Despite the persistent myth that men get fleeced in divorce proceedings, statistics show that women are much more likely to take a financial hit if their marriage ends — particularly if they have children. According to a study by Stephen Jenkins, a professor at the London School of Economics, fathers see an income boost of about 30 percent after getting divorced, on average, while mothers experience a 20 percent drop. Although divorce laws vary, the “divorce gap” remains pernicious — as evidenced by this 49-year-old marketing director in Brooklyn. Here, she talks about how her divorce got so expensive, and why there isn’t much she could have done about it.
At the time of my divorce, I was a director at a marketing agency. My now-ex husband was a hairdresser. There was a difference between our incomes right from the beginning of our relationship (I made a healthy six-figure salary) but he was successful. When I met him, he worked six days a week. I figured he would open his own salon one day. But after we got married and had a child, he started cutting back on his hours. He said he wanted to take care of our daughter, but he wasn’t. I’d come home from work and there would be bottles everywhere, and she’d be in the same diaper she was wearing when I left. He’d be playing computer games while she was watching Sesame Street. That’s not taking care of a kid, and that’s not being a good role model as a parent.
I tried to get him to keep working, but he wasn’t interested. His six days of work a week became five days became four days became three days. Before I knew it, he more or less wasn’t working at all, and I was supporting us. Our fights about money got worse and worse. The more I wanted him to go back to work, the less he wanted to do it. I think he felt a lot of resentment, and like he was being pressured into something that he never signed up for.
We had disagreements about money even before we were married. When he first moved into my apartment, I suggested he pay half the expenses. Then he said, “But it’s your apartment. If you sell it, what am I going to get out of it?” I wanted the relationship to work, so I said, “Okay, just pay half of the bills then.” So we split some of the bills, but not the expense of living there. And that became a hallmark of our relationship: I never felt like he was paying his fair share. After we got married, I had a lot of problems getting pregnant, which was another enormous expense that I paid for entirely, and that was another sore spot for me. He didn’t contribute at all. Whether or not he was right or wrong to do that, I wasn’t okay with it, but I wanted to brush it under the rug.
With money, people hear what they want to hear. I was driving us toward a lifestyle that he didn’t care about. He would tell me, again and again, “If you want that, it’s fine, but I’d be just as happy with something less expensive.” Maybe he just thought I would eventually stop wanting stuff, just like I thought he would eventually come around and be willing to help pay for it. Also, I was in love with him, and that clouded a lot of what I was able to hear and see.
When you get divorced in New York, the court seeks to preserve the lifestyle for all parties involved, and if you have one pot of money — in this case, me — that gets split between two households. All of a sudden, my salary started looking like a lot less. The fact that my ex was an able-bodied person who could have worked didn’t factor into it. I was “the monied spouse,” in the eyes of the law, and that played out very differently than I anticipated.
My ex was the one who served me with divorce papers. He wanted full custody of our child and he wanted to live in the apartment that I bought with my pre-marital money. In the end, I had to pay him partial attorney’s fees — so I had to pay for him to divorce me — as well as my own legal fees. I also had to pay for a court-appointed attorney and a therapist for our daughter, as well as a forensic evaluation of our entire family because my ex, in his claim that he should have custody, said that I was crazy and suicidal. If you accuse your spouse of being unstable in any way that affects the child, a forensic evaluator is called in to interview you, your spouse, and anyone in your immediate circle who has a connection to you. It might be grandparents, or close friends. Then they come up with a recommendation to the court based on what they find.
After all that, everybody — my daughter’s therapist, her attorney, and the forensic evaluator — believed very firmly that I should have custody. But it still cost me $250,000, and it was ruinous. I had to sell the apartment, at a loss, because I couldn’t afford to stay there. I even started to go into debt. If I had been willing to give up custody of our daughter, I might not have wound up in this financial situation, but there was no way I was going to budge on that.
After two years of battling, we almost went to court, but wound up settling right before the trial. I had wanted to settle all along. As soon as it was done, I said, “Look at the settlement proposal I emailed you right after you served me, before this fight started. You ended up worse off. You didn’t get anything that you wanted except that you ruined me financially. You would’ve gotten more time with your daughter, more of the house, everything. Everybody ended up in a worse situation.”
According to our settlement, I had to give my ex-husband two years of spousal support, $160,000 total, as well as 13 percent of the house and 50 percent of what I had put into my retirement fund during our marriage — 11 years. He also didn’t have to pay child support for two years, and after that, he only had to pay $500 a month, which was then reduced to $300 a month because he claimed he couldn’t work, since he’d stopped working for so long that he had lost his clients. I still bear everything except 9 percent of my daughter’s expenses — medical, everything. I pay 91 percent of them.
The real irony is, my ex is now working again, and doing very well for himself. He bought a house with the money that I gave him and lives there with his now-wife, while I am renting one. All my friends say I should take him back to court, to get him to pay more child support, but I don’t have it in me. After that fight, I can’t do any more.
Honestly, I don’t feel like there’s much I could have done differently, besides not agreeing to such a low amount of child support from him. I also wouldn’t have paid spousal support as a lump sum, which screwed me with taxes — I would have paid it gradually, so that I could write it off. Otherwise, there was no other way for it to go, in terms of the ultimate output of money. Lawyers cost what they cost. When it gets ugly and people start throwing out accusations, every time you turn around it’s another $25,000.
I haven’t recovered financially, but I think I’ve recovered emotionally. At one point, when we were splitting up, my ex-husband threatened me and said, “You’re going to be left with nothing. I’m going to make sure you have nothing at the end of this.” And he was right about that, financially, but he was wrong in that I have my freedom. I cried every day when I was married, and I don’t cry now. My daughter is doing incredibly well at school, and I don’t believe that she would be if he had custody of her. I’ve given her structure and support that he never would have provided. It was a bad marriage, and now it’s behind me.