I wanted to speak a little bit in this episode to a situation that comes up pretty frequently where one spouse has been the main or the sole breadwinner for the entirety or the vast majority of the marriage, and the other spouse has been often a stay-at-home parent. Maybe they have not worked outside of being a stay-at-home parent, or maybe they’ve worked a little bit part time but certainly not at a level that supports themselves or brings in a lot of income to the family.
So, where the spouses are really not similarly situated in terms of their earning history or capacity. And just some tips for both spouses in those different positions as to how to think about the need to have one spouse return to the workforce in the course of the divorce process and how to structure your agreement and how to manage your expectations around that process of having one spouse who has been out of the workforce or mostly out of the workforce return to the workforce through the divorce.
A couple of things. First of all, where a spouse has been mostly or entirely out of the workforce for a number of years, their return to the workforce and to their full earning capacity is almost never immediate.
Sometimes it is, but generally speaking, it takes some time. If they’ve been out of the workforce and they haven’t been earning or they haven’t been earning much and they need to return, it is going to take them some time. It may be months. It may be a couple of years, depending on their situation, the length of time they’ve been out of the workforce, their skills, for them to return to a full earning capacity.
I address that really to both spouses. For the person who is returning to the workforce, it’s important to bear in mind because it’s not the case that because you’ve been out of the workforce, you can never return. That’s simply not the case. You can. It just tends to take time and some good strategic planning and some good work often with a coach to reenter the workforce in a way that’s productive and that really values you at the level that you should be valued at. But also bear in mind that you should not be expected to return to the workforce immediately, day one, after the decision is made to divorce. And I think for the stay-at-home spouse, most people get that.
For the spouse who has been the breadwinner, often there’s a sense that “Okay, well, now that we’re divorcing, our situation is different. And when we were married, it was fine for me to make all the money, and my spouse to stay home. But we’re in a new era now, and that is in the era of divorcing. And in that era, I’m not okay with my spouse staying home and not working. They need to be working and earning.” Well, absolutely understandable, but it’s not going to happen overnight. And often, the amount of time it takes a spouse to return to the workforce is, to some degree, related to the amount of time they’ve been out of the workforce, but also to the person themselves and the skillset they have. But, as the breadwinner spouse, you really want to manage your expectations that having your spouse return to the workforce, return to earning at his or her full capacity is not going to happen overnight.
So yes, it is a gradual return process, but the process of returning to the workforce is generally not so gradual that it feels totally comfortable to the spouse who is returning to the workforce. It is normal for the return to the workforce to feel uncomfortable and accelerated, too soon, as the spouse who is returning to the workforce to feel not confident in your ability to get a job or in your ability to command a particular salary or compensation level.
I would not advise you to expect a timeline that subjectively feels comfortable to you or that you feel no anxiety whatsoever around. Because you’re doing something new or something that you haven’t done in a long time. It is hard to return to the workforce, but it’s possible. And you want to find that middle ground of the timeline for your return to the workforce not being so accelerated that it feels absolutely impossible, overwhelming, something that no one could do, like “Okay, here’s three weeks, and get back to working fulltime.”
But, you also don’t want to expect, because you are likely to be disappointed, that the process will not be anxiety-producing or feel uncertain or that you won’t feel like you’re being required to move at a pace that’s too rapid and that feels marginally or mildly uncomfortable to you.
That the pace feels mildly uncomfortable to you probably means that it’s roughly in the right spot and usually coincides with the pace feeling mildly uncomfortable to the breadwinner spouse on the flipside, in that it feels like it’s so slow and gradual and why is it going to take this long for their spouse to return to the workforce?
So you sort of want to aim to be in a place where both spouses feel not great about the timeline. Maybe you are the exceptional case in which both people feel like “Wow, that’s a really great timeline for returning to the workforce. I feel comfortable with that. You feel comfortable with that. We’re good to go here.” But alternatively, if you’re not that exceptional case and one person feels like “Oh my god. This is so fast. It’s unreasonable,” and the other person feels like “This is so slow. It’s ridiculous,” you’re probably more or less working with the right timeline.
A word for the spouse who is returning to work. I think a lot of people can understandably get focused on what the timeline is and what the requirements of them are and sort of getting into the details of negotiating those points. And they are important points. It’s not to say you should ignore them.
But don’t ignore or don’t fail to give attention and energy to: just get started. Just start regardless of whether your spouse is proposing a ridiculously accelerated timeline for returning to the workforce and you’re saying, “Absolutely not. It needs to be quadruple that.” That’s one project you’re currently working on, which is negotiating the timeline around your return to the workforce.
But at the same time, don’t ignore taking steps, even baby steps, to start returning to the workforce as soon as possible, as if you were working along the timeline that your spouse is proposing.
You probably won’t end up there. Hopefully, if that timeline feels unreasonable to you, you’ll have a longer timeline that you ultimately agree to. But don’t put your return to the workforce and the homework and the tasks that you’re doing related to that on hold while you’re negotiating your return to the workforce because then your negotiation process takes a year and if you just start working on looking for jobs and sharpening your résumé at that point, you’ve lost a year, which is valuable time.
So regardless of whether or not you have agreement with your spouse on your timeline for returning to work, just get started. Taking baby steps. Identify a coach. Work with a coach. I can’t recommend that more highly. If you feel like you are at all at a loss as to where to start or how to shape up your résumé or how to present yourself, what kinds of jobs to go after, get a coach. It’s worth the investment. And start working on it now. No better time than the present. And continue negotiating a timeline that feels reasonable to you, that’s expected of you in your ultimate divorce settlement.
For both spouses, in terms of the advice or the guidance that you will get from your attorneys, and I’ve spoken to this in previous episodes in the podcast, just bear in mind that if you’re the breadwinner spouse, your attorney’s recommendation, perspective on how quickly your stay-at-home spouse is going to be able to return to the workforce is probably going to be slightly accelerated, generally about 30% accelerated, and vice-versa.
If you are the stay-at-home spouse, your attorney’s advice, counsel, perspective on how long it’s going to take you to return to the workforce or what would be a reasonable timeline for you is going to be overstated slightly. It’s just because naturally your attorneys are biased in your favor. They’re not trying to give you skewed advice, but that’s typically how it shakes out.
So you want to discount, and roughly a ballpark by about 30%. Discount what your attorney is telling you is a reasonable timeline because it’s often skewed. What they’re telling you is skewed in your favor. So if they’re telling you a year and your spouse is proposing six months, nine months is probably reasonable, and you should accept nine months.
That’s with regard to that kind of attorney advice or attorney advice on any other subject. That’s where it can be useful to have, whether it be your neutral mediator weigh in or whether you and your spouse decide to retain a neutral expert on employability and return to the workforce and have that person as a neutral weigh in on what’s reasonable for a return to work timeline for the stay-at-home spouse. I would put a lot more stock in what that neutral person says to you, what guidance they give, than I necessarily would in your attorney’s perspective on what feels reasonable.
I’m guilty of this too and I represent individual clients. They’re going to be biased in your favor and so their advice is going to be a little bit skewed in your favor and you just want to try to correct for that so that you are not failing to accept a reasonable proposal around timeline for returning to the workforce.
One question I get a lot from spouses who are in the position of needing to return to the workforce is “Should I wait until after the divorce process? Is it going to negatively impact me in the divorce to have returned to the workforce?” And my answer is always “No. Don’t wait to return to the workforce.”
If you have a great job offer now but you’re just at the outset of your divorce process, please don’t pass it up just to get a slightly higher support award in the divorce process. A bird in hand. Take a good job offer. That’s my perspective. Obviously, I don’t know your individual situation.
But while earning an income in excess, an actual income in excess, of the income that might have been imputed to you in your divorce negotiation could result in you receiving, being entitled to receive, slightly less support, you don’t want to just think about your advantage or your standing in your divorce negotiation. The bigger picture is what advantages you in your life, and taking a good job, if you have the offer for a good job even though you’re in the divorce process, advantages you in your life.
I mean, maybe you have a situation where you know that that job will always be available to you in a year, in two years, in three years, and it doesn’t matter when you take it. Even then, if your family is running a deficit and you could be earning income, it works to your benefit to earn income if that’s needed. But generally speaking, it does not overall benefit you to not take a job and to sort of deflate your income or your earnings, artificially deflate them, if you had the opportunity to earn more, just to garner some advantage in the support negotiation. It’s really not to your advantage.
That’s another year or two years, however long your divorce negotiation goes on for, that you’re not earning at level one and then taking the next step up to earning at level two. So you’re really leaving money on the table, and I’m not sure that a support award, a slightly increased support award would ever make up for what you would be leaving on the table in terms of the salary you’re not earning as a result of not having taken a job during the divorce process.
In terms of how to communicate with your spouse around this issue, some of the pitfalls that I see are that the stay-at-home spouse continues to communicate to the breadwinner spouse how difficult it is for them to return to the workforce, and the breadwinner spouse continues to reiterate to the stay-at-home spouse how imperative it is that they return to the workforce.
I would say that once you’ve said that once, first of all, even if you didn’t say that at all, probably the other spouse is aware of it, whether or not they’re expressing it. And once you’ve said it once, I would let that be. In my experience, it doesn’t become more convincing to the other person the more you articulate it to them. And I think, in fact, what ends up happening when you continue to repeat your concerns to the other person is that they get more agitated and/or anxious that you are not understanding the concerns they’re expressing.
What I would recommend instead is to try to articulate, to start off with articulating what you understand to be your spouse’s concerns, which is if you’re the stay-at-home spouse, try to start off by saying, “I understand that I need to return to the workforce. I get that it’s important because XYZ, because we’re running a deficit, because we’re going to have increased expenses, because, because, because, for all the obvious reasons. And I’m working on that. If you have concrete suggestions to make about how I could do it better, I’m willing to hear those,” or if not, you could say that as well, “It’s not helpful to me to receive your suggestions, but I am going to work with an employability coach,” or whatever steps you’re taking, you can communicate. “And if I need more help from you or more suggestions, I will let you know.”
And then for the breadwinner spouse, you would start off by saying, “Look, I know that it would feel totally daunting to have to take this on in addition to the whole divorce process.” And by this, I mean returning to the workforce. “And I get that I’m not in your shoes, and I’m not experiencing that. If there’s a way that I can be helpful to you in the process, let me know.”
And for the breadwinner spouse, I would try to hold off on making a lot of suggestions, unless your spouse is soliciting them, as to how your spouse could do a better job of returning to the workforce. Really try to just step out of that role and do everything possible to connect the spouse returning to the workforce with some kind of coach who is neutral or who is working as an advocate for the spouse returning to the workforce and whose advice or opinion is not going to be seen as so biased as to be rejected by the spouse who is returning to the workforce.
The last thing I want to acknowledge, and that I think it’s helpful for you if you’re in either role in this situation to acknowledge, is that this situation is difficult for both people because the truth is you had a sort of working agreement in your marriage. One spouse earned and the other spouse was doing many other things to run the home, to take care of kids, etc. And that more or less worked for you when you were together and now you’re in a new situation that really neither of you counted on, and things need to change. The person who has been earning wants the person who has been at home to start earning sooner, and the person who has been at home feels really pushed to start earning in a way that’s not viable. And it feels crappy to both people.
It’s par for the course to feel not great about this kind of situation and I think for both people, to some degree, to question or reconsider or regret the decisions that they made when they decided to have one spouse stay home and not work, which worked for them at the time, but now that their situation has changed, it really doesn’t work.
And I would just say two things to that.
One, go easy on yourself. Hindsight is 20/20. Maybe if you knew at the time that you collectively decided that one person would stay home that you would be getting divorced, you would have made a different decision, but you didn’t know that at the time. You made the best decisions. You both made the best decisions you could at the time and circumstances have changed and you’re going to adapt to them.
The second thing I would say is just be careful not to lean too hard in the direction of blaming your spouse for the situation that you find yourselves in. I think that’s a common pitfall for a lot of people who feel like “Man, this situation is really not one that I want to be in, and you’re to blame because you wanted me to stay home,” or “You’re to blame because you wanted to stay home.”
At this point, it doesn’t really matter how you got to where you are. You are where you are. It is a difficult situation to be in. You both have to make some tough adjustments. And just accepting that you made the best decisions you could at the time, this is where you are and you’re going to make the best of this situation and adjust as you need to adjust, just as you would do, for instance, if you had another unforeseen and difficult change in your life.
God forbid, if the breadwinner spouse became sick or disabled and couldn’t earn, what would you do? That wouldn’t be something you had necessarily planned for. The other spouse would likely need to return to the workforce and this is not dissimilar. This is a big change in the way that you structure your family unit financially that will require adaptation from both people. And it can be done. It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable, but it can be done. That’s the good news.
You just want to be careful to not expend too much energy in fighting each other over how to allocate the risks or the challenges of this particular difficult situation between you and devote your energies to more productive pursuits, which is figuring out how to return to the workforce, figuring out how to make more money together, figuring out how to lower your expenses for a period of time together, things that will actually concretely help you move forward into the reality of living in two separate households, and by nature of that, increasing your expenses and increasing your need for income.
That was our mini-episode on the dynamic when one spouse has been the breadwinner, the other spouse has been more of a stay-at-home spouse, and how to take on the challenge of having one spouse who has been out of the workforce return to work. I hope it was helpful for you.