to support a family singlehandedly in 2016 in a city like Toronto. I don’t think she understands that. I made huge sacrifices. I missed out on the kids’ childhoods. I know Suzanne thinks I didn’t prioritize the family, but that’s not true. It killed me to miss out on so much. But I kept my feelings to myself, because I’d willingly taken on my role and I didn’t want to complain.
“What thanks do I get? She throws our life away—and now she wants to have it both ways. Well, she can’t. The days of her sponging off of me are over. Anyway, what does she do all day? Go to Starbucks? Go to yoga? Enough with the life of leisure. The kids are in school full-time now, and it’s time for her to step up and become a contributing member of society, like all the other working moms out there.”
Now let’s hear Suzanne’s side
Suzanne: “Kevin is insisting that I go back to work full-time just because the kids are in school. But he was the one who wanted me to be a stay-at-home mom, and he agreed that it was best for our kids. When we were together, he worked 80+ hours a week and was always travelling on business; I did 100 percent of the child rearing. And during that time, my mom was dying. I was her main caregiver, as my parents were divorced and I’m an only child. I’d drag the kids to the hospital night after night to visit her. It was too much. I was barely surviving.
“I begged Kevin to find a different type of work, as I was physically and emotionally exhausted, and felt emotionally alone in the marriage. I needed him to be my partner, not just a wallet. But he refused. He couldn’t tear himself away from the office. He said his company needed him.
“After my mom died, I was diagnosed with depression, and he was completely unsupportive. He kept telling me to just snap out of it. That’s when I realized that he really didn’t care about the kids and me—his career didn’t just come first, it was the only thing that mattered to him. I’d had enough. With the support of my therapist, I ended the marriage. He was furious.
“Now he wants to punish me for leaving him by forcing me to get a job. I’m trained as a teacher. I’ve been out of the workforce for eight years. How am I going to find a job? And how am I going to work full time when my kids are six and eight and I have absolutely no help with parenting? Should I put them in daycare or get a nanny? What’s the point of working if most of my after-tax income goes to child care? He makes over $300,000.00 per year. He can easily pay support. It just doesn’t make sense!”
Suzanne’s side, obviously, is very different from Kevin’s, and their stories clearly reflect their differing values. Now, if these parties were in front of a judge, and if all of these facts were true, Suzanne would clearly be entitled to generous support for quite a long time. This would probably be a very simple case for a judge to resolve. But as we have discussed, these conflicts are not really about “the law.”
The real problem here is that Kevin and Suzanne were (or became, at some point in their marriage) a total philosophical mismatch. Although Kevin seems to have some regrets about the long hours he’s put in, he was willing to accept a status quo in which he and Suzanne virtually lived separate lives for years on end. Suzanne was not willing to accept this status quo.
Could there have been a way to reconcile their differences while they were still married? Maybe, but only if the parties had really made the effort to hear each other. Since Suzanne was the one who was so unhappy, Kevin could have tried much harder to hear and understand where she was coming from, and could have been much more appreciative and respectful of the non-financial contributions she made to the marriage.
But by failing to acknowledge the 70+ hours per week that Suzanne spent actively parenting their children, running the household, and supporting him behind the scenes so that he was free to work as much as he wanted, Kevin blew it during the marriage, and is now blowing it during the legal negotiations. He probably hasn’t thought about what kind of impact it would have on the kids if she were to return to work in the midst of the divorce, or whether it is even financially worthwhile. As far as he is concerned, the only pursuit that has any value is paid employment.
This moral judgment may be subjectively true for him, and if so, it would certainly explain why work is the sole focus of his own life. But Suzanne’s values are obviously very different, and she’s been beating Kevin over the head to try to get him to respect how essential it has been for her to be there for the children.
Unfortunately, their legal battle misses the point, which is that this clash of values didn’t just become an issue after Kevin and Suzanne separated. Their failure to bridge this gap is the very reason why they separated. And unless they take joint responsibility for this failure, they will never resolve their legal issue without the intervention of a judge.
Kevin is hurt, angry, and feeling vengeful. Suzanne is hurt, angry, and feeling vulnerable. This scenario is either a perfect storm for aggressive lawyers with dollar signs in their eyes, or an opportunity for Kevin and Suzanne to take equal responsibility for the failure of their marriage, to understand that although they disagree, each person’s reality is subjectively true for him or her, and to take joint responsibility for finding a fair and legally appropriate solution to their joint problem.
The latter path is certainly not easy, but it is far easier and more satisfying, in the long run, than the alternative. It’s the path most likely to lead to true healing. And once people can heal from their marital wounds, they can move on with their lives. Closure, after all, is a goal that appeals to almost everyone, no matter what their other values may be.
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