Dear Men: Divorce Guilt Can Break Your Bank


Andy was desperate: he owed more than half a million dollars in back child support and alimony and his ex-wife was seeking enforcement, including a violation for failure to pay, which would land him in jail for up to six months. They had been divorced for about ten years and at the time, he agreed to pay through the nose.

“I felt bad,” he explained. “I was the one leaving the marriage and at the time I was doing really well at work.” His guilt and a rushed desire to settle landed him with high payments and no assets (he gave her the house too). His payments became untenable when the economy soured and his job was cut.

This isn’t the only case where I’ve encountered this type of divorce guilt that can plague the male primary income earner — particularly when he’s the one seeking the divorce.

In Andy’s case, the court reduced the arrears and lowered the payments to a reasonable amount — in large part because the “child” was now an adult. But not before Andy spent a decade fighting against compounding debt, bill collectors and bad credit.

Other examples come to mind: a few years ago, I had a client who needed post-divorce help to overturn his agreement to pay more than 65% of his annual income in perpetuity for the care and maintenance of his ex-wife’s six cats. You read that right: six cats! Guilt over leaving the marriage had played a large part.

Even a fellow-lawyer—I’ll call him Bill—told me about his rushed divorce agreement. Bill wanted to get it over with, and despite his first-hand experiences as a litigator, he let his guilt be his guide. “After a while you start to feel like a wallet,” he said. “You have no control over the decision-making for your child or how she’s spending the money. You just pay.”

At some point, there must be a discussion in the relationship: are we having children and who will care for them? And if the answer is that the wife will stay home, then how long, and does she have a plan to work as the child moves from tender years to tween?

But the best intentions can go awry. In Bill’s case, he agreed that his ex- could stay home for a few years, but she later refused to revisit the decision. “Then what?” he asked. “Do I file for divorce because she won’t work, when there is a three-year-old at home?”

In thinking about that question, my answer to him, and you, is “Yes,” and here’s why:

  1. Maybe if he filed for a divorce at that time, his wife would have realized the severity of her refusal to work at a time when she may have wanted to save the marriage. A discussion might have facilitated her returning to work.
  2. Alimony (called maintenance in New York) is calculated (generally) in part based on the recipient’s age, training, ability to work and the duration of the marriage. If Bill’s wife still didn’t want to work, his numbers would be that much lower because she would have been that much younger, only a few years out of the work force, and the duration of the marriage would have been shorter.  Now, with a 12-year-old in the house, his ex- has been out of work for more than a decade – she handicapped her re-entry into the working world and upped the duration of alimony.
  3. Assets: shorter marriages tend to generate fewer marital assets that must be divided or provided for – including the marital home. Here in New York, a court is more likely to sell a marital home, even where kids are in the house, if the kids are younger and the marriage is short. If there is a child attending high school, many courts will maintain the “status quo” and let Mom stay in the home until all the kids graduate (or turn 18), and then order the sale of the house.

Of course, early in the marriage my friend Bill wasn’t emotionally interested in filing for a divorce. I’m not a therapist and I am not advocating you end your marriage prematurely because of financial reasons—I’ll leave that to another blogger. But I am pointing out issues that should be considered when you decide to work and “be the provider.” And, at the end of the day, don’t let your guilt about letting go of your role as provider lead you into bad decisions in your divorce.

This piece was originally published @ The Good Men Project.


5 thoughts on “Dear Men: Divorce Guilt Can Break Your Bank

  1. Been there done that and both attorneys and the judge let it slide. In hindsight, giving away more than 50% is a bad idea for both parties.


  2. In one of your articles, I see that you identify yourself as a “single mother,” which interests me because I’m married to a man who finances all of his ex-‘s and his daughter’s whims and needs. Does this term mean that a woman is raising children while putting out the shingle that “I’m single, and I’m open to dating, etc.” or does it mean that “I’m raising children without the benefit of money or presence from the father of the children?” I find this phrase “single mother” to be maudlin and antiquated. Do men say, “I’m a single dad” at even one tenth of the rate that women claim to be single moms? We, in our tiny home, do without a lot of luxuries so that one particular “single mom” can have her personal luxuries. What is with this term? It is as outdated and overstated at Miss and Mrs. I have read your articles, and I find that you are pretending to advocate for men while grandstanding for woman who are so “downtrodden” because of the “glass ceiling” etc. I have my own business, and I make more money than my husband does, but I don’t have to pay 5/8 of my paycheck to ex and kid (both of whom resist making money of their own). I think you speak with forked tongue.You put on the pretense of advocating for men, but you are vouching for women who love to tout the 69% and the glass ceiling because they don’t want to work for a living. I guess you are making money (69%), but I don’t believe you are truly advocating for dads.


    1. I’m going to attribute the vitriol of your comment to the first sentence: “I’m married to a man who finances all of his ex’s and his daughter’s whims and needs.”

      That said, I agree with you that the term “single mother” is loaded. After divorce, it can be hard to define oneself. I would not call myself a single mother in terms of parenting and access because my ex-husband is a wonderful dad and we share joint custody and a very open access schedule. I would call myself a single mother in terms of finances. Generally, I try to leave my personal life experience (and story) out of my posts.

      As for having a “forked tongue,” I have clients of both sexes and I’ve seen them equally manipulated and beaten-down in different ways. I am an advocate for my clients. That is my job.

      In writing blog posts, I try to write with a broad-stroke because lawyers tend to offer so many caveats that the message is lost. There are exceptions to every rule and every case needs context: some male providers are dumped on; many women hit a glass-ceiling; some women (particularly law partners) give up family in exchange for career success; some men are the custodial parent; more men are active dads today than the legal system acknowledges; many women have given up careers for family duties (particularly when the babysitter costs what she would earn anyway). These are all real life and they are all people that, if caught in a family dispute, need representation.

      I get equally outraged by unfair treatment, manipulation and wrong-doing (that’s probably why I became a lawyer).


  3. I have a background in public policy and law. What I’ve noticed is that divorced men (and women) often realize well after the fact that they bent over backwards to assuage a guilty conscience rather than taking an equitable route. This underscores the need for individual counseling (divorce counseling *and* financial counseling) and frank discussions with one’s future ex before and during the divorce process itself. Guilt cripples one’s ability to make rational decisions that effect one’s personal finances in the long, long, long run.

    As for myself, I let go of far too many of my assets and took on way too much debt simply because I felt guilty for leaving after turning my then-husband into my adult dependent (there were no children involved). Of course, a big part of why we split up was precisely because he refused to work. I would make a very different decision today.


  4. If you go through a child custody divorce. You better have a healthy bank account. Mine was about $50,000 and that was 31 years ago. I discovered my wife had an abortion paid for by her boss, owner of company. She told me some stranger had never met got her pregnant. Yea, right! Ended up being a very messy child custody battle. Find a way to be civil to each other and work it out. Far better for the children too.


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