Author: Alicia Kelly


Money Matters in Ongoing Marriage Law

Married life is characterized by a sharing norm. As I described in an earlier post, spouses commit to and in fact engage deeply in sharing behavior, including a shared family economy. Overwhelmingly, spouses pool economic resources, including labor, and decide together how to allocate them to benefit the family as a whole.

In addition to its affects in the paid labor market (see my last post), sharing money matters inside a functioning marriage.  It shapes the couple relationship as well as each partner individually. Research shows that in an ongoing marriage, money is a relational tool. For example, making money a communal asset is a way to demonstrate intimacy and commitment, and that can nurture a couple’s bond. Yet, in some circumstances, an assignment of resources to just one spouse can also be understood (by both partners) to be appropriate and deserved—a recognition of the individual within a sharing framework. Conversely, it is also possible that spouses’ monetary dealings can undermine individual autonomy and the relationship as well. For example, one person might exercise authority over money in a way that disregards the other. Accordingly, power to influence financial resource allocation within the family is important for individual spouses and for togetherness.

It becomes a special concern then, that sharing patterns in marriage are gendered.  As highlighted in my previous post, role specialization remains a part of modern intimate partner relations. Particularly true for married couples, men continue to perform more as breadwinners, and women more as caregivers. As a result, women tend to have reduced earning power in the market. How does this market asymmetry translate into economic power at home? Happily, in a significant departure from the past, a majority of couples report that they share financial decisionmaking power roughly equally. Indeed, most married couples today endorse gender equality as an important value in their relationship. However, in a significant minority of marriages, spouses agree that husbands have more economic power. For some couples then, a husband’s breadwinning role and/or perhaps his gender, confers authority in contentious money matters.

How should law governing an ongoing marriage respond to these sharing dynamics? Consider this hypothetical fact situation. A husband has a stock account from which he plans to make a gift to his sister who he feels really needs the money. The husband suspects that his wife would not approve of the gift. Even though the wife too loves the sister, she believes the sister is irresponsible with money. Let’s assume that the money in that stock account was acquired while the parties were married, and that it came from the market wages of one or both of the spouses earned during marriage. It was a product of the couple’s shared life. Does contemporary law allow the husband to give his sister the gift without her consent? Without even telling her? How should legal power over the money be allocated?

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Women As Half the Workforce Does Not Equal Equality

In this “mancession” economy with men losing more jobs than women, women have edged up to constitute about half the workforce. Have a look at some of the headlines on the topic over the last year. “A Women’s Nation Changes Everything” says the Shriver Report, “Women and Work: We Did It” says the Economist. It seems Rosie the Riveter has won the day. Atlantic Magazine even pronounced it as “The End of Men.”

But such sweeping tales of women’s equality are misleading. And when layered onto continuing and powerful gender behavior norms, the myth of equality circulating in American popular culture further obscures systemic gender differences, making them seem normal, and perhaps inevitable. But the reality is that gender equality has not been mainstreamed. Although there have indeed been remarkable changes in recent decades in women’s status, including increased participation in the labor force, important economic and power inequalities between men and women persist in modern family and work life.

However, the frontlines of inequality are shifting now. It’s less about sexism and more about caregiving. Even as women take on more paid work, home life has changed less than you might think. As sociologists and psychologists have observed, a “schema of devotion to family caregiving” for women continues to powerfully influence the way women and men work and care for their families—and how they understand themselves. The impact? Women today still provide the lion’s share of unpaid family work, doing twice the housework and child care as men. And men still do more market work and bring in more income.

Below I sketch out some highlights of the modern landscape on work allocation between men and women. I recognize there isn’t a single depiction of family life. So please understand that what follows is a short overview describing general patterns without detailing the important variations that lie behind the data. Also, the gendered pattern I describe recurs among heterosexual couples. Same sex couples are less likely to follow this pattern. Among other resources, I am tapping into persuasive and recent research available from time use studies from 1965-2000 evaluated in Changing Family Rhythms of American Family Life, a book by sociologists Bianchi, Robinson and Milkie. It’s a terrific resource if you are interested in more and more varied information.

The demands for family care have amplified and expanded. Over the last several decades, parenting has become more intensive, with studies showing that parents are managing to spend as much time with their children (or possibly more) than in the 1960’s when a majority of children had at home mothers. Additionally, as investments in children increase, many young people today tend to stay in the care of their parents long beyond age 18, as “quasi-dependents” experiencing what the scientific literature calls “emerging adulthood.” At the same time, many families also provide care for an elderly relative. Studies show that one in four working Americans has significant responsibilities to care for an aging family member. Like child care and housework, elder care work is disproportionately performed by women—by daughters and daughter’s-in law. Indeed, a great number of women will take care of elderly loved ones longer than they care for children.

How then are families managing to meet the demands of both family work and paid work? No doubt, both men and women share the load and work hard. Recent data from Changing Rhythms show that if you add up both paid work and unpaid family work, on average women and men work roughly the same amount of hours—about 65 hours per week (for parents with children under 18). That’s an increase in total hours worked compared to a generation ago. Yet in terms of who does what kind of work and how much, gendered role specialization has decreased but persists—men remain mostly breadwinners and women still are predominantly caregivers.

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Intimate Partner Sharing and Commitment Today

My thanks to Angel Maldonado and the rest of the Concurring Opinions team for inviting me to blog this month. During my guest stint I will highlight the law’s involvement in the everyday lives of couples, exploring the intersections of law, sharing and economic behavior and gender relations.

Is longstanding connection and commitment falling out favor? Does solitary individualism rule our times, even in our personal relationships? It is easy to see the disconnects around us. Pick the celebrity divorce of your choice as an example. After forty years of marriage, even Al and Tipper called it quits. So do a lot of ordinary couples. Although declining a bit in recent decades, divorce rates remain high and cohabitants break up rates are even higher. Some even suggest that marriage itself should be on the chopping block—get the state out of intimate relationships, don’t privilege one kind of relationship over another, and leave adults to choose, define and resolve their own relationships.

But failures and worries of relationship failures notwithstanding, the vast majority of American’s today still desire and in fact pursue deep long lasting relations with an intimate partner, and for many, marriage is still seen as the ideal. Although marriage rates have decreased and vary, especially by race and socioeconomics, most people in the U.S. still get married. Lifetime marriage rates from the 2000 census show that overall 86% of men and 88% of women have married at least once by the time they are 49. Interestingly, many unmarried folks are also enthusiastic about marriage. For example, Pew Research Center data from a 2007 survey found that most unmarried adults say they want to marry. Both the never-married parents as well as the cohabiters in the survey were more skeptical than all others that a person can lead a complete and fulfilled life if he or she remains single. No doubt then, committed coupling is still very much in vogue. Something remains powerfully attractive about being part of an intimate partner relationship more generally and for many, about marriage in particular.

What so many people are after is a committed sharing relationship—a protected arena to build and enjoy a web of interdependent connections that bridge the gap between individuals. For many, marriage is the vehicle of choice for this kind of relationship, although surely, cohabiting relationships recurrently serve these goals as well. Because cohabitation is more variable, I will focus on marriage for now, as marriage clearly includes a strong sharing norm. Research demonstrates that extensive sharing is viewed as a centrally important goal for marriage. And behavior reflects this. Although not in every way, and certainly not always perfectly accomplished, spouses regularly engage in an interdependent sharing of their lives, socially and economically.

How should law regard sharing commitments and behavior among couples? Should sharing be supported and nurtured? For any couple who desires it? In what form? Should law funnel intimate partner sharing into a particular relationship structure such as marriage or perhaps civil unions? Or should law seek to reduce interdependence and maximize independence for partners? Alternatively, perhaps law should withdraw altogether and leave it to couples to govern themselves?

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