The cost of divorce to women

Posted on Oct 7, 2022 by Katie Carter


A friend of mine is getting a divorce. Just like everyone else, it happens from time to time, but an occupational hazard of mine is that they all reach out to me for advice and general support. It’s just the way it goes.

It’s a time of crisis, especially in the beginning. And though I often spend a lot of time trying to talk about empowerment that comes from divorce, and the options that divorce affords women (especially compared to women in other generations who didn’t have the options that we do today), there’s no question that there’s a real toll on women that divorce often takes.

In many cases, it’s still the husband who is the primary breadwinner. That’s not because he’s more educated or more skilled or smarter or better in any way – it’s mostly a function of the difficulty in raising a family. In my own family, too, I’ve found that this is the way. We’ve cut back on my career – but not my husband’s – so that I can do more of the physical and emotional labor around the home.

Moms stay at home, work from home, work part time, or even miss out on career advancement opportunities that come from taking extra work, traveling more, or working on ambitious, time-consuming projects. Even full time moms working outside the home often find that having children cuts back on their career achievement and, by extension, their earnings.

So, when it comes time to negotiate the terms of a divorce, this disparity comes to the table, too. And because the kids don’t just evaporate into thin air when the divorce is finalized, I often find that even post-divorce the same kind of arrangement exists – which costs money disproportionately more than it costs men. Not only do they earn less during marriage, they go on to continue to earn less post divorce because of the demands of raising children.

In a lot of ways, the demands on moms only increase after divorce. Whereas before there was a partner around the home to do at least a few things, once you’ve actually divorced, you find yourself alone in the home. There’s no one else to tag team bedtime, to load or unload a dishwasher, to wash, fold or put away a load of laundry – nothing. I remember Kristen Hofheimer – our former firm president/owner – saying that it was a mistake to get a divorce just because he didn’t pull his weight in the home; once he’s gone, she’d point out, you’re totally alone. Even if he didn’t pull his weight before, divorce often adds more work to the shoulders of the women who are already carrying too much.

But there’s more costs than just that. For my friend, for example, she found that her trauma and grief kept her from responding to the divorce. Her husband sent her a draft agreement. She didn’t respond. He filed for divorce. She didn’t respond. He sent discovery. She didn’t respond.

She KNEW she needed to. She’d talk to me. I’d tell her what could happen if she didn’t. I helped her find a lawyer in her area so that she wouldn’t be alone, and she didn’t respond to the lawyer, either. Sometimes, she wouldn’t even respond to me, or, when she did, she’d do it when she was in a high, rather than when she was in a low and avoiding things. She didn’t talk to the Guardian ad litem, or answer the questionnaire. She made about a million mistakes.
But the thing is not that she was stupid or that she didn’t care or that she didn’t get it. She totally DID get it, she just felt completely overwhelmed and consumed by her grief. She literally could not function.

Because of that, the Guardian ad litem developed a prejudice against her. Attorney’s fees were awarded against her. Her attorney withdrew. She ended up having to go to a settlement conference and negotiate an agreement without an attorney. Though it’s not a bad agreement, it is missing some things that really should have been included, and would have been included had she had an advocate in her corner.

All of those things cost. Attorney’s fees cost in a pretty obvious way; it reduced the amount of spousal support she got her first month to pay him for the fees he earned when she didn’t respond to discovery. The Guardian ad litem’s bad opinion costs, because now there’s someone who isn’t exactly in her corner if custody and visitation is modified later. Missing out on things in her separation agreement definitely costs – in her case, to the tune of about $25,000. It’s not terrible, but it’s really not ideal. And it was, ultimately, avoidable.

She’s smart. She’s kind, and sweet, and funny, and such a good mom. She really is doing the best she can. But her trauma response cost her money, and I imagine that this happens in a lot of cases, but it’s not something that people are really able to talk about. I’m not sure people know the words to use when they’re describing this kind of self harming behavior in themselves. There’s a lot of shame there, too, because intellectually they KNOW they need to do things, but physically they just can’t.

Lawyers aren’t therapists, so in my opinion, it’s really important to enlist the support of one. The more mentally healthy you are when you go through the process of divorce, the better equipped you’ll be. Though I do believe – deep in my heart – that you’ll come out at the other end of all of this much better off, that’s often a ways away. There are a lot of things that can happen between Point A and Point B, and you want to minimize the costs of all of those things to you.

Take care of your mental health. Talk about what you’re feeling. Be honest and communicate regularly with your attorney. Don’t feel ashamed.

The ‘cost’ of divorce can be more than the attorney’s fees you pay, the amount you receive in spousal support or retirement, or the way the arrangement you made as a family impacts your ability to work and earn a living post-divorce. There are so many things you can do to help put yourself in the best possible position, but one of the first things is recognizing how you’re feeling, how the way you’re acting might be destructive to your case, and taking steps to address it.

You’re not bad or wrong or weak. You’re not stupid or lazy or a hot mess. You’re a normal person under an extraordinary amount of stress. You’re not wrong. You’re doing the best you can. But awareness can help, too.

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