It’s Complicated (Part 1)

Bryan and Melissa* were in their late 20’s when they decided to get married. Bryan was a hard-working, blue-collar man with large ambitions and a taste for the wild life. Melissa was quiet and easy-going. She came from a professional family, but had little ambitions of her own. They were at an age where “settling down” was the expectation, and they both saw advantages to being together. They planned for a marriage without children, and set out to build a life together.

But settling down didn’t work the way they expected. Bryan was making good money, but his job kept him on the road, where he continued to live life as though he was single. The children came, despite their plan. Feeling lonely and hurt, Melissa found comfort in spending and food. Life continued on, both feeling injured by the other’s actions, both acting out in the only ways they knew how. They bickered, and argued, and hid things from one another.

Over a decade passed before they were forced to acknowledge how bad things had become. Bryan’s credit cards started getting declined. Melissa had been handling the family’s finances for years; Bryan had no idea that they had over $100,000 of consumer debt, on top of their mortgage and car loans. Learning of their financial predicament was devastating. But, credit was easy, and home values were high. Bryan refinanced the family home to pay off most of their debt, and worked hard to erase the rest. The finances were “fixed”, but the relationship was hanging by a thread.

Despite the fear, anger and hard times, nothing really changed. Bryan continued living life on his own terms. Melissa continued spending. Both felt more justified in their own actions. They were both miserable, but neither were willing to change. The arguments increased, along with the debts, until finally they had to face the facts: This wasn’t going to work.

They set out with the intention of divorcing. But with two young children at home, both had their reservations. Melissa hated the idea of selling the house and uprooting the kids. Bryan didn’t trust that Melissa could responsibly handle money; He preferred supporting his children directly, and knowing where his money was being spent. Neither liked the idea of scheduled visitations and having the courts involved with raising their children. As much as they didn’t want to be married, getting divorced didn’t seem like the right option either.

In the end, Bryan and Melissa decided to pave their own way in their separation. Melissa and the kids would stay in the house, and Bryan would continue to support the family financially. Melissa was removed from all the accounts. Each was allowed to do as they pleased with their own money. Bryan was already living elsewhere, but could come and go at the house as he chose to see his kids, and to continue maintaining the house. They agreed that divorce was the logical step once the kids were out of school. They rarely spoke, and their only interactions involved the kids. Unusual as it was, being separated, but not divorced, worked for them. Did the legal status of their relationship really matter?

There’s a lot of hype around the changing landscape of marriage. As people’s feelings on religion and government have changed, couples choosing not to marry has become more and more acceptable. From a legal standpoint, there are pluses and minuses to getting married, depending on your incomes, assets, and goals. As laws change and social norms change, couples can choose to have children, buy homes, and even combine assets, without having to get married. More and more couples are choosing to create their own path, marrying or not marrying based on what seems right to them.

As much talk as there is about the changing landscape of marriage, there isn’t much talk about how these changes affect divorce. But as society moves towards seeing marriage as less of a necessity, it makes sense that how we see divorce would change as well. When a marriage crumbles, is divorce always the best option? Not from a “we should try to work this out” perspective, but rather from a financial perspective. If we don’t see it as necessary to bring the law into our unions, is it necessary to bring them into our separations?

To be continued…

– Cindy W.

*Names and some details have been changed for privacy purposes

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