Heartbreak

How Divorce Agreements Hurt Women

Photo: Photographee.eu / Shutterstock
couple considering divorce

My divorce papers have been signed and I’m mostly fine with them.

The injustice of it all enraged and wounded me during the negotiations, but it’s done now and I feel free — not so much free from my ex-husband, as I already felt disconnected before the papers were signed, but free from the brutality of the divorce process.

Am I thrilled? Definitely not. Satisfied? Meh.

RELATED: I Stayed In My Unhappy Marriage Because Of Money. That Only Hurt My Kids.

What I feel most of all is resigned.

To get to the finish line, I had to accept that I would never get as much money as I felt I was entitled to, and he had to accept that he would have to pay more than he felt was fair.

At some point, I reflected on the state of my sanity and decided enough was enough and I suppose he did too — that, and the hard, cold reality of mounting legal fees. We paid a dear price for our divorce, with money but also with the fury we lobbed at each other. That’s over now.

There’s this one little detail that rankles me though and try as I might, I can’t seem to shake it: the clause that addresses my potential remarriage or cohabitation.

When I first read it, my head reared back. It was so antiquated that I was certain my husband would agree to strike it from the contract: if I live with or marry another man, my husband will no longer be required to pay alimony.

We live in a world that often seems intent on going backward. As I watch in horror as what had seemed like the impossibility of Roe v. Wade being overturned becomes a very real prospect, I contemplate the meaning of “my body, my choice.” After divorce, do I not solely own my own body and mind and all decisions related to them? Well, no, not exactly.

Part of the money that my now ex-husband pays to me every month is spousal support. It is not back payment for services rendered but a legal nod to the fact that for twenty years, I ran our household and did the child-rearing while he financially supported us.

The intention of alimony is not to make me a kept woman, but to give me a chance to get on my own two feet.

Alimony has an expiration date, so I’m highly motivated to reestablish a career. I have a child at home who is young enough to require an adult here with her, so my freedom is not what my husband's was as he set on his path decades ago.

RELATED: 11 Struggles Only Newly Divorced Women Understand — That Get Better Over Time

To be clear: I want to work and I need to work, but I do not regret the years I stayed home with my kids.

As much freedom as it gave my husband, the gifts it provided to the rest of us were priceless. I was at every school pick-up, worked in the PTA office, and became a second mom to my kids’ friends.

My children, too, are grateful, for every afternoon they needed a shoulder to cry on and found me waiting in the kitchen, for every freezing day the school yard cleared out minus the small group of moms who huddled together, shivering, to give their city kids precious outdoor time.

That I was privileged to have done this does not make it palatable that my financial stability is slipping away.

I’m excited to see what I can do, but I’m also scared. 

Middle-aged women suffer financially after divorce: according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, women’s income is reduced by 41% after a divorce or separation at the age of fifty.

Was I spoiled by living in a four-bedroom apartment with a country house two hours away with spectacular views of the sunset? I was.

Advertisement Confused about your relationship? Get an Accurate Prediction today.

Does that make it easier to swallow that I now live in a two-bedroom apartment with three children and that the country house, where I once lovingly planted hydrangeas and blueberry bushes to watch them grow over the ensuing years, belongs to my ex? As the saying goes: we don’t know what we’ve got til it's gone.

I knew what I had, but didn’t know how much it would hurt to watch it all go away.

I called my husband and asked that we remove language in the divorce agreement about my future cohabitation or remarriage.

To my surprise, he refused, saying he was unwilling to financially support another man. But you wouldn’t be, you would be supporting me, I explained, and you’re assuming I will marry or live with someone who is able to take over my financial support.

Isn’t the purpose of this to give me a chance to become independent, not to assume that another man will take over? The answer: no, the purpose is to keep you afloat; if you’re with another man, keeping you afloat becomes his responsibility.

RELATED: Why I'll Never 'Get Over' My Divorce

Those words rattle around in my head, setting me in my place. I am not quite as independent as I would like to believe.

Yes, I have my own home now, but one I was able to buy only as long as I was still married to him. Yes, he deposits alimony and child support payments into my bank account and I spend that money as I need to without supervision from him.

But I cannot remarry or live with another man for the duration of my alimony unless I’m willing to give it up — which, let’s be very clear, I won’t be.

The thing is, I don’t want to live with a man or get remarried. I relish living on my own.

Still, a decade is a long time and I may well have a change of heart; the fact that I cannot do so without financial implications stuns me. I’m pretty sure my husband views it as, we’re both moving on and when you do so romantically, my obligation to you stops. I view it as I’m your burden only until I become another man’s burden.

If I haven’t convinced you yet that this is unfair, consider this: my ex-husband lives with his girlfriend, consequence-free.

He is entitled to do this because he is the breadwinner; the fact that we intentionally arranged our roles decades ago to create a family structure that worked for both of us limits me in my relationships but has no bearing on his.

He can move on however he likes, whereas I am bound by having given up my career and thus my financial autonomy. It served him well for many years, allowing him to have a family and a career; it served me well too as I was able to devote all my energy to our kids. But now it continues to serve only one of us well.

I once read a quote that you’re in trouble as soon as you use the “F” word in divorce — fair.

I’ve accepted all kinds of unfairness that affect my daily life. I know he feels he has to. The world is filled with horrible injustices and mine is but a gnat to be swatted away in the scheme of things.

But as women continue to fight for equality — equal pay, paid maternity leave, the right to choose — we also need to demand that we don’t suffer the consequences of divorce any differently than our husbands do.

RELATED: 6 Little-Known Benefits Of Getting A Divorce

Laura Friedman Williams is the author of Available: A Very Honest Account of Life After Divorce.  She writes a blog on Medium about parenting and relationships and is a frequent podcast guest on the subject of reinvention, particularly in midlife.  

Sign up for YourTango's free newsletter!

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.