Why do women initiate Virginia divorce first?

Posted on Nov 9, 2022 by Katie Carter

Statistically speaking, women file divorce first. In roughly two thirds of divorce cases, women file first. When the woman in question is college educated, that number jumps up to 90%.

That’s a lot of divorces, right? Meanwhile, their bumbling husbands report feeling surprised – after all, they thought everything was ‘just fine’.

I’ve written on this topic a bit before, including whether filing first actually gives the woman an actual legal advantage, but it just keeps hitting me in the face. I recently read a book, “The Respondent”, which I imagine will provide me with blog fodder for several months to come. In it, the author, who went through a really high conflict divorce in California after his wife allegedly lied about him making a thread to hurt the children, opines that, because women file first, they’re doing so sneakily, nefariously, in an attempt to skew the entire divorce in their favor.

That’s…not my experience. Admittedly, his divorce was in California, and I only have experience in Virginia – so it may be different, though I don’t think that it would be entirely different. I can’t speak to the allegations of abuse that his wife raised, or of her truthfulness in making those allegations – there’s nothing in the book that satisfies me that the author’s point of view wins the day (if anything, he sounds fairly narcissistic, but that could just be righteous anger – who can say?). Suffice it to say, though, that in the majority of cases, women don’t have a legal upper hand anyway.

Not only does filing first not give a real strategic or legal advantage (though there may be some psychological advantage, especially if the husband then has to scramble to respond within 21 days and find adequate legal representation as well), but the actual act of filing first doesn’t represent some larger plan. It doesn’t mean that the wife has spent time hiding money; in fact, I find that it is more often the province of a husband to do something like that.

Still, in Virginia, in 2022, women are more often the lesser earners in their families. That’s not so much a reflection of education, training, experience, or ability, but a reflection of their focus on their relationship, their families, and their homes. Often, women stay at home, work from home, work part time, or work in more flexible (and less lucrative) jobs to support their marriages, their children, and their families.

(Yours truly included.)

That results in less earning. I see it reflected all over the place; women earn 84% of what men do. (Even less than that for women of color.)

Not only that, but the cost of motherhood is higher for women than men. Especially in the United States, which does not offer particularly friendly maternity and paternity leave policies, women are hurting. A single maternity leave can cost a woman tremendously.

Motherhood, in general, has a long term negative effect on women’s careers and earning potential.

There is no such impact of men’s earnings or career potential.

So, when we come to the timing of divorce, especially if children have already been added to the equation, I find that there’s already a disparity. What might have passed for acceptable – though not good, not desirable – during the course of a happy marriage, rankles when a separation and divorce are pending.

That disadvantage might provide an impetus for women filing sooner, or being more aggressive. I’ve written before about ‘fight or flight’ responses triggered in divorce, and even about women’s trauma responses during a divorce, and I think a lot of this impacts the decisions that women make as divorce looms.

It’s not part of some nasty scheme; it’s the result of feeling unloved, unconnected, and at a distinct disadvantage, especially economically.
I’m no psychologist, but I do think a lot also stems from women attaching so much significance to their relationships. We base our feelings of success or failure on the success or failure of our relationships. Men, on the other hand, base their feelings of success or failure, more often, on their professional successes or failures.

Men are more likely to be okay with living with a so-so relationship, because they don’t derive their feelings of worth from their relationships. They also resist things like counseling because they think things are fine – and fine is okay. Women are less likely to be happy with ‘just fine’, and instead find that their husband’s unwillingness to participate in therapy, to connect on a level that they find meaningful, as signs that their relationship is over. Walls are built up which, eventually, become insurmountable, and a marriage ends.

That’s not to say that a marriage can’t be saved from the brink; fairly often, we’re retained and then the parties reconcile.

There are a million different things that can happen. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ in divorce; I say that all the time. Not only that, but it takes all types, and you see them all in family law.

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