The Financially-Trapped Marriage

The Financially-Trapped Marriage

By Nancy Bell, CFP, CDFA

A man and woman marry to build a home together. But instead, many couples build boxes—and step inside them. Traditional gender roles encourage the building of these boxes, especially financial boxes. The problem with boxes, though, is they can trap women—and sometimes even men—in unhealthy marriages.

TC Wealth Partners Advisor Nancy Bell, a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst™ (CDFA) and member of Collaborative Divorce Illinois, has counseled many women who have found themselves ill-equipped to work themselves out of a financial box. Financial survival outside a marriage can be difficult for men and women; but for women it can be particularly daunting.

Having found herself in a financial box for a portion of her married life, she knows the struggles women in particular face trying to find a way out. In this Q&A Nancy shares her wisdom from the other side, and how she specifically counsels women who need guidance on how to climb out of the financial box.

What is a financial box?
Nancy Bell: While Millennials and GenXers may be less likely to fall into these roles, many marriages follow traditional gender roles in which the man is caretaker/bread-winner—and the woman is the caregiver/bread-maker. Husband and wife enter into an unwritten contract in which the wife takes care of the family, and the husband financially supports the family.

I’ve seen many marriages in which the husband is a high-income executive and doesn’t have the wherewithal to attend to the home front, so the wife attends exclusively to domestic affairs.

And herein lies the creation of the “financial box.” She begins to feel trapped because she knows little about the family’s finances and feels helpless because she has neither means nor time to generate income. And sometimes the husband feels comfortable in his ability to control the money to maintain his status as the money manager and breadwinner.

What’s the trade-off for the wife in this particular situation?
Bell: Every situation is different. And many couples have found a way to thrive with this designation of roles.

However, there are women who enter into these relationships out of convenience. They look for a husband who says, “Trust me. I’ll take care of you. You don’t want to be bothered with making money.” These women like being taken care of and the freedom it implies. They like having the money to spend without having to think about where it comes from.

In this model, the wife is given a checking account to manage day-to-day household expenses, like groceries and children’s activities. And she’s given a credit card, which the husband monitors.

The marriage arrangement becomes one of convenience and order.

For some this works. What’s wrong with this model?
Bell: It does work for some couples, but wives in these marriages are entirely financially dependent. As a result, when a marriage is failing, it’s too risky to divorce. The discomfort of a dysfunctional marriage—one that lacks intimacy, safety, and respect—is outweighed by the comfort of financial security. Simply, they don’t want to worry about money or even consider changing the rhythm of their current lifestyle.

I’ve heard many women justify staying in a failing marriage because their husband is a great father or because they don’t want to deal with dividing families, vacations or holidays. These women stay, finding a way to avoid their spouse yet maintain the appearance of “normal” around relatives and friends.

Aren’t many of these women educated and able to find a job to support themselves?

Bell: Many were career women at some point. But after being at home for many years, they don’t want to go back to work, or they feel ill-equipped to re-enter the workforce. And it’s not easy returning to the workforce when you are older, with outdated skills and without recent experience.

Did you feel trapped in your marriage?
Bell: I entered my second marriage in my mid-30s with a successful career. Also at this time my father’s health was quickly deteriorating and my mother couldn’t fully take care of him. And my daughter was in middle school and very active in sports activities. Life was very busy and stressful. My husband did not want to share in the domestic responsibilities, so he strongly encouraged me to quit my job and argued in favor of assuming traditional marital roles.

I thought I would take off just six months to get stabilized. But then 9/11 happened and there was serious turmoil in the financial services industry. I couldn’t just jump back in at the same earning level that I had been accustomed. Suddenly, and for the first time in my adult life, I was completely dependent financially on someone else.

When my marriage began to unravel, it was very scary. Financially and emotionally I felt trapped. I didn’t have a successful career to return to at a workable income level. I was in a house that I could not afford with my own resources. I didn’t want to uproot my daughter who was thriving in school and had already been through a divorce with her dad. I just told myself that I would do whatever I could do to make this work. It became a very stressful situation. But the bottom line for not leaving sooner was definitely financial.

What is the overriding mindset that drives this fear?
Bell: You feel powerless. And although it’s not true, you feel like there are no good choices. You resign yourself that you “made your bed,” and now all you can do is try harder to make the best of the situation “until death do us part.”

When does this mindset begin to shift?
Bell: There comes a point in time when you begin to worry about the impact of the unhealthy relationship on the children and your quality of life. Women begin to see there could be much more to living than the constant internal battle of the “what ifs.” What if the marriage suddenly gets better? What if I just keep my head down and soldier on? What if I can get a good paying job? What if I cannot take care of myself?

While it’s virtually impossible to project what it could be like leaving, a woman gets to the point where she is miserable, and she knows she can’t stay where she is. She cannot see any scenario where this marriage will be enough to sustain her or the family for the rest of her life.

So she must either decide to continue to build a separate life within the confines of the marriage, or not. Some women are able to emotionally separate while in the marriage as they develop courage and the strength to go out on their own.

The bottom line is when you hit that place where you can’t move forward and you can’t move backward, you must start focusing entirely on you and your financial and emotional needs. Increasing discomfort and worry are great motivators to begin facing the need for change.

What does that look like?
Bell: These epiphanies of a new life happen over time. Possibilities begin to take form. Given that she might not have the courage or resources to immediately leave, she can do things on the home front to make staying bearable.

First, she can take care of herself financially by getting a job. This alerts her husband that she is thinking and functioning as a partner in the marriage. Second, she can get involved with the finances and understand how their finances operate. This can be a challenge because many husbands can be very secretive. Money is power and control. To let their spouse in, especially when they know the other isn’t happy, is risky. But it is very important for the wife to be persistent and become better informed about the family finances.

It really boils down to understanding what you don’t know and what you must do to be okay for right now. Too many women project out three years or five years. But the key is to focus on what you need to do in the next 6 or 12 months so that you can gather resources, build a strategy, and gain a sense of control over your life.

What do you say to the woman who struggles with finding the courage to leave?
Bell: Your life is going to look different and so is his. Different doesn’t mean worse. And it hasn’t been easy emotionally for you anyway. But your emotional state can be improved upon. And while we know that finances and emotions are very closely tied, you will be okay. If you have children, you receive child support – it’s the law. If you have a disparity in income, legally your ex-spouse is required to provide you some form of temporary or permanent spousal support so you are able to take care of yourself.

Also, realize that the divorce process is a grieving process. It’s the death of something. It takes time to reconcile such an enormous change. I have never met anyone, myself included, who hasn’t wondered for a couple years following the divorce what she could have done differently. We all wonder: How could we have prevented this from happening? Why did this have to happen? “If only….” So even though you are relieved and happy to be on the other side of it, you must still go through that process.

But beyond the loss there is a renewed sense of self and great hope for the future. And I am living proof that beyond the loss is also a wonderful sense of new possibilities and personal freedom.

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