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Second Wives Club: Why First and Second Wives Are At War

Divorce is a reality for roughly 40% of all married couples in the U.S. Personally, I'm not sure I want to get married, but I can pretty safely say that I don't ever want to get divorced. I realize thought that at some point down the line, I may be faced with one whether I want it or not. Or like the members of Second Wives Club, I may end up marrying a man who happens to be divorced.  

Modeled after the Massachusetts Alimony Reform group that has successfully abolished permanent alimony in their state, this Florida-based group of "Second Wives" has recently proposed a bill to do the same. While the bill was ultimately vetoed by Governor Rick Scott for fear that it would "be applied retroactively and unfairly hurt alimony recipients," momentum towards reform remains strong and is sweeping across the nation with up to 12 states working on their own reform.

The recent surge in attention given to this issue is undoubtedly due to the overwhelming involvement of women. While this involvement has moved the debate away from a traditionally viewed battle of the sexes, it has unfortunately pinned women against each other in a war between first and second wives. 

First Wives:

While the subject of the super fun 1996 film, the plight of women for whom divorce has caused a loss of financial stability is anything but. Within the first year of divorce, women are twice as likely as recently divorced men to be in poverty. While alimony was initially designed in an attempt to keep this from happening, rather than offering women a path to financial independence, it created a system to ensure a woman's financial dependence on her husband.

Jeff Landers, divorce financial strategist, argues that alimony was designed to protect women who "gave up a potential career and earning power and invested" their "time and labor into the family." This "opportunity cost" not only puts divorced women at a disadvantage in trying to enter the workforce, it also contributed to the success of their partners.

While most alimony recipients are women, few discussions of this debate have taken the opportunity to discuss the underlying issue at its root cause — the gender division of labor. The model for permanent alimony is one that supports a model of "separate spheres" where the man is designated to the external economic sphere and the woman is to the internal and reproductive sphere, which for many is no longer relevant. Currently 40% of working wives earn more than their husbands, leaving many to question how the de-gendering of divorce will take shape.

What would alimony look like if employers offered flexible work-family policies that allowed wives and husbands to take on a 50/50 split of childcare responsibilities? If all policies and social norms were in place to make that a reality, wouldn't there still be women or men who opted to be stay-at-home parents anyway? How do we create a system that doesn't allow either partner to trade in their "opportunity costs" for lifelong dependence on their former spouses? 

Second Wives:

Despite the seemingly catty assumption that the financial tie between their husband and his ex-wife simply irks them, the concerns of the second wife are largely financial as well.

Since alimony is currently determined on a case-by-case basis at the judge's discretion, in recent years the second wife's salary has been used to justify an increase in calculated alimony payments. Understandably, second wives fear they'll be put in a position where they will have to contribute to their husband’s alimony payments.

A generational gap is also often at play adding fuel to the fire in this "mommy war," where first wives are mostly stay-at-home moms and second wives mostly work outside the home. More likely to be financially independent, it can be difficult for second wives to sympathize with women who have raised their now-grown children and seemingly live off alimony alone.

Coincidentally, these women are most in need of alimony. While the Second Wives Club recognizes that divorced women may need some time to adjust to financial independence, they advocate for rehabilitative alimony in place of permanent. But the realities of being able to find work with a decent salary after 18+ years of unemployment or going back to school is much easier said than done for first wives.

 

While not surprising, it is worth noting that this debate has largely taken place in heteronormative terms. As gay marriage becomes legalized in more states it raises a host of even more questions of what alimony reform will mean for gay couples. If a partner takes on all childcare responsibilities in a state where their marriage is not recognized, will they never be entitled to alimony? If they move to a state where their marriage is recognized before they divorce, then will they be? Can alimony be applied retroactively if they state they currently live in later legalizes gay marriage?

Regardless of whether or not current reform passes, alimony legislation will not successfully lead to progress until the gendered division of labor is addressed and systems are put in place to support a path for financial independence for all lower income partners after a divorce. 

While finance hasn't completely trumped romance as a deciding factor for whether or not I will get married, it has me already wondering: if marriage poses such a potential threat to my financial security, will it be worth it in the end?  

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