Lessons from a Divorce

Here’s the transmissible lessons I learned I learned from from being dumped last year after subsidizing a decade of marriage, which may be relevant for any bright-eyed young professional being encouraged to settle down and start a household with their cushy salary. The advice for the breadwinner boils down to two things to do:

  1. Get a prenuptial agreement and
  2. Don’t co-mingle your assets.

This is because the old joke “What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine” isn’t a joke when a divorce lawyer is saying it.

The prenuptial should be fairly simple and thus difficult to misconstrue: what each person earns is theirs to be used at their discretion and/or for the benefit of the relationship and/or family — thus mutual support ends if the relationship ends. As long as nobody’s leaving their career to dedicate more time to children, I’d also recommend disclaiming alimony as well.

There’s a temptation for the financial manager of the household to co-mingle fiscal assets — bank accounts, lines of credit, et cetera — so that there’s less to manage, but modern consolidation tools like Mint.com centralize management for you and reduce the overhead of unmingled assets. Keep your income flowing to your — and only your — bank account, and transfer out of that to a household account to cover collective expenses. Isolate your line of credit; your partner can build credit based on the goodness of their own name. What gets purchased — like a painting, for example — belongs then to the person whose credit card statement it appeared on. The burden of paying for a higher education is the primary responsibility of the person getting it, and if they can’t get an education and pay for it and participate in a relationship all at the same time, then you’ll get a clearer look at where their priorities are. And if you buy a house — not advisable in the Portland metro area, by the way — be certain that you’re willing to pay for the whole house in case it suddenly becomes just your house, and keep the whole thing, mortgage and property, in your name.

But why does this matter since you know you’re not going to get divorced? It matters because it reinforces your self-respect. Some books will tell you that being in a relationship means being committed first and foremost to the happiness of the other person. And those books are wrong. They’re wrong because, firstly, people are horrible at predicting what will make them happy so focusing on somebody else’s happiness is a futile idea and secondly because if you’re willing to subjugate your happiness to your partner’s happiness, then you’re demonstrating for them that you think that they’re worth more than you are. As the breadwinner, that’s going to be your natural tendency because you’re making the choice to subsidize the majority of what goes on in the relationship — but by reinforcing it, you undermine the respect that your partner should have for your, let’s be honest, not-necessarily-visible role.

Do not, for example, allow tuition bills from your partner’s education strain your ability to provide for yourself or your willingness to provide for your partner. Do not, for example, allow your partner to be more selective or demanding in the home selection process than you are — and certainly don’t let them claim a working space that they can’t afford to pay the effective rent on. Do not, for example, feel compelled to invest in your partner’s future because — guess what? — you are already heavily invested in your partner’s future.

That said, do not misconstrue or overextend this advice: if you’re not subsidizing the relationship, then you’re not the breadwinner. But what you earn should be given as a gift, not obligation, to your partner/family. Do not hesitate to take your partner on a vacation to, oh say, Tahiti, but do not get wrapped up in the obligation of having a good time to ensure the additional expense is worth it. Do not begrudge your partner for not paying their half of the rent/mortgage on your place, but don’t feel so obligated to provide them a place to live that they get to dictate requirements on where you’re paying to live. Do not be uncompromisingly selfish, but do not be insincerely selfless either.

With some luck, your partner won’t learn helplessness as they expect you to assume responsibility for everything while you’re trying to practice irresponsibility to allow your partner the opportunity to actually contribute to the relationship. Hopefully your partner won’t feel obligated to continue pursuits that they’re not interested in because you weren’t obligated to subsidize them. Ideally your partner won’t resent you for not acquiescing to their fiscally naive and irresponsible impulses. And if everything falls apart because your partner doesn’t have anything to contribute to the relationship other than time and resents even doing that, then at least you shouldn’t be continuing to subsidize their parasitic existence during and after the disintegration since you didn’t co-mingle your resources into communal property and have a prenuptial agreement saying that your earnings and property are, in fact, yours.

You may have sensed some bitterness in this message. I won’t deny it. There’s a lot more that I’m doing — that I have learned to do, that I have been conditioned to do, that I defensively insist upon — that doesn’t seem like useful advice to somebody who hasn’t been used and disposed of. Except for these: Truth is a prerequisite for beauty. Being unusual with somebody doesn’t mean you’re a good match. And “while bachelors are lonely people, I’m convinced that married men are lonely people with dependents.

Good night, and better luck for 2011.