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How Can I Get My Spouse to Get a Job After Our Divorce?

Causes and tips for divorcing spouses when one spouse can't (or won't) work.

Key points

  • Courts can’t force a spouse to find work, but they can bring pressure to bear on the spouse in various ways.
  • Vocational counseling can be a way to help a nonworking spouse focus on potential skill building and/or a job search.
  • Being pressured to work can elicit a change in one's sense of identity.

The pandemic has been cited as one of the causes of a spike in divorces. One specific challenge during the pandemic has been the stress of unemployment. Recently I’ve worked with several divorcing spouses where one spouse has either lost their job or has never worked. The financial stresses have added to the many other pandemic-related stresses. Some of my clients have given up the search for work, and others have simply decided that they don’t want to work at all.

Typical Stories of Real Clients

  • Katie (not her real name) has been a stay-at-home mom for more than 20 years. She says she has no skills and that her husband always promised her she would never have to work. Now, with his decision to divorce, he is saying that she needs to contribute to her own support. She tells me all she ever wanted was to be a homemaker. “I guess I could get a job at Target, but I am 55 years old and haven’t worked since before I was married!”
  • Jonah had worked In tech for 15 years until the start of the pandemic, getting contracts as a consultant, but now all of his referrals have dried up. He says, “Why should anyone hire me when they can get a kid fresh out of school with more energy and skills than mine?” Jonah’s wife, Gloria, continued to work after Jonah lost his job. She is furious that she may have to pay him spousal and child support unless he finds work. She brings this up every time they have any contact, but it doesn’t motivate Jonah to increase his job search. The children are confused by their parents’ ongoing fights about money when Jonah says, “I can’t get you that burrito because Mom didn’t put money in our account.” The children are caught in their parents’ divorce. It’s made it very hard to create a parenting plan when there is so much intense emotion.
  • Lucy, whose marriage lasted eight years and who has two children under 6, asks me, “Can he force me to work? He promised he’d always take care of me.”

These are typical stories from people who feel frustrated, helpless, depressed, and fearful of the future. If the decision to divorce was not their decision, they may also feel further betrayed by the pressure to work. The nonworking spouse often feels shame at their “failure” or stubborn resistance to the change in lifestyle that working would cause.

Conflicts about money are one of the biggest factors in divorce. During the divorce process, when everyone’s financial future is impacted negatively, the conflict escalates as unwilling spouses are pressured to find an income. In California, where marriages under 10 years are treated differently, Lucy was told she’d only receive four years of spousal support, although the child support would continue until the children were 18 or out of high school. Lucy has no skills, and, although she is still young, she has no interest in finding a career.

Pete, Lucy’s husband, feels resentful at his wife’s refusal to work. He also feels guilty for his decision to divorce, but he is also very worried about his ability to support two homes. “It’s only fair that she helps,” he tells me. “She’s smart and young and just needs to accept that things have changed. She could at least earn minimum wage.”

What if My Spouse Won’t Get a Job After Our Divorce?

While the courts can’t force a spouse to find work, the court can bring pressure to bear on the spouse in various ways. One way is to “impute” income to the nonworking spouse. This means that support would be calculated as if the spouse were working and earning to their ability/skills and opportunity.

If a spouse refuses to find work, there may be many factors to consider:

  • Are they depressed or dealing with a mental health issue?
  • How are they coping? Many of my clients have turned to alcohol to cope with the shame and anxiety about not having a job.
  • Is their refusal a way of getting back at the spouse for some grievance?

During a divorce, vocational counseling can be a way to help that spouse begin to focus on potential skill-building and/or a job search.

The issue is further complicated by the many factors a court must consider when determining spousal support, including whether the nonworking spouse could contribute income to the family. Spousal support, unlike child support, is not driven by a simple formula. The guideline most lawyers in California use is that the paying spouse's support is about 40 percent of their net monthly income, reduced by one-half of the receiving spouse's net monthly income. If child support is an issue, spousal support is calculated after child support is calculated. (This varies in many states, so check your jurisdiction.) Furthermore, judges have a lot of discretion in how they determine support or alimony. Here are some of those factors:

  • How the children are affected
  • The marital standard of living
  • The payer’s ability to pay
  • The nonworking spouse’s ability to work (skills, opportunities, etc.)
  • The budgets of both spouses to live up to or close to the marital standard
  • The duration of the marriage
  • The age and health of the spouses
  • Each spouse’s separate property (such as inheritances)
  • The goal that the recipient must become self-supporting (especially in short-term marriages)
  • Tax considerations
  • History of domestic violence or criminal convictions
  • Any other relevant considerations

Divorce, with its many complications, almost always shakes up your view of how your life was going to unfold. In addition to the issues you expect (losing your partner; possibly losing time with your children; financial losses; perhaps losing the family home, friends, or extended family; and much more), the nonworking spouse faces another life crisis: Being pressured to work elicits a change in your sense of identity. Struggling to find work due to your lack of or outdated skills elicits shame and frustration, and refusing to find work can cause conflict and financial penalties.

If you are in this situation, a vocational counselor and/or therapist can help you deal with your emotions. Then you will be able to consider clearly what your options are—whether to learn new skills, revive past skills, develop a creative new path, or significantly reduce your lifestyle.

Diane was in her early 60s when her husband announced his intention to divorce. She had always enjoyed baking and candy-making, and, despite her age and lack of other marketable skills, she was able to turn her love of baking into a business. Many local restaurants became loyal customers, purchasing desserts from Diane. Diane said to her collaborative divorce team, “I guess it was time for me to just put on my big girl panties!” She earned enough to have some of the “extras” that spousal support did not cover, and her adult children (who happily sampled her creations) were very proud of their mom.

© Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D. 2022


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