11/16/2012 10:21 am ET Updated Jan 16, 2013

Can a Woman Be Happily Dependent?

A 20-something recently asked me whether a woman could be happily dependent on a spouse or if financial independence is a necessity. For a segment of millennial women -- products of divorce and underemployment -- the answer to providing a secure future for their children is to stay at home.

My short answer was... no (you can't be happily dependent) and yes (financial independence is a necessity). You may be blissfully ignorant for a while, but it can smack you in the face.

The other side of marriage, children and financial dependence is divorce, child support and financial infidelity. But no one want to think that will be their fate and being financially independent flies in the face of partnership.

Let's take a step back. Marriage originated way back when as a financial necessity. Women had to marry to survive. Men provided the home, the food and the sperm. Women provided the housekeeping, the care and feeding and the children. Parents brought up daughters to be married off and "provided for."

Fast-forward to today. Women don't need to marry to survive. Thanks to the industrial revolution, we've evolved from an agricultural economy to a service economy. Work is not dependent on muscle and might. With women and children no longer required to work the farm, education become a path for all.

Today, women are on the path to exceed men in both education and career advancement. But people still treat marriage as a necessity. It's hard to change social attitudes and parental instincts. Parents still want their baby girl to be taken care of. Women still succumb to the idea that marriage is a "safe place to fall." Men still view marriage as a rite of passage to manhood. So we check the boxes -- the "should-happens." Then it's easy to get lulled into a fixed picture of your future and the "will-happens."

Something shifts in our brains when we get married. You can't go into marriage without believing it will be forever. You have to suspend reality. Otherwise, why would so many sane people go down that aisle despite a near 50% divorce rate? Everyone believes they are special ... they will beat the odds.

So when a woman makes a conscious decision to quit her job to take care of the children or not to work, she often does so with a vision of a stable home, a forever partner and a retirement fund. Then if divorce happens (not of their choosing), they feel as if their whole future has been ripped out from underneath them. This woman sums it up well:

"Just in case you don't know what going through a divorce is like, it is as though when you got married you got on a plane to Paris, looking forward to eating croissants and going to the Louvre. But instead you landed in Beirut."

No one gets there alone. The decision to be dependent has to be discussed and put in motion with a partner. You invest emotionally and physically in a family plan and financial playbook. When that future gets taken away, women feel betrayed... and suddenly terrified of an unstable future. A switch goes off again.

Even the bride who believes, "I would never want to leave a marriage with more than I brought to it" can suddenly change their mind years later when they have a child to support and divorce comes their way. Hello, bitter divorces. For some women, the financial acrimony is the only way they can hurt the partner who hurt them, but more often than not, like 200 years ago, it's about financial "survival." Every cent is for the future of their child and themselves. It's a fight for the ability to provide for that child through college and beyond, not knowing if the other half will step up to the plate.

Okay... I hear you. There are millions of women who don't follow this path and millions of others who don't have the option. In fact, the woman who asked the question has since gotten engaged... but not before starting her own company. But I'm shocked at the number of women who do. So look at this as a healthy reminder that financial independence is the best marital insurance.

Smart women do....

1. Get pre-nups
2. Keep working or keep their toe in the water
3. Reinvent a career in a flexible / part-time capacity
4. Maintain the skills necessary to go back to work through mentoring or ongoing education, keeping certifications up to date.
5. Stop working only when they have their own nest egg built up

Here's to being happily dependent... on yourself. Or as one 40-something woman shared, independent enough:

You have to be able to support yourself in some way. It doesn't mean that you have to actually do it. It just means you have to be able to do it. It gives you a sense of autonomy that without which, I don't think you can make good decisions. You certainly don't want to end up in a relationship with any man you can't afford to leave. That doesn't mean you have to be able to drive around in a Mercedes and live in a fancy house. It simply means that if you had to, you could pay your bills yourself. Then the rest is negotiable... how you end up dividing up the finances in your marriage. That's up to you.
- 40-something, Detroit

On 40:20 Vision I share a variety of different women's perspectives on "What I know now that I wish I knew then. It's a resource to help people decide what feels right for them. Love to year your perspective!