- By Sunél Veldtman

Too many times I’ve sat across the table from a sobbing woman going through divorce. Divorce is always heart breaking - but divorce involving a woman who has sacrificed her career, her financial power and sometimes her identity is particularly traumatic.

Invariably, it’s tempting to tell younger women behind her: “Don’t make the same mistake. Do not give up your career. Always maintain your financial independence!”

It all sounds simple. Have your own career. Maintain your financial independence.

But then life happens. You start a family. His job requires extensive travelling. Two demanding jobs is not sustainable or necessarily conducive to building a family. So you agree that you will scale down. It’s logical since you take care of the kids. Your job takes second place. He excels and earns the big bucks. You support him and keep the home fires burning. Then you split up and find yourself as a single parent at a time when you have to return to a serious job to earn serious money to support yourself in the future. If you were lucky, there were assets (that you knew of) that could be divided up to provide for your retirement. Usually (sadly), there aren’t.

I’m not stereotyping. Money is power. You can replace the she for he in this example and the result will be the same.

Career’s frequently require sacrifice for reward. That sacrifice comes in the form of time, money or both - and someone has to be willing to give something up.

Sometimes the sacrifice is discussed – there is a spoken or written contract. More often than not though - it is assumed or unspoken.

Highly qualified women who make the career sacrifice are particularly vulnerable. You give up your career to raise a family, but when you get divorced, your qualification will make you more easily rehabilitatable (as if you have been addicted to a drug!). That’s right. You will be expected, to get back up on your feet in the world of work in no time at all.

Financial independence is not always achievable. It is not always practical. In most modern families, financial reward may shift between partners over time.

So how do we advise couples to navigate through this issue?

  1. Realise, that regardless of your marriage contract - if one partner is making a career sacrifice for the other or for the family - there needs to be an agreement on how that partner will be rewarded for that sacrifice.
  2. You need to agree on how all of the financial resources will be spent. Too often, a wife gets a “salary” from her husband to run the household and pay for her personal expenses. That wife has no financial power other than her (often marginal) budget. If this couple splits, she often has no knowledge of the rest of the assets and seldom has any power over them.
  3. You both need to know of all the details of all the financial decisions, regardless of your marriage contract. If you (as the wife) are dependent on those decisions for your financial future, you have the right and the responsibility to know. Attend meetings with the financial advisor or banker.
  4. We advise women to remain informed and preferably keep their skills sharp. Women who have stayed in touch with the workforce, find it easier to get back into it. Do not let go in totality.
  5. We also encourage women to save or invest some of their own money. Your will learn by doing and not just witnessing. You will improve your knowledge about financial products.

Finally, financial independence is not always practical or even desired. In the extreme, it is unhelpful to maintain a happy relationship. Selfishness and a lack of genuine care for each other’s wellbeing often masks as financial independence.

I advise couples to be financially symbiotic – a mutually beneficial relationship. It recognises the contribution of both partners and the right of both to benefit financially from the agreement. It requires open and honest conversation and negotiating skills.