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Are We as Modern as We Think? Gender Role Reversal in Divorce Doesn’t Necessarily Add Up.

Rachel Alexander Sept. 5, 2019

{4 minutes to read} What happens when the father is the stay-at-home spouse and the mother is the primary earner? Can we simply swap out the term husband for wife and expect an equitable outcome?

Let’s see.

In cases where the mother is the stay-at-home parent and the father is the full-time working parent, the children typically reside with the mom.

Conversely, if the mother is the primary or sole earner in the household, she often still has a significant enough role with the children that she might be the logical choice for the children’s primary residence. Whether it’s bias or biology, there’s still an idea that children would reside at least 50% of the time with the mother, even if the mother has the traditionally “masculine” role of supporting the household financially. 

Alimony provides another example where an easy switch does not necessarily render a fair result. Alimony usually stops when the recipient cohabitates or remarries. If the alimony recipient is male, his remarriage to a woman could terminate his support. Herein lies the rub.

Fewer women than men work, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The 2017 full-time workforce was comprised of 44% women and 56% of men, a 12% difference.

Women are still paid less than men. According to the US Department of Labor, in 2018 working women earned 81% of what men earned, a decrease from the prior year of 2017 when women earned 81.8% of male earnings.

Women are more likely to work part-time jobs with reduced and varying weekly schedules, in industries that offer fewer full-time employment opportunities (and thus likely fewer or no benefits). These positions, however, allow women to prioritize their responsibilities for child-rearing.

Women still generally serve as the default parent, taking on more parenting responsibilities than men, impeding their ability to concentrate energies solely on professional achievement.

Therefore, should a divorcing stay-at-home dad cohabitate or remarry, potentially forfeiting alimony as a result, he could be doing so without the benefit of income replacement through the union. The notion that repartnering renders alimony unnecessary is not automatically the same for a man and a woman.

What if a stay-at-home dad marries a stay-at-home mom? The new spouse, also dependent on alimony, forfeits it upon remarriage. Now two adults, neither of whom represented significant financial household contributions, marry, lose alimony, and may collectively have more parenting time, responsibilities and expenses. Either the new relationship might result in financial insolvency, or the economics might severely compromise marital options; neither are great.

The potential issues for the role-reversed individual are striking, but there are even larger social implications. Remarriage is, in fact, favored by our public policy which smiles on the security created by the social compact of marriage and remarriage, potentially inviting financial instability (unfavored by public policy, which also wants society to benefit from the stability and contribution of adults working full-time and at their highest earning capacity).

When we examine these few factors and potential outcomes, we recognize that we cannot simply pluck out wife and stick in husband with the expectation that all is now fair. In fact, without making further adjustments including individual and social realities, the result could be unintended and unjust.