04/02/2013 12:23 pm ET Updated Jun 02, 2013

Divorcing Mr. Mom

Traditional assumptions about gender roles may be weakening in today's marriages, but they are going strong in divorce. Women who were the higher-earners in their marriage don't want to pay alimony, and many men are uncomfortable receiving it. Higher-earning women are often more reluctant than men to share their retirement savings or investments and more likely to think their soon-to-be ex-spouse will land on his financial feet. These are, of course, generalizations, but in most "gender reversal" divorces they tend to be true, at least to some extent.

Despite the feminist movement, most divorcing couples in my practice report that they did not enter their marriages expecting that the wife would earn more than the husband. Higher earning wives often feel that they have done it all -- managed the family, raised the children and brought home the bacon. When the marriage ends, they are displeased, to say the least, to learn that they have to share their hard-earned assets with their husband, and possibly support him, to boot. To many women, this feels like adding insult to injury.

On the other side, husbands feel they have contributed to the family by shouldering household and child-rearing responsibilities -- far more so than did their fathers and many of their peers -- and should be recognized for those efforts in the same way that women who have stayed home expect and are entitled to be. What's more, had they been the higher-earner in the marriage, that the husbands would share their hard-earned assets and possibly support their ex-wife would not be considered adding insult to injury -- it would simply be considered fair. Both members of the couples often acknowledge this hypocrisy, but their feelings persist.

Why are we seeing more and more of these "gender reversal" cases? In recent decades, women have outpaced men in education and earnings growth. As a result, there are a growing percentage of families in which the wife earns more than the husband. The Pew Research Center has concluded that the wife is the higher earner in roughly one third of all married households based on recent census data. If those statistics translate to divorce, in about one-third of all divorces, the wife may be the primary breadwinner.

The impact of gender reversal on marriages is not clear. The New York Times reported in 2010, "Over all, the evidence shows that the shifts within marriages -- men taking on more housework and women earning more outside the home -- have had a positive effect, contributing to lower divorce rates and happier unions." However, anecdotally, many marriages appear to suffer, including the recent split of Bethenny Frankel and Jason Hoppy, whose marriage reportedly faltered because of the financial success she realized from her reality shows, bestselling books and Skinnygirl products. Referring to the disparity in their income, Mr. Hoppy allegedly said in 2012, "My balls [were] cut off two years ago."

Mr. Hoppy and other husbands like him may feel threatened by their wives' success or guilty for not contributing more financially, and many wives may resent bearing the responsibility of being the higher-earner in the family. These emotions impact the discussion of how to divide marital assets and whether there will be alimony payments between the spouses. In my experience, many men do not want to feel dependent on their exes, and many women strongly believe their former husbands can and should be (and perhaps should have been) self-supporting. Inside and outside the courtroom, property division and, in particular, alimony are hotly contested topics in the negotiation of the terms of divorce. The challenge is often heightened when the wife earns more money.

Despite this added complexity and challenge, financial "gender reversal" cases often settle successfully. Is there a secret to this success? Perhaps... when couples work in the Collaborative Law or mediation process they are given the opportunity to explore not only how their lawyers interpret the law and recent cases on this difficult issue but also other reference points for decision making including the values and emotions that underlie their positions. This opportunity to get underneath positions and consider together how to find a resolution that honors both of them is often powerfully effective even when people start diametrically opposed.