There are few things in family law more controversial than alimony (also referred to as spousal maintenance), which is defined as a series of support payments made by one former spouse to another. Traditionally, alimony may be awarded when one spouse has need of financial support to maintain the marital standard of living, the other spouse has the ability to pay it, and the award meets certain criteria of fairness (e.g. it should not plunge the paying spouse into poverty or excuse the payee spouse from engaging in paid employment). Historically, alimony was paid by ex-husbands to their ex-wives, but today’s laws make it plain that either a man or a woman may be the payor. Spouses who have stayed home or reduced paid employment to raise children may claim that their activities at home made success at work more possible for the other spouse to succeed in the workplace, and that this should result in a greater share of the property division or an alimony award to either compensate the stay-at-home spouse for the sacrificed opportunities (restitution) or enable him or her to re-tool for a job with good pay (rehabilitation). Indeed, statutes like Wisconsin’s §767.56 direct judges to consider all of these factors (and others) in determining whether to award alimony to a divorcing spouse.
Nonetheless, alimony has never been common and has become less so: the few empirical studies that have been done show that only a small minority of divorcing spouses are awarded alimony of any amount and for any duration. The reasons for the always-low and still-declining numbers of alimony recipients are many and varied, and a full discussion of all of the theories requires more than a blog post.
Clearly, though, a major reason for resistance to alimony payments is the notion that, while labor and wages during a marriage should be shared, and property accumulated during marriage should be fairly divided, wages earned after the divorce belong solely to the person earning them. The earner, after all, is the one who got the training, worked long hours over time to get raises and promotions, has intelligence or talent unique to him or her, and generally (the argument goes) deserves to be the one who is rewarded for his or her efforts.
Still, courts are empowered to order alimony payments in appropriate circumstances, and the question becomes whether sharing the income of an ex-spouse is fair in a particular case. Often, court cases turn into sad debates about issues such as whether a wife helped or hindered her husband’s career, entertained enough or too little, was a good cook or housekeeper, or relied too heavily on babysitters and cleaning ladies. The scarcity of alimony awards suggests that these arguments have a lot of traction: unless a spouse directly contributed to educational expenses of the other partner or actively worked in the family business, claims that he or she helped advance the other spouse’s career are often met with skepticism or derision.
But what if we could show that personal qualities of certain spouses do make a difference in their spouse’s careers? Tantalizing new research done at Washington University in St. Louis suggests that one spouse’s personality traits may influence the career success of the other spouse. Psychologists Joshua Jackson and Brittany Solomon did a five-year study of almost 5,000 married couples who were between 19 and 89 years old. The researchers used psychological tests to measure five personality characteristics: openness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism and conscientiousness. They found that the most successful working spouses were more likely to have spouses with high conscientiousness scores. This was true for both male and female workers, and it did not seem to matter whether the worker was married to a stay-at-home or working spouse (about 75% of the sample involved two working spouses). The authors speculated about possible reasons for this link, suggesting that a spouse could mimic the other spouse’s conscientiousness, or perhaps a working spouse could rely more extensively on a conscientious spouse, thereby having lower stress and higher productivity in the workplace.
This research supports the notion already recognized in divorce law that many spousal contributions to a marriage are intangible. Indeed, recognition of non-economic contributions such as homemaking or child-rearing in property division or alimony decisions makes it clear that the law will assign some monetary value to such activities so as to ensure that a stay-at-home spouse will not be utilized as unpaid labor and then discarded without means of support when the children are grown. While it may not always be possible to quantify and reward each contribution when a marriage ends, we would do well to continue to employ the tool of alimony as necessary to adjust fairness when couples divorce.