Her husband was supposed to be looking for a job. He’d promised her over and over: “I’ll work on my résumé, I’ll set up the informational interviews, I’ll reach out to my contacts.” Instead, he sat on her couch and watched made-for-TV Christmas movies.
Michelle* had met John when they were young. They’d reconnected years later—after she and her first husband, with whom she’d had a child, split. Not long after the romance began, John quit his job and moved into her apartment, saying he wanted to help out with childcare. Michelle, an executive, was a little nervous about his being unemployed. Plus, she shared custody with her ex, so she didn’t actually need that kind of help. But she rolled with it, believing that the whole situation was temporary.
She knows how it sounds now. At the time, though, she really had faith in him. They’d been smitten with each other, and John had indeed bonded with her kid. But after they got married, he never found work. He told her he wanted to change professions. “I was like, God, please just get a job,” she says. “Like, anything. Starbucks barista! Work at Harris Teeter!” Instead, he went back to school—out of town. “It was a huge financial burden,” Michelle says, adding that she was paying for her apartment and his place at school. Still, she was cautiously optimistic that he was “working towards something.”
Over winter break, he came back to Washington, ostensibly for some informational interviews. Then Michelle determined that he was actually just binge-watching the Hallmark Channel. “I just felt like the biggest fool,” Michelle says.
“I realized nothing had changed and he was going to be my dependent for the rest of my life and that all of the talk was going to amount to nothing. And it was horrific.”
She told him she wanted a divorce. During the separation, she says, she paid for everything: legal fees, mediation, therapy. She was advised to protect her retirement plan, so she bought John out of the condo they owned. She also did something she’d never expected to do. She agreed to pay him alimony: $1,000 a month for more than a year.
“All I could think to myself was: I divorced my first husband, had his child, and had less than $300 a month in child support from him,” she says. “And I was going to be paying nearly four times as much in alimony to someone with whom I had not had a child and had supported this whole time while I begged him to get a job! I couldn’t believe it.”
The typical narrative around child support and alimony is that, for better or worse, husbands pay it to their ex-wives. But there’s a growing demographic of Washington women who emerge from their marriages as the payers, not the recipients, of this kind of financial restitution. (Some of them have already coined a term for this phenomenon: They joke that they’re paying “galimony.”) And while no one is ever thrilled at the prospect of writing checks to an ex, divorce attorneys around the region report that a rising contingent of these female payers react to the prospect of sending support payments with pure, hot rage.
“I think it’s important to go back to: Why was alimony created in the first place?” Michelle says. “It’s not just as simple as saying, ‘Because men pay it, women should pay it, too.’ ”
“What’s noteworthy to me is the fury of the women,” says Heather Hostetter, a prominent divorce lawyer in Bethesda who handles cases in Maryland and DC. “I just don’t experience that as much with men who are confronted with the fact that they have to pay alimony. And part of the fury relates to this idea of ‘What exactly am I paying for?’ ”
Not to suggest that every divorcée responds that way—some, especially those with kids, feel just fine about providing financial support—but that there’s a subset who do. Often, these are women whose husbands did not expect to be the lower-earning partner in their marriage and subsequently did not take that role reversal well. Instead of stepping up at home, the husbands leaned way back . . . and then, when it all ended, demanded the right to maintain their lifestyle.
“It may be a shock to some women [because] they are not interested in supporting, nine times out of ten, what they call the ‘loser’—and that’s why they’re getting out of the marriage, because he’s a ‘loser,’ or he’s strayed, or whatever it might be,” says Cheryl New, a family lawyer who has been practicing in Maryland and Virginia for three-plus decades. “I think it is really hard emotionally for women to wrap their arms around this phenomenon.” Especially considering that in Maryland, Virginia, and DC, it doesn’t even matter how long (or short) your marriage was—you can still be made to pay.
In legalese, money for your ex is called alimony in DC and Maryland; in Virginia, it’s spousal support. But the word “alimony” can be so radioactive that some attorneys avoid its use colloquially; the euphemism of choice to describe payments for both children and a former spouse is “support.” In all three jurisdictions, “child support” is just that. But recipients don’t have to account for how they spend the money, so if kids are involved, that child support could go toward your daughter’s soccer cleats, could be blown on his new Xbox, your guess is as good as anyone else’s.
For Michelle, the notion that her ex was somehow entitled to money from her, given the circumstances, was infuriating. “I spent a lot of time being very bitter over how betrayed I felt,” she says, adding that it took her three years to pay off all kinds of expenses she incurred during the marriage and the divorce: a six-figure sum, in her estimation.
“I think it’s important to go back to: Why was alimony created in the first place?” Michelle says. “It’s not just as simple as saying, ‘Because men pay it, women should pay it, too.’ ” Or is it?
People have been getting divorced almost as long as they’ve been getting married. Legal separations in the States escalated during the 1820s and ’30s as independence fever swept the former Colonies—imagine a nation of dissatisfied spouses saying, “If England and America can break up, why can’t we?”—and, as the 19th century wore on, divorce rates continued to rise. For decades, undoing an “I do” involved convoluted court maneuverings; fault-based laws required specific grounds for termination. Merely unhappy husbands and wives squirmed their way through legal loopholes as best they could until 1969, when then-governor Ronald Reagan (a divorcé, sympathetic to their plight) signed California’s Family Law Act, which gave disgruntled partners terminology for their insurmountable feelings and enshrined them as grounds for divorce: “irreconcilable differences.”
But alimony is even older than divorce. It’s as old as the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi—so, as old as ancient Mesopotamia, circa 1792 bc. The American model is rooted in the Ecclesiastical Courts of England, through which, before the advent of divorce, couples could seek a “legal separation.” Post-separation, a man was expected to continue to provide for the woman he’d married. Along with Christianity and smallpox blankets, this system of alimony was brought by European settlers to America.
Historically, a woman had alimony rights because she had no property rights during marriage—an interesting tradeoff, that—and zero ability to earn her own money. (Alimony, then and now, wasn’t really about the woman’s well-being so much as protecting the state from the undue “burden” of taking care of her when her husband didn’t want to provide for her anymore.) In 1979, citing the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, the Supreme Court determined that this “unequal treatment,” wherein men are always payers and women the inevitable payees, was unconstitutional, thereby striking down an Alabama statute that required only men to pay alimony to women.
(About that case: In the matter of Orr v. Orr, William Orr had been ordered to pay his ex-wife, Lillian, $1,240 a month. When he didn’t pay up, she tried to have him found in contempt. He responded by arguing that Alabama’s alimony statutes be declared unconstitutional, because they empowered courts to compel husbands to pay alimony but never did the same to wives. Bold, no? William lost in the circuit court. He appealed all the way to SCOTUS, where a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then lawyering for the ACLU, filed a brief in his support. William ultimately prevailed. A win for equal rights that benefited men who didn’t feel like making their alimony payments—exactly the kind of feminist victory women the world over were rooting for!)
So why does alimony—a.k.a. spousal support—still exist? The modern justification is threefold: One, if a couple has children, the court doesn’t think it’s in the kids’ best interest for their quality of life to seesaw wildly between their parents’ homes. Two, a person without an income could very well end up relying on resources such as food stamps or other kinds of government support. The court is not so hot on that prospect. The deal is, hey, you married them—you don’t get to make them the state’s problem just because you don’t like them anymore. And three: A lot of spouses—typically wives—sacrificed earning power in order to do the bulk of the home-front labor, a career penalty for which alimony might compensate.
Until recently, payers could ease their pain with the knowledge that their alimony was a tax write-off—as Hostetter puts it, “the greatest tax deduction known to man.” Since January 1, 2019, though, that’s no longer the case. Alimony is now, in theory, just some genderless thing in which resources flow from the higher earner to the lower or non-earner. In practice, it has virtually been a given for the last half century or so that the higher-earning spouse would be male. (See: the pay gap, abysmal/nonexistent parental-leave policies, insidious cultural norms that keep women from achieving their full economic potential.)
But this given is a given no longer, says divorce lawyer Sandy Ain, whose name you’ll surely recognize if you followed stories about the splits of mega-lobbyists Tony and Heather Podesta (Ain repped Tony) or mom-and-pop-shop owners turned retail multimillionaires Herbert and Gloria Haft (Ain repped Herbert). “Years ago, you virtually never had a woman who was in a greater-earning situation than her spouse,” says Ain. Today, “it’s certainly not uncommon for it to occur.” For the first time in American history, a critical mass of women are paying their male exes support.
This occurrence is especially common in DC, where—as straight, single women have probably told you—single, college-educated men are outnumbered by their female peers 53 to 47. The Washington area is home to approximately 40,000 more single women with bachelor’s degrees or higher than single men of the same academic pedigree.
And some of those women are making some serious money—so much, in fact, that in the event they wind up divorcing, they need a professional to help them navigate their staggering assets. So they call Dianne Nolin, a certified divorce financial analyst (yes, that’s an actual accreditation) in Vienna who works with high-net-worth women. Nolin’s specialty: zeroing in on the nitty-gritty of who gets what. Is the beach house worth more to her than the pied-à-terre in the city? Does he really need the BMW SUV when they both know he’s not planning to do after-school carpool? Her client base: executives at major corporations, attorneys, business owners, medical professionals, and some top real-estate agents. “When you consider the compensation package that might be some of those things in addition to traditional earnings, they’re typically in the $750,000 and above, a million and above,” Nolin says. “High six figures.”
Given the lifestyles both parties are used to, the payouts for the spouse-of-the-power-spouse can be substantial. “It’s not uncommon to see support that’s six, eight, ten thousand a month,” Nolin says. “I have one [Virginia] case, an executive at a Fortune 500 tech company, where [support] was upwards of $18,000 a month.”
One ex I spoke to told me that when she and her husband split four years ago, “he cleared the house out when he left. He took the TV, the china, my flatware. All of the things you would anticipate a man would say, ‘I don’t want this, you can have it.’ ” She pays child support and covers major bills for the kids—tuition, camp, insurance. “It’s a harsh reality,” as she put it. “I often look in the mirror and wonder whether this whole feminism thing backfired on me.”
Washington is also a hotbed of cross-income dating, possibly more than any other American city. Consider the contributing factors: a high density of very impressive but generally-less-than-lucrative professional fields—the federal government, journalism, nonprofits, academia—alongside employers that pay buckets of money, like Big Law and lobbying, political-consulting outfits, and tech companies. You’ve got disparate income brackets that attract nearly identical breeds of people: alumni of competitive schools with similar backgrounds and shared cultural references.
Which is to say: people who would definitely date, marry, and, alas, divorce each other.
Hostetter calls the men in the most enraging of woman-pays-out divorces “failure-to-launch exes,” and she hears about them all the time. “For sure in the last ten years, I’ve seen and represented many more women who fall into what I’d say is a very specific category: The wife is the breadwinner, but the husband is not necessarily performing the services of the traditional stay-at-home spouse.”
It’s not just that these women are out-earning their husbands. They’re out-parenting their husbands. They’re out-homemaking their husbands. They’re out-everythinging their husbands.
It was “a struggle to even keep [my husband] employed,” says Elizabeth, a communications exec who pays her ex child support in “the high-single-digit thousands.” But he did virtually no domestic labor: “If he emptied the dishwasher, he wanted a parade. . . . He once said that he wasn’t going to do—and he literally did air quotes—‘all the mommy things.’ That sucked.”
“I’ll never forget the moment I realized—wow, I am making more money now and I’m still the wife! I’m still doing all the stay-at-home-mom stuff! I’m breaking my neck to get to the grocery store before the nanny has to get her bus so I can pick up groceries, dry cleaning, and do errands.”
It didn’t just suck—it stunned. She’d been under the belief she’d entered into a progressive marriage between equals. Who was this man who still thought “emptying the dishwasher” was a “mommy thing” to do? Who talks like that? “I blindly went into it thinking, ‘Okay, I’ll do 50 percent and he’ll do 50 percent, and it’ll be a partnership,’ and it was not. It ended up being the single mother of three children instead of two. And that was a shock to me: that I had to do everything, including earn all the money. But you also have to walk on eggshells because you can’t be a threat to their masculinity.”
One woman in the Maryland suburbs recalled that she and her husband were prepared for him to out-earn her, but not for the alternative. “There wasn’t an expectation that I’d go out and be the primary breadwinner,” she told me. “Which might have been part of the problem, actually.” She wonders now if the values with which she and her husband were raised made the two of them, and maybe men and women of their entire generation, fundamentally mismatched. “My mom, even though she’d been a stay-at-home mom, she’d say, ‘You can be whatever you want to be in life. It’s truly an option for you.’ And she raised me to expect that,” she says. “But I think at the same time, my husband’s mom raised him to expect the same treatment in the household as our fathers received. That he could make money and his wife would take care of home.” The message: “Girls, go out and live in an egalitarian world! Guys, don’t worry about ever having to do your laundry.”
She hasn’t paid spousal support: “I would have been very angry to pay alimony, I will admit.” But she does cover a bigger share of the costs for their children. And she says she feels “totally fine” with that financial arrangement—despite the fact that she feels like she’s still running point on their kids’ lives, the same as when they were married.
Stephanie, who lives in Northern Virginia, found herself in a similar situation. After she had kids and went back to school, her earnings kept rising and she eventually became an executive—but her husband’s plateaued. Including bonuses, she tells me, she was making about two and a half times his take-home pay. Yet even as she climbed professionally, “the worrying and bottom line of what had to happen for our kids and family at home still fell to me.”
“I feel my spouse picked and chose what he wanted to do,” Stephanie says, leaving her to handle both the taxing mental labor and the unglamorous grunt work of parenting. “Take the vomiting child, for example . . . or the really awful school fundraiser.”
They split after many years together. Stephanie became the full-time custodial parent, so her ex-husband was supposed to pay her child support. But from the start, she says, he told her he couldn’t afford it: “He just always paid me less.” Such that when their older child turned 18, her ex “unilaterally just lowered the amount he paid me every month.” So she covers everything: college tuition, medical costs, activities, the works. (With child support set to end at age 19, it didn’t make sense to take him back to court to force him to pay, she says, because it would have required “time, money, and resources I don’t have.”)
It’s not like every woman paying her ex resents him. But for those who know they’ve been killing it at their jobs while their husbands flopped at domestic tasks like grocery shopping or parenting their own children, the prospect of ponying up makes these women “super-extra-mad,” says New. “I think that might be why women might have an even more visceral reaction than the man who thinks his wife only sits at home and eats bonbons and drives kids to school and goes to PTA meetings.”
For the divorce lawyer sitting across from the client who has just learned she’s going to write a check, it can be an intense conversation. “This group of women, they’re like, ‘Okay, let me get this straight,’ ” says Hostetter. “ ‘I’m at a board meeting, faking a trip to the bathroom to rectify why Suzie is not at her enrichment activity like she’s supposed to be. And my husband is at home ‘working.’ I did it all! I had to have a nanny, childcare, but I was the house manager. I paid the bills, I organized all the activities, I did the Halloween party at school, and I worked this crazy job, it’s super-successful. What did he bring to the table? And you’re saying I have to pay him alimony? Fifty percent of my retirement?’ If looks could kill, I’d be dead.”
Tara, who has a top job in sales, was unaccustomed to failure. Her resilience and tenacity had empowered her to succeed professionally; she was devastated to learn those assets weren’t enough to make her marriage work, too. “I’ll never forget the moment I realized—I was in the shower, it was a weekend, I’m shaving my legs in the shower, and I realized, wow, I am making more money now and I’m still the wife! I’m still doing all the stay-at-home-mom stuff! I’m breaking my neck to get to the grocery store before the nanny has to get her bus so I can pick up groceries, dry cleaning, and do errands, because I didn’t want to do that on the weekends.” It was a brutal, confusing discovery. “I’m a strong person, and I have no idea how this happened to me,” she says. “I don’t want to fail—I want to be successful. I didn’t want to fail at marriage.”
Now that they’re divorced, she says, she and her ex share custody. The court ordered that she pay thousands in child support. (She says that she makes three times more than he does.) Though she wasn’t thrilled to have to write those checks, she’s been able to find some dark comic relief at her “wine nights” with divorced friends, when they joke about what they put in the memo line of the support checks. One friend does sneaky acronyms—“YAAA” for “you are an asshole,” “YFD” for “you f—ing dick”—while others prefer a slightly more subtle and popular approach: numbering the checks. “C.S. 1,” “C.S. 2,” and so on.
The first time Tara and I had talked, it was before the pandemic. When I caught up with her again recently, the subject of marriage was still very much on her mind, albeit for a different reason. She’d been dating someone, and he proposed. Though she’d told him she didn’t think she’d ever get married again, over time she changed her mind: “I realized I wanted him to have the title. I wanted people to know that we were serious. I wanted to be husband and wife.” Now the couple was in the middle of sorting out a prenup.
“I know people think prenups aren’t very glamorous, and you want to be romantic. Well, I love my husband-to-be, but I won’t get into this situation again.”
Tara’s fiancé, it turns out, is also divorced and ended up having to pay his ex, so each of them came to the prenup conversation in a “very matter-of-fact” way, which is just how Tara has come to think all the prep before you walk down the aisle should work. “I don’t think couples should make it a big deal. It’s like a root canal. You just get it done.”
“Where I’ve landed with marriage again is [that] . . . from a financial perspective, it’s an agreement that you’re going to give that person half of your earnings if you get divorced . . . unless you put something in writing otherwise,” she says. “So I know a lot of people think prenups aren’t very glamorous and you want to be romantic. But I’m actually grappling with: Well, I love my husband-to-be, and I’m so happy, but I’m not going to let myself get in this situation again.”
At some point last year, she says, she stopped feeling so outraged every time she sent her ex a check. She feels less “bitter” and “angry” than she used to when the divorce was still raw. “It’s just another check I have to write every month,” she says now. “It’s annoying, but it’s just like paying the Pepco bill.”
When Michelle and I spoke again this year, some 18 months after our first conversation, she also had some surprising news to share: She’d gotten married.
It hadn’t been her plan ever to marry again after number two, but she’d been in a relationship for several years when Covid hit, and the crisis brought the couple closer together in every way. The intensity of pandemic grief—“seeing all the reports of people not being able to have visitors, and suffering and dying alone,” she said—made her feel differently about their relationship. “Our own mortality was a little bit of the spur of deciding to get married.” He proposed, and they wed in a socially distant ceremony.
They’ve been deliberate about structuring their finances, with total clarity about what’s paid for out of their shared account (groceries) and what they cover on their own (student debt, personal indulgences). They maintain separate retirement accounts.
In Maryland, Virginia, and DC, marriage may not be forever, but alimony certainly could be. There’s no law saying it has to end at some point. The courts tend to favor what’s known as “rehabilitative alimony,” or money for an economically dependent spouse until he can support himself. Still, even if the recipient can pay his bills, yet there remains a great disparity in his standard of living vis-à-vis his ex’s (and the one he was used to), alimony can be awarded for many years. It happens in only a small number of cases, and the law sets certain guidelines; subject to those, it’s up to a judge’s discretion. Which is a place Michelle never wants to revisit. So she’s being much more deliberate this time around.
“We didn’t start crossing anything joint until we had had the conversation about our individual financial situations [and] how we would handle that,” she explained. “We put a lot of intentionality into thinking through how we would manage our finances . . . [and] how would we handle new things that came up. We’ve just had candid conversations.” They talked about a prenup but decided “it would have been dotting i’s and crossing t’s to how we were already structuring and living our lives.”
Given everything, she said she can’t regret her second marriage. The lessons she learned from its implosion have been crucial to the health of the partnership she’s in now. This time, “there’s no resentment. There’s no balance sheet to it. I’m not looking at it as ‘Oh, I bought this, you bought that, you owe me this.’ We don’t nickel-and-dime.”
There is one dynamic, at least on paper, that’s still the same, though: Michelle makes “a significant amount more” than her new husband. But, she added, “he has a hell of a lot more assets than I do.” Anyway, the disparity doesn’t bother him: “He’s very much a feminist.”
“Third time’s the charm!” she told me, before correcting herself. “Last time’s the charm. Let’s say that.”
*Names of the couples in this story are pseudonyms.
This article appears in the December 2021 issue of Washingtonian.