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Judith G. McMullen, Alimony: What Social Science and Popular Culture Tell Us About Women, Guilt, and Spousal Support After Divorce, 19 Duke J. Gender L. & Pol'y 41 (2011)

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19 Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy 41 (2011)


Over the past few decades, fewer divorcing women have received alimony, and when alimony awards are made, they are in declining amounts and for shorter periods of time. Conventional explanations of this trend focus on legal changes that have made divorces easier to obtain, as well as social changes that have led to larger numbers of married women in the paid workforce, and to greater social tolerance of divorce. Certainly these changes partly explain the downward trend in alimony, but they do not fully explain why alimony awards continue to decline, even among women who do not have viable job skills at the time of divorce and who experience severe post-divorce financial hardship.

This article looks to the women themselves and uses social science research to examine gender differences in emotional reactions to marriage and divorce. The article argues that women's tendency to assume emotional responsibility for the success of the marriage and parenting, and in particular women’s greater susceptibility to feelings of guilt and shame about divorce and parenting, make it difficult for many women to successfully negotiate for alimony. Further, the article looks at women's feelings and behaviors in negotiation situations, arguing that social pressures exacerbate the feelings of guilt over the divorce and lead women to accept unfavorable outcomes. Ultimately, this article concludes that the legal system may need to impose solutions, such as mandatory pre-nuptial agreements or alimony formulas, in order to achieve a degree of predictability and fairness in alimony outcomes.

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