I was recently fortunate enough to stumble upon a series of articles by blogger Emma Johnson (@JohnsonEmma) of WealthySingleMommy.com on changing norms surrounding alimony (spousal maintenance).

In her most recent article for Forbes.com, “An End to Alimony Would be Good for Women,” Johnson argues that an end to alimony (except in certain, very limited circumstances) would benefit women by dis-incentivizing the self-sacrificing behavior that leaves women selling short their own career prospects in order to care for children or support their spouses’ careers:

Take alimony out of the career-planning equation and we force women to take full responsibility for their careers and finances from the beginning of adulthood. This is critical if we are going to close the pay gap, which has little to do with workplace sexism, and more to do with women choosing lower-paying professions and stepping away from careers to devote to family life. This will also address the issue of female financial literacy… [T]he more a woman contributes to the family finances, the more involved she is with managing them,  a fact that would impact these alarming figures on female financial literacy.

Setting aside debates about the realities of work-place sexism and the root causes of the pay-gap, Johnson stresses that beyond encouraging women to take control of their financial destinies (and their family’s finances) ending alimony promotes financial stability for in-tact families as well:

Ending alimony would be a boon for family financial security, ringing a clear, screaming alarm that you must plan for the very real chance that both spouses’ income will be likely critical to the family wellbeing. What will it take for people to realize — and plan for — the fact that divorce rates have hovered around 50% for decades? And that is just the risk of divorce. Maintaining a career is about being a responsible member of your family. Even if you have the hottest, most committed marriage that lasts until the end of one of your lives, there are other realities you must plan for [including unemployment, disability, and other unexpected events]

Johnson isn’t the first commentator to make this point (the Daily Beast’s Keli Goff (@KeliGoff) asked a similar question in her piece this summer, “Is Alimony Anti-Feminist“), but I admire Johnson’s analytical clarity, and her willingness to offer a no-apologies approach to alimony reform. (I found Johnson’s piece so compelling, that I used it as the starting point for discussion in my introductory lecture on alimony.)

But as much as I appreciate a cogent argument, we have good reason to be cautious before accepting Johnson’s conclusions.

As I read it, Johnson’s hypothetical marriage partner should approach marriage with something-like the same attitude with which one would approach a first job: willing to work hard and to do one’s best, but with a healthy dose of skepticism that we won’t be here in a few years.  Just as we now dismiss as naïve our parents’ (or grandparents’) notion that one might stay with the same employer throughout a 40-plus year career, it’s similarly credulous to expect that a marriage will truly last forever.  (Johnson might clarify that there’s nothing wrong with believing in ’til death do us part, only in relying upon it for your financial security).

This vision of marriage may be reasonable given the prevalence of divorce.  But it has implications far beyond the end of alimony.  If marriage is really just another financial arrangement (like a job) that is more about what you get than what you give, the same reasoning would suggest ending equitable property division in favor of an each-takes-their-own approach (remarkably similar to the title-based property divisions that disappeared with the advent of no-fault divorce).

Johnson’s vision also doesn’t reflect the way many couples approach marriage, which continues to be understood, at least largely, as a partnership in which spouses sacrifice for the benefit of the family.

Accepting that we often enter a marriage in a spirit of altruism, ending alimony deliberately punishes self-sacrificing behavior by rewarding the partner who prioritizes her financial self-interest over the family as a whole, at the expense of the partner who invested in the family (in children, a spouse’s career) to the detriment of her own earnings.  (Johnson would rightly clarify that both partners prioritizing their careers may also be beneficial to the family).

Some might argue that this is precisely what men have been doing for years, and is precisely the ill for which alimony is the only (albeit imperfect) remedy.

So while Johnson’s tough-love approach of ending alimony may well force spouses to focus more on their own financial self-interest, is this really the behavior we want to encourage? Or do we instead want couples to be able to rely upon the promises they make to one another and the lives they attempt to build together (moving to another state for one partner’s job, staying home to care for children, delaying furthering our own education so that our partner can follow their dream).  Not to sound Pollyannaish, but I suspect many (if not most) of us prefer a marriage of joint risk and reward, rather than having our partner view us as the equivalent of an entry-level job?

If we want to reward, rather than punish, spousal sacrifice, the answer isn’t an end to alimony (any more than it is maintaining the status quo).  Instead, we might support meaningful alimony reform that focuses less on “need” versus “means” (less on trying to determine “budgets” and “incomes”) and more on sacrifice and expectations.  The focus is less on maintaining a marital standard, and more on what a partner gave up for the betterment of the family (what did they “invest” in the family if we want to take a more economic view on it.)  If the answer for both partners is “very little” (think of two fully employed spouses, where one simply out-earns the other) then perhaps the days in which bare income discrepancies justify alimony awards are at an end.

But so long as we can find something of value in encouraging spouses to set their self-interest aside for their partner and their family, perhaps alimony still has a role to play, for partners of both sexes.

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