Why do we still believe that divorce leaves men worse off than women?

The myth of the “poor ex-husband” persists, even though the evidence shows that women and children are too often the victims of post-divorce inequality.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

When I was growing up my father, a solicitor, had a collection of cartoons based on the legal profession. There’s one I remember in particular. Called “The Divorce Settlement”, it was divided into three parts: “His Share”, showing a battered suitcase and an electric heater; “Her Share”, showing a semi, two children and a car; “The Lawyer’s Share”, showing a mansion, a yacht, a Rolls Royce and several bottles of champagne (the joke being that when it comes to divorce, lawyers are the ultimate winners).

This cartoon always bothered me, not because I felt particularly protective of divorce lawyers, but because I didn’t understand why it was taken as read that ex-wives came second and ex-husbands last. Certainly this wasn’t the case in any of the divorces I’d encountered, both within my family and outside it. It was always the wives who seemed to have been left in the lurch, unable to socialise, go on holiday or send their children on school trips. From the way my parents talked about divorced couples we knew, they recognised this, too, and yet the myth of the “poor ex-husband” persisted. While individual ex-wives might be struggling, ex-wives as a group still seemed to be grasping harridans, living the WAG lifestyle without even having to pay for it in spray tans, diets and reluctant shags.

A recent study from the University of Essex shows that for women who split up with their partners, the reality is far less glamorous. According to Mike Brewer, Professor of Economics and one of the study’s authors:

Women continue to see living standards fall by more after separation than men, especially when children are involved, but even for couples with no children. Mothers and children from high-income families see especially large drops in living standards, because the loss of the man’s earnings is in no way compensated for by higher income from alimony, child maintenance, benefits and tax credits, and having fewer mouths to feed.

Around 15 per cent of mothers and 19 per cent of children fall into relative poverty post-separation. The wealth gap between men and women is even starker in couples who separate later in life. Contrary to popular belief, men are not tied to women and screwed over the moment they leave; if we’re going to describe human relationships using such cynical terms, it’s actually the other way round.

This inequality ought to be causing more outrage, especially as it’s not a case of “just the women” but is hurting children, too (compared to women, children tend at least to be innocent until proven guilty in life’s great trials). However, it seems the power of a false narrative – long-suffering ex-husband, greedy ex-wife – is enough to quell dissent. Certainly I have female friends who have gone out of their way not to be “too demanding” when it comes to divorce, repenting at leisure once they realise that it’s all very well to avoid being tarred with the hysterical harpy brush, but you still need to pay the rent.

We’re surrounded by a culture that has somehow managed to depict women – those hardy human beings who live longest, bear children and do the most of the world’s caring work – as inferior and needy. Regardless of how much men depend on the physical and emotional labour of women, intimate relationships between the sexes are still described in terms of clingy, biological-clock-driven woman versus brave,  independent man who dreads getting “tied down” (there is a whole dating guide industry based around telling women how not to appear as drippy and pathetic as they really are). We have learned to undervalue what we bring to relationships, in both emotional and economic terms, and men have learned to take it for granted.

And so, despite the fact that according to the single parent charity Gingerbread, only two-fifths of single parents (the vast majority of them women) receive maintenance from the child’s other parent, it’s men who are donning superhero costumes and declaring themselves the real victims of any separation. The utter erasure of women and children from the standard post-break up narrative exposes the truth about chivalry and “women and children first”: you’ll hold open a door for us, just as long as it’s not one that offers access to independence, safety and self-determination. You’ll pay for food on the first date, but years down the line, when we’re struggling to feed your children? That’s when you suddenly find you believe in an abstract “equality,” one that’s devoid of any social, economic or cultural context.

Women work as hard, if not harder, than men yet the latter take possession of the vast majority of the world’s resources, claiming to have “earned it”. While I’m well aware that this is not some evil plot on the part of individual men, that in itself does not lessen the harm it does. Many heterosexual couples endeavour to have equal relationships and against all odds, some achieve it. Nonetheless, there remains a structural imbalance that cannot be easily overcome by the goodwill of individuals or pairs working in isolation. If campaigns such as HeForShe are to have any serious impact, they need to get right to the heart of how we understand work and value. This isn’t about ensuring men are generous to women; it’s about destroying a hierarchy which puts men in the position of benefactor and women in that of supplicant in the first place. That’s not a solid foundation for any relationship, intimate or otherwise.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.