Cash is Always the Currency of Love’s Labours Lost

It’s always about the money. Or is it?

When a marriage ends, insults fly, but most of the time the real knock-down drag-outs are about cash, even when there’s more than enough to go around.

Some might say this is to be expected. After all, money is what married couples argue about most. Why would things be different when they split?

Before I answer this, I need to confess. I am the child of divorce. My parents finally divorced after 11 years of unhappy matrimony interspersed with several failed separations. They moved from disputes about custody to brawls about money that only ended (or I think they did, anyway) when I left home. I’ve also been divorced myself and, like most of us, witnessed numerous family members and friends follow a similar path.

In other words, the view I am about to impart is – for better or for worse -home-grown.

And it is this. When estranged partners argue over money, they are really talking about emotions. Disputes about the sums to be inserted into property settlement formulas – how much each partner brought to the marriage and who contributed what to the value of assets accumulated during the marriage – are really about far more than cash.

Why is this so? Whether right or wrong, most of us see divorce as a failure and with failure comes disappointment, grief and anger. Especially in the early stages, emotions run high as each partner tries to work out what went wrong and the role they played in the break-up. Part of this process seems to be an accounting for the way that the personality and emotional baggage the other person brought to the relationship, and his or her emotional failures during its duration, contributed to the marriage’s demise.

See the parallel? No wonder that money, a measure of value we all understand, becomes a proxy for tallying up all the other person failed to give us, and all that failure cost us, in emotional terms. A proxy for summing up the responsibility each bears for the dissolution of the partnership and consequently, how much each owes, and must be made to pay.

The money-as-emotional-proxy theory throws light on why sometimes, even after the settlement is done, couples rage on. Think of Denise Richards and Charlie Sheen. It also explains why couples would risk the damage to their children and reputations caused by settling the issue in court – instead of privately – despite the fact that the amount one party rejects as an insult is generous enough for the interest to support a family for life in the lap of luxury. Paul McCartney was rumoured to have offered Heather Mills 10 million to settle out of court.

But it’s the principle of the thing, I can hear you say. Yes, I agree, and that is precisely my point. That when divorce happens, battles over money are about points of principle, or designed to settle emotional scores or exact revenge or – at a time when self-esteem is low – prove one’s worth. But that is not how it should be.

Perhaps instead, estranged couples could look up from the shriek-fest about the provenance of a pile of CDs or a clothes dryer and recognise that whether they win or lose that particular battle, the heartache they feel over their defeat in the war for happy-ever-after will still be there.

And lay down their arms. Especially if there are children listening in.

Publication history

Cash is Always the Currency of Love's Labours Lost  Sunday Sun Herald (Sydney)