Can alimony be saved? Historically, alimony protected women's dependence during marriage. The most fundamental challenge for its continuation therefore rests on reconciling alimony with an era in which the majority of women, including 71% of mothers with children under 18, are in the labor market.
This requires reconsideration of the nature of marriage, not just as a partnership ideal, which arguably it has long been, or as a relationship between equals, which has emerged more recently, but as an integrated part of a new economic model.
This review of The Marriage Buyout by Cynthia Starnes assesses her justification for the continuation of alimony. To do so, it explores the current state of American marriages, and propose separating the developments at the top from those affecting everyone else. The review highlights the book’s strengths in developing a sophisticated and insightful perspective on alimony and a persuasive justification for ongoing payments after divorce, even as it questions the meaning of the caretaker role in today’s families. At a time when no single model describes American marriages, American couples may not necessarily share the same assumptions about what will happen to their families. For the upper ten percent or so of the public, evidence points toward a neotraditional path, in which marriage precedes childbearing, husbands continue to earn more than wives and wives are more likely to cut back on work hours in the interest of the children. For the middle and the bottom, public sentiment is moving in the opposition direction, with growing distrust of marriage and a majority of births outside of marriage. Male employment is more unstable outside the elite and in these groups wives are more likely to outearn husbands at some point in the marriage; yet, this group also remains more committed to a traditionally gendered division of family responsibilities. Do Starnes’ proposals span the class divide? We suspect that the answer is no. Alimony, both in Starnes’ book and elsewhere, remains associated with a traditional division of family responsibilities that no longer describes the majority of American marriages dependent on two incomes or the increasing complexity of family arrangements in a time of economic insecurity.