by Vicki Larson
Money, sex and household chores — when it comes to marital fighting, that’s the perfect storm. So you’d think that once you get divorced, you’d be over and done with the bickering. And, you are — sort of.
Strip away the sex, which you’re now (hopefully) enjoying with someone else, and the chores, which you’re now doing all by your lonesome (leaving you to question why you ever complained about the way your ex cleaned things; it may not have been perfect but at least it was something!) and what’s left?
Divorced couples can’t stop kvetching about it. Someone’s always feeling that he or she is getting screwed by the other, even if the divorce is a so-called “good” one (and I don’t mean in the “she divorced well” way).
Then along came the recession, and with it a whole new set of problems.
I’d been feeling pretty fortunate despite all the economic shenanigans; I still have my job and, despite guaranteed weeklong unpaid furloughs that have caused me to eliminate almost all my unnecessary expenses and take on as much freelance work as I can handle, I have been able to keep it together financially — ever so barely.
And then, reality hit.
It all started with an e-mail, or rather unanswered e-mails.
When my former husband hadn’t responded to a few e-mails I had sent him about upcoming and important shared expenses for our two boys, I felt frustrated. So I wrote yet another e-mail; this one wasn’t as emotionally “neutral” as the prior ones.
“Sorry I didn’t respond earlier,” he e-mailed back. “I’ve just been laid off.”
The news wasn’t all that shocking to me; we’re both journalists, and even if the world at large wasn’t tanking, newspapers surely have been. As hordes of our co-workers have gotten axed as publishers struggle to keep their papers afloat, we few remaining employed journalists have reluctantly come to accept that it’s only a matter of time.
Still, my former husband is a multi-award winner, a well-respected photojournalist. I was surprised.
After I absorbed the news, I sent him a genuinely empathetic e-mail: “I’m so sorry.”
As I thought about how his life was going to change and what that might mean to our boys — one starting community college in the spring with dreams of culinary school, another two years away from graduating high school and with plans to be the next Steven Spielberg — I suddenly thought, holy crap — what does this mean to me? As in, what about my child and spousal support? Granted, it isn’t much; in fact, it’s pretty little. And I felt awfully ashamed to even be thinking that way; after all, he’s the one who’s lost his job — it’s devastating. But we are 50-50 co-parents, and I count on the support to keep my own household afloat. Now, he may, too.
We’re not the only ones facing this reality.
The recession has hit men harder than women — about 9.8 percent of men are now unemployed versus 7.5 percent women. For those men paying child and spousal support, the loss of their jobs has huge ramifications for their families. Of course, the same works in reverse, but there aren’t as many support-paying women; there are about 13,000 men receiving alimony — or is it manimony? — from their former wives.
Recently, more noncustodial parents have been asking for reductions in their support payments, which were based on incomes they’re no longer earning. According to a report from the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, 39 percent of its member lawyers were working with clients wanting modifications to their child support payments; 42 percent said clients were seeking modifications to their alimony payments.
At the same time, many of those noncustodial dads’ former spouses may be seeking to bump up their support payments because they themselves have lost their job.
That’s not my situation — yet — but given the critical condition of newspapers, the loss of my job is a likely scenario.
Some judges are reluctant to quickly order a reduction in support; who knows — maybe the person could land a new job relatively quickly. Other judges, acknowledging that that’s not as easy to find work as it used to be, are granting temporary relief immediately.
Amazingly enough, some noncustodial fathers are finding themselves facing jail time for not paying support, which seems crueler than cruel. There’s no way I would allow my former husband to be sent to jail; it wouldn’t be in the best interest of our children, and that, really, is what should be at the heart of any child and spousal support.
Yet, I don’t know how I will be able to continue to make ends meet if my spousal and child support disappears — or if I am suddenly the one who has to pay!
And that, perhaps, is one of the harsher realities of the current economic situation; it might take the loss of just one job in a divorced family to devastate two separate households.
For some people, the economy has forced them to reevaluate what’s really important in their life, and maybe that includes a kinder, gentler way of dealing with a former spouse. Maybe exes will be more willing to work out support issues on their own, without lawyers and mediators and a fresh round of anger and resentments.
But if there isn’t enough income to support even one household, there doesn’t seem to be much to work out.