How to Manage a Divorce with a Power Imbalance

By Published On: February 7, 2019

Often the most difficult divorces take place against a backdrop of a power imbalance in the marriage.

This was the case with Sarah, who worked prior to the marriage and in the early years before her first child was born.  For the past seven years, however, she has been a stay-at-home mom.  Her husband is the sole wage earner and maintains complete control over the family finances.  With the exception of a joint checking account, all of the marital assets and even the credit cards are titled in his sole name.  He monitors and limits Sarah’s spending, and provides her with minimal information about his income or the family assets.  When the topic of divorce comes up, he makes clear that he is vehemently opposed to the idea, and threatens that Sarah will not have a dime if she proceeds with a divorce.

Sarah is increasingly unhappy in the marriage, but her husband’s threats and manipulative behavior have succeeded in scaring her.  In order to move forward and ensure that she and her children have stability and financial security, Sarah needs to get organized, become informed about her expenses and the family finances, and create and execute a thoughtful plan for separation.  Here are some steps she can take:

  1. First, Sarah should make it a priority to develop a financial plan. This may include thinking about her own employment prospects (although this doesn’t mean her husband won’t have an obligation to provide support).  Finding a job will both contribute to her financial security and increase her self-confidence.  Both are important.  Every person’s situation is different, but possible steps for Sarah may include re-activating her network of contacts from her past employment, reaching out to recruiters, going back to school, taking continuing education courses, increasing her volunteer activities or looking for an unpaid internship.
  2. Setting up an account in her sole name (in a different bank from the one where her husband banks) will be a significant step forward, even if that account has very little money in it to begin with. Taking out her own credit card will provide additional independence.
  3. Getting knowledgeable about the family finances, both with regard to income and expenses, and assets and liabilities, will be key. For example, Sarah can get copies of the parties’ recent joint tax returns from the IRS without having her husband’s signature.   She can also get past family expense information from third parties such as utility companies in order to begin the process of quantifying her monthly budget.
  4. Sarah should work with her attorney to come up with a short-term plan for managing and paying for her expenses pending a more permanent resolution reached either by court order or by agreement.
  5. Finally, Sarah needs to be clear that there is no magic wand. If she makes the decision to proceed with a separation or divorce, there will be a period of doubt and uncertainty.  Having realistic expectations and becoming emotionally prepared for the next steps are critical to navigating the divorce process.

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