Jennifer* is not a happy soul. She has faced a heap of challenges at work and her extended family has been – how shall I say this – difficult. To make matters worse, she’s married to a guy who doesn’t treat her very well. Just to be clear, he’s not verbally or physically abusive, he just doesn’t pay much attention to her. It doesn’t help that his work takes him away from the family home an awful lot, leaving Jennifer to care for their young children and manage the household pretty much alone. Whenever Jennifer speaks about him or her marriage, it’s clear that she is very unhappy.
“I don’t understand why she stays with him,” said my husband Mark one night while we were discussing a recent turn of events in Jennifer’s life.
The answer to Mark’s question, sadly, is one that’s true for far too many women. It’s possible that Jennifer feels she has to stay for financial reasons; she simply cannot afford to go out on her own. While she does work, her income is a tiny fraction of her husband’s and it wouldn’t come close to covering expenses for herself and her children if she were to walk away. Yes, she would doubtless get some form of financial support from her husband in the event of a divorce, but we know from the statistics on women and divorce that life in her situation (i.e. income level) would not be a picnic. Her workload and stress would shoot up and there would be no financial back-up.
My question in reply to Mark was this: “I wonder if she would stay with him if she were to win the lottery?” My money would be on “no”.
We all know by now that financial windfalls are not the solution as most lottery winners fritter away their jackpot within a couple of years. For the moment, forget about that. I just want to create a scenario in which money isn’t an issue. If we took money out of the picture, would Jennifer stay?
Tongue firmly in cheek, Mark quipped, “Would you keep me if you won the lottery?” I couldn’t bring myself to pull off one of my usual smart-ass remarks. “Yes of course I would, you know that.” I knew Mark was joking and I did smile when I answered him, but it reminded me of the reason that I do what I do, day in and day out. The whole point of the book I’m working on and of this blog is to help women create options for themselves. Sadly, Jennifer is a perfect example of why it is so important for women to have real options.
Options are powerful. Options are freeing. Options are a safety net for those moments when life is not good.
Back to the main question underlying the situation I’ve described above: What do you do if you are in a marriage that depletes you? One in which you are not supported in any way – what then?
According to Madeline Ashby, you should absolutely “end your unhappy marriage.” In an article that appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on July 22nd, 2015 she tackled the question of unhappy marriages in response to news that the dating site AshleyMadison.com, which encourages people to have an affair because “life is short”, was hacked, resulting in stolen data on millions of members. Ashby suggests that infidelity isn’t the answer; a divorce is. “No, really. Do it. Treat the disease, not the symptom. You’ll feel so much better.”
She goes on to discuss how much happier you’ll be when you leave. “It means building and respecting new boundaries. It means carving out a new life for yourself within those boundaries. But that life is your own. And in it, you can have as many affairs as you want.”
Yes, OK, the ideal scenario is to leave a bad marriage. But if only it were so simple. If you do not have enough money to live on, you will be jumping from the frying pan into the fire. At no point in Ashby’s article did she discuss the financial realities of divorce. It is not as simple as ‘leave and you will be so much happier’.
For a very good overview of the dismal statistics for divorced moms, read Mariko Lin Chang’s book Shortchanged: Why Women Have Less Wealth and What Can Be Done About It. Here’s just a snippet from Chapter Four: How the Deck Is Stacked Against Mothers:
Single mothers experience heavy financial burdens because they are more likely to bear a disproportionate share of the financial costs of raising children. The economic consequences of single motherhood are so grim that bankruptcy experts Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi claim that “in the world of financial devastation, there are two groups of people: single mothers and others…. Motherhood is now the single best indicator that an unmarried middle-class woman will end up bankrupt.” About one out of every thirty-eight single mothers files for bankruptcy each year. Warren and Tyagi point out that it’s not teen mothers or welfare recipients who are declaring bankruptcy, but middle-class women with college educations.
The bottom line is that single mothers face an uphill financial battle and they end up, on average, having a fraction of the wealth that their ex-husbands have.
Please don’t get me wrong: I’m all for leaving an unhappy, unhealthy marriage but I also know that you still need a roof over your head, you still need to put groceries on the table and pay for medical bills and clothes and extracurricular activities and so on. In my work I have seen scores of divorced moms struggle to keep it together for themselves and their children; it is no easy task. While I appreciate the sentiments expressed in Ashby’s article, it’s an incomplete response.
My take on it is this: Do whatever you can to strengthen your financial position, which means establishing a good income as well as growing your savings and investments, especially if you’re in a position where you feel stuck. Learn, ask, reach out, believe. If you’re a stay-at-home mom, read my suggestions in The stay-at-home dilemma.
I don’t know what the answer is for women like Jennifer, but I do know that financial fitness is one of the keys to being free to make choices that are truly in your best interest.
Until next time, Survive, Thrive and Grow.
*Not her real name