Tom Matlack argues that guys get unfair treatment when they divorce. What do you think?
My friend Pedro taught me pretty much everything I know about being a dad. We both had big houses, important jobs, and angry wives with whom our relationships came to a sudden end. We also had kids; I had two, he had three. He had twins roughly the same age as my kids at the time, 1 and 3. He also had an older adopted daughter, Janet, confined to a wheelchair and with very limited verbal skills.
In the beginning I had no idea how to take care of my babies during my weekends with them, so I watched Pedro with his two toddlers and a special needs child. He did it with patience, joy, and perseverance. From him, I learned to roll up my sleeves and get dirty and treasure the smallest moment of bonding, with my own children and, eventually, others I met along the way.
In the end, Pedro’s ex-wife pursued a job out of state. She went to court to take Pedro’s twins away from him and, having no desire to have anything to do with a special needs child, left him with Janet. Pedro, an attorney, defended his own case—and lost. For the last decade he has seen his twins only on appointed weekends and has been Janet’s primary caregiver.
Dan is a bonds salesman. He lives in Massachusetts, where alimony has no expiration, and has three kids. After his divorce his ex-wife took up with another man, who moved into Dan’s old house with his kids. His ex didn’t marry her boyfriend—she wanted to continue the generous financial arrangement set forth in the terms of the divorce.
Dan got remarried and decided his only means of financial survival would be to quit his job. Eventually Dan hired an attorney who brokered a new agreement that put a time limit on the alimony terms. His ex-wife eventually married her boyfriend—but Dan, who’d been out of work for a year, had no choice but to get a job out of town, away from his kids.
Do dads get screwed in divorce? The stories of these two men, both close friends of mine, reinforced my own personal experience and led me to believe that the answer is, frankly, yes. But we wanted to hear what you think. Here’s what some readers have written in; please add your story in the comment section.
Men absolutely, and often, get the short end of the stick financially in divorce. There is a big myth out there that men make out like bandits in divorce, and women get left in poverty. This is completely untrue. Ironically, it is this myth that causes women to resist fathers having more parenting time, as the less time the child is with Dad, the more money Mom gets. So fathers get the shaft twice: their time with their children is limited, and they get to pay for being pushed out of their children’s lives.
—Anne P. Mitchell, fathers’ rights attorney, founder, DadsRights.org,
When I was presenting a workshop at a national judges’ conference I asked those judges whether there was bias in family courts during divorce. Their answer: Yes, but usually it’s against women, not men. Their reasoning makes perfect sense. Society expects mothers, not fathers, to be the natural nurturers. So, if Mom falls just a bit short of the ideal parent, we unconsciously penalize her. In contrast, if Dad changes a couple of poopy diapers, we unconsciously give him extra credit. So if that’s true, then why do mothers more often have custody? The judges explained that it’s not the court’s bias against fathers. It’s men’s bias against fatherhood and dads who run away from their responsibility. Those are the ones who are skewing the numbers. It’s the men who fight paternity or who are abusive who are making responsible fathers and husbands look bad. The fact of the matter is, when men actually want and ask for custody, they are much more successful than some would have us believe.
—Scott Hampton, director, Ending the Violence
Too often judges and even lawyers have resigned themselves to stereotypes and a perpetuation of the status quo. The result is that the judicial system is prone to assume without proof that the mom should get the kids, that men accused of abuse are guilty of abuse, and, conversely, that men alleging abuse are lying or overreacting.
—Joseph Cordell, attorney, founder, Cordell & Cordell
I married a guy with less education and in the end I had to pay him both child and spousal support. I know it’s a double standard, but a guy working the system to take support from a woman still feels wrong to me, especially because many items are not taken into account. For example, I have a large amount of student loans but as those were in my name only, none of that was part of the settlement and the payments were not discounted from my salary. In this case I got penalized for bettering myself and he got paid for having a lower earning potential.
—Shelly Walker, marketing director, mother
Unfortunately, I do believe that dads get screwed during divorce. After describing my divorce to people, they are always shocked at how my ex and I did it so evenly. In the past, men left the marriage first, leaving the wife “helpless” with society feeling bad for her. His payment for the hurt was the house, the kids, and a significant part of his paycheck. Despite today’s new independent woman, men are still expected to pay.
—Monica Cost, mother of two boys
While the court system claims gender neutrality, the reality is much different. Not only do men have to face the financial ramifications that come with divorce but also have to fight against social prejudice in regard to their children. Fatherhood is the single most important relationship a man can have, and this idea that women are automatically considered better caretakers needs to be examined. Who’s to decide that a woman is a better parent than a man, or that the role a father plays in his child’s life is somehow secondary to that of a mother?
—David Pissara, attorney, author
I would say that women get screwed far worse than men in a divorce. The only way men get screwed is if they are the ones who are raising the kids—which is rare.
—divorced mother of two
Like many other divorced fathers, my voice has been silenced and discouraged by the actions of the courts and my former spouse. We lived in two different cities during the separation when I was trying to get my sons. The process was challenging and expensive. It took more than two years and thousands of dollars to get a standard visitation process, but any small victories along the way gave me hope.
One of the most discouraging aspects is the court system’s focus on the money, not the time, especially if you have a high-profile profession such as a medical doctor. For example, my financial support when first divorced was based on a military officer’s pay, but when I went into residency for specialty medical training after the military, my income dropped over 50 percent. I petitioned the court to lower it until I graduated, but instead, they said I owed more for back pay for my son’s school—the money I was sending “didn’t count.” I was shocked but kept going. When I became a specialized surgeon, the court swiftly raised my support. This has been a 12-year battle, and I’ve seen my kids once in the past three years. My hope is that once they are adults, we can develop a relationship.
—Dr. Michael Joyner, hand surgeon, founder, Forever My Daddy
My husband was tracked down to pay child support when he didn’t have custody. However, when he got custody of his children and the child support order was switched to his ex-wife it wasn’t as stringent. She went one year without paying. Every time he called the court they couldn’t understand how he could possibly have custody, let alone get support from her. They wouldn’t help him. The courts are not designed to favor fathers.
—Brenda Velasco, Biola University
My ex-wife told the courts I beat her and the kids, and the judge threw me out and gave custody to her. The child psychologist determined it was a total lie, but the judge still gave my ex full custody. One by one, when reaching the age to choose, the kids came to live with me. When they arrived they were failing every class in school and two had arrest records. One by one I helped them turn their lives around. One is in the Army and served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. One is married and in college, and the two youngest are in college. For almost a year I have been trying to collect child support for the youngest. I have no attorney, I lost my house, and I am essentially homeless. I did right by my kids and it cost me everything. There is no justice in America and there is no such thing as fathers’ rights.
—Phil Petree, 53, father of four
Fathers are screwed if and when they fall into the drama games on the part of mothers, which are really tactics used to frustrate fathers. Fathers are screwed if they fail to understand that if they do not do the work and educate and empower themselves they will remain victims to the system and their children’s mothers. I have far too many success stories—including mine (I won custody of my then-7-year-old daughter nine years ago)—to believe that men have to be victims to the system.
—Eric Legette, founder, Fathers With Voices
It’s been well documented, and reflected in the courts, that children are best served when they have equal and open access to both parents. Add to that a Harris poll reports that “breaking ranks with their fathers, 71 percent of men between the ages of 21 and 39 would give up some of their pay to spend more time with their family.” Given those societal changes, if a father shows he’s been a caring, present, accountable, and responsible parent, especially since the separation, there is an excellent chance that he will be granted joint custody.
In most cases, the court will sign off on whatever agreement the divorcing couple brings to them. However, if the parents are “at war” with each other the situation shifts; the court becomes the “adult” and makes a decision for the family and might side more with the mother. The true key to achieving to a fair and just custody agreement, one that keeps the father in the kids’ life, is if mom and dad can collaborate with each other and put their anger and hurt aside for the benefit of the children.
—Paul Mandelstein, founder, AlwaysDad
During the process, I certainly felt that the supposedly “unbiased” system treated me in a blatantly biased way. At times, the judge went out of his way to suggest to my ex what she should ask for as well as on how she should respond to certain questions. Although she’d moved out of the house two months before custody had been decided, and that my parents and I had raised our first child while she finished her last year and a half of school, the judge insisted that she was “closer” to both children. It clearly was his biased opinion rather than based on anything objective.
—Jeff, community college professor, father of two
The reason men feel that they are not fairly treated is often borne out by statistics. For example, 85 percent of non-custodial or non-primary residential parents are men who typically see their children only two out of 14 days. In addition, 40 percent of America’s children will spend at least part of their childhood without their fathers living together with them. This translates to over 21 million children.
There is definitely cultural paranoia about each side having an advantage. Women think men have the advantage because, for example, it is hard to support the average family on a small percentage of the non-custodial parent’s income. If Dad earns $2,500 net and there is one child, in many jurisdictions Mom would only get $500 for support. Understandably that feels unfair to her, as clearly she might need more to support a child.
—Judge Michele Lowrance, child of divorce, divorced mother, author
In 1985, in Florida, in the middle of a protracted divorce and custody battle over my two children, I was accused of molesting my then 3-and-a-half-year-old daughter, who is now 29. I was arrested, spent two weeks in jail for a crime I did not commit, and went on to spend $150,000 over 10 years of litigation in six different courts in an attempt to reclaim my paternal rights. The ordeal induced me to author three books on how to protect men from false accusations of child sexual abuse, become an activist for parents’ rights, run for office in Florida, speak and give media interviews on this subject matter nationally, go on to obtain my master’s degree in Psychology and the Law, and become a noted expert in this field.
—Dean Tong, forensic trial consultant/expert,
While my (then) wife and I never made it to the courtroom, I believe that the court system had a material impact on our divorce process. We attempted to work amicably with a single mediator in order to control costs, and as a soon-to-be single father, I lived in fear that my time with my children would be jeopardized; I also feared a crippling financial obligation. It soon became clear from the attorneys that my fears were founded. Whether it was my wife’s attorney’s attitude toward divorcing men or my attorney’s siege mentality, the message was reinforced that I was the underdog and was not expected to survive this next chapter of my life. The unexpected benefit of all this was that it, and the well-being of my children (then 6 and 1), drove me to do all I could to reach a fair settlement with my now ex-wife OUTSIDE the courtroom. Having accomplished that, I’m proud to say that six years later, my children are happy and well adjusted and enjoy the fact that their parents and new stepparents are friends and partners in raising them today.
—Michael, finance professional
My ex had all the access in the world to his daughter, but he chose to completely avoid her once the new wife came on board. I’ve tried every way I can to get him to reconnect with his beautiful, loving, smart, and extremely capable child, but no luck. He didn’t even call her for her 21st birthday. It’s such an odd and devastating thing. I often wonder how this emotional abandonment will affect her long-term relationships. I know there are quite a few women out there who have experienced the same heartbreak for their children.
—Marianne O’Hare, publicist/producer
Most men, unfortunately, do get screwed from women who are bitter and choose to use their kids as tools to hold against the fathers. As a woman who has been a single mom for over 19 years, I could be the first one to be bitter, and yet I am friends with both dads today. I truly, in my heart, do not understand women who have such hatred towards men whom they fell in love with once upon a time. Let’s be honest—it takes two to make it work and two to break it, so why be so angry at the other person? Both sides fail, but the children should never be victims.
I hope there are new laws that protect the fathers who want to be a part of their children’s lives and are not only seen as money machines for some of these women who are just too damn lazy and spoiled to go make their own money. For any woman who abuses her status as a mom and hurts her own children to punish her ex, I feel sorry for her because her own kids will turn against her when they get older.
—Helen Georgaklis, single mom
Most states have gender-neutral laws; however, everyone knows that in practice fathers are not treated the same as mothers. From my experience in the courtroom, judges definitely prefer mothers. Dads get custody usually only when the mother has done something that makes her distasteful in the judge’s eyes or if the dad was a stay-at-home dad who was the primary caregiver. Courts are supposed to make custody decisions based upon what is in the child’s best interests, and of course that is a standard that doesn’t set up a 50/50 custody split.
—Brette Sember, former divorce attorney, author
My sincere advice is to do whatever you can to get full joint legal and custodial rights, even if it means your children having to split their time equally between parents. Many psychologists advise against this and say the child should have a primary residence, but it is a slippery slope and in the end causes much more damage to the children if you are left out of their lives.
—Ted Rubin, social marketing strategist and engagement adviser
My divorce process began when I became aware of my ex-wife’s alcohol addiction. I could not jeopardize the health and safety of my two children, and when interventions and rehab centers could not help her out, it was time to end the marriage. During the divorce proceedings in 2003, my ex-wife’s addiction was mentioned and the judge told me, “Mr. McLeod, as of 3:00 today, you are the sole guardian of your children.” I was filled with mixed emotions; I knew my kids would be safe in my care, but I had no idea how to do this alone.
My divorce was finalized in 2005 and, tragically, in 2007, my ex-wife passed away unexpectedly. I discovered very few outlets that catered to single parents, let alone single fathers, and it inspired me to create a website designed specifically for single parents, as well as write a book describing my experiences and offering some tips to becoming a successful single parent.
—Bill McLeod, founder, SingleParentsTown, author
I went through my divorce 13 years ago when I was 26. My ex was 27 and decided that he no longer wanted to be married and walked out on me and my son, who was only 10 months old at the time. He did not help financially with anything—not even food or diapers. Even though my ex left me for a 16-year-old, I did not screw him financially like most women would; all I got was child support and that is all he has paid all these years. For me it is principle. I believe that we should all try to do the right thing and give each other a chance to start over and do what is fair, no matter the circumstances.
—Michelle Morton, entrepreneur
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