What Scott Morrison fails to understand about how divorce affects women

Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison at the Australian Christian Lobby Conference.

Federal Treasurer Scott Morrison at the Australian Christian Lobby Conference. Photo: James Brickwood

The Treasurer, Scott Morrison, tells us the impacts of divorce are hard on women. During a speech to the Australian Christian Lobby last week, he said he was talking about the grief and adjustment involved in divorce, but he also spoke about some specifics.

"There are also economic consequences of divorce to a society as a whole. The health consequences of divorce for women are likely to increase demand for health services that are paid for in part or full by government. Add to this that, according to the research, divorcees rely more on the public pension than those who stay married or re-marry," he said.

Of course, as a senior member of government, he could help change some of the economic penalties facing divorced women. Superannuation contributions, long-service leave, inequitable financial divisions in divorce courts, the gender wage gap, parental discrimination in the workplace and affordable childcare, to name a few. All are hurdles that leave divorced women more dependent upon the public pension.

And dependence is a funny word to use for older women.

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By the time they are claiming the aged pension, paltry as it is, a lot of older women will have raised children, coddled a husband through his working life (that might seem harsh but, honestly, what would you call the fact that she, alone, washed and ironed all their work clothes, cooked the dinners and made him those daily cups of tea), maintained at least one deteriorating elderly parent, and had a hand in also caring for grandchildren.

These women have known some dependency, but you can see it was not all their own. The economy is built upon the toil of unpaid care, largely undertaken by women. That the provision of this essential care work leaves women financially depleted is evidenced by their eventual over-representation in numbers on the age pension, which the Treasurer has so sympathetically observed.

He notes the government pays for these women's public healthcare, saying it as though governments did not raise revenue from their taxes. Which is interesting, because older women are contributing the fastest growing incomes to the gender income ratio. If women are to eventually catch up to men in terms of income and employment, it may be older women who get us there.

It is as though these women, briefly freed of caring responsibilities in their late forties and early fifties, have finally been able to find a second wind in their careers. It's almost as if women have not been feckless this whole time but rather, encumbered. And propelled by newfound ambition and opportunity, who can blame her for thinking twice about dragging an unsupportive husband along with her? These women initiate divorce at much higher rates than men.

This is not to say the Treasurer is wrong about divorce being hard on women, particularly financially. But you know who really suffers with divorce? Men. Some studies show that in terms of health outcomes, women hardly benefit at all from marriage. Single women, apparently do not suffer the same negative health effects that single men do.

For that matter, the long-term health benefits appear to be the same for people who divorce as for those who stay married, provided the divorced re-partner. There is no special advantage to being married, there is just an advantage to being in a long-term supportive relationship, however godless it made be.

And even where studies show health benefits for marriage, those results are more often predicated on the marriage being a connected one, something divorced women could probably tell you intuitively.   

It's largely the stigma and limited resources that hold the divorced back. Two disadvantages the Treasurer's speech seeks to actively reinforce. Take it from someone who has been through it, the problem is not a disdain for commitment, it's about realising the promise to oneself, first.

Now that I am re-partnered, I never want to go through the pain of tearing a relationship apart, again. But I also think, I never again want to resist it either. If the coming apart is to be done, let us throw ourselves to it.

And that's really what anti-divorce sentiments from conservative politicians are about. The divorced woman knows she can end it and survive. In fact, you sometimes have to end it to survive. There's a wildness there feared by conservative men.

It is only a matter of decades since women could not freely divorce, when the level of disgrace and sheer financial desperation involved was sufficient to be near lethal for women. Even now, a woman seeking the end of her marriage (if only by refusing to fight it any longer), throws herself to the wolves of self-reliance and chaos and, in truth, that can feel exhilarating.

There are few times in life when you do the kind of sustained soul searching done during a major relationship breakup. The supportive scaffolding that relationships provide also prevent elements of you from moving. In many instances the trade-off is worth it. But being newly alone made me open to the world, and myself, in a way I had rarely known as an adult.

Now re-partnered, I miss some of the energy of that bravery. But intimate relationships demand a whole other kind of vulnerability. Being in a new relationship, I thought all the examination would be of the other person and whether this or that is what I want, expect and need. But a surprising amount of the review turns out to be of myself and whether I am doing what I want, expect and need.

There's a joyfulness in holding myself to account like this. On top of desire, there's longings of another kind I am exploring.    

As threatening as men like the Treasurer find women divorcing to be, there is no hope of returning to the past. Only the most ignorant or controlling believe women can be forever frightened or shamed into staying. Good relationships, in spite of the work, are worth having, bad ones, in spite of the insecurity, are worth leaving.

Kinder, more connected relationships are encouraged by equal gender roles, less financial insecurity and better work-life balance. And these are all things governments can promote instead of scolding women who divorce.