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Love in stormy times
When the economy sours, unhappy couples often stay together out of financial necessity. But the unhappiness festers, leading to infidelity and other beastly behaviour

Globe and Mail September 25, 2008

You can argue over it. But you can be soothed by it, too. It often motivates you to be a better spouse. Sometimes all a little marital tension needs is a nice, generous use of it.

No, not sex. Money.

Money can make relationships easier or more difficult, but is it always dependent on how much there is of it to go around? What happens when challenging economic times make money more scarce?

Quite a lot, it would appear.

Some divorce professionals see a reluctance to separate among unhappy couples when the economy sours. Legal fees are prohibitive, as is the cost of running two soon-to-be-separate households. Houses are harder to sell in the current market, which makes the investment return less certain. Inflation is high. Husband and wife hunker down together to fight the wolf at the door, energized by a renewed sense of survival, joint purpose and richer-for-poorer commitment.

Sorry, that last sentence is false.

Silly me, I must have been having a romantic moment to have even considered the idea. I get all goose-bumpy about how hardship can bring people together. If the United States is facing down the worst financial crisis since the Depression, as many economists warn, you'd think that people would break out M.F.K. Fisher's 1942 classic, How to Cook a Wolf, and think up inspiring, plucky ways to raise their spirits and keep their families intact and afloat, a buffer against the world.

But no.

"I haven't found that this kind of [economic] strain is a positive thing. I haven't seen that it's a cause for reconciliation," observes Deborah Mecklinger, a Toronto marriage counsellor and divorce coach. A spouse who wants to separate may be held back by inopportune economic times, but the unhappiness festers and often leads to "covert behaviour," Ms. Mecklinger says. The would-be bolter may decide to have a secret affair to get through the period until divorce is more affordable. Call it the Recession Affair - it pays emotional dividends.

And if thoughts of separation cannot be stuffed under the rug or smothered in the embrace of a temporary lover, spouses react in one of two ways, divorce experts say. They may work more closely together to find a reasonable economic solution. Often, they decide not to liquidate assets until the market has a chance to recover. The sale of the marital home can also be put off. "Lots of people are converting the basement into an apartment or an attic, and they figure that they will live separately but together and won't incur the cost of a separate household," reports Deborah Graham, a collaborative family lawyer in Toronto. "Our advice to people is that it's not a viable long-term solution - two years maximum. And we write in escape clauses in their agreement."

But often, the wolf at the door can bring out the beast in the spouse.

"When things are tight, the pie is smaller. There are fewer resources to spend [on legal bills] but couples end up spending more because they are fighting for the fewer resources to be divided up. It's a Catch-22," one family lawyer observes.

And then there's the all-important valuation date, or V-date, as lawyers commonly refer to it.

"We get calls, and the wife says, 'He wants to come back,' and I say, 'Well, if he genuinely wants to try, have him agree in advance that the valuation date won't change," says Philip Epstein, a leading family lawyer at Epstein Cole in Toronto. "And then we'll see if he is really interested in reconciliation or in just changing the V-date."

One of the most punishing aspects of divorce in turbulent economic times is the valuation date - the point at which a financial snapshot is taken of the marital assets for division. With the stock market on a roller coaster, that can mean the difference between $100,000 in value one month and $50,000 the next. If the V-date shows the value at $100,000 but market conditions at the time of the division of assets drive it down to $50,000, the higher valuation still stands.

In Ontario, the valuation date is fixed to the day of separation. Judges rarely agree to readjust the value of assets on the V-date at the Ontario Court of Appeal, even when there are wild swings in the market. There is little room for judicial discretion. Which means that the V-date can be a victory date for some spouses, if market conditions are in their favour on the day they separate.

But the Ontario statute on the V-date can encourage devious behaviour on the part of warring spouses. One way to change the V-date, before a separation agreement has been reached, is to reconcile or pretend to. When co-habitation resumes for a period of 90 days or more, a new V-date is set.

"There are no depths to which the human mind can't sink," Mr. Epstein acknowledges ruefully.

In other provinces, there is a floating valuation date, which means that parties have flexibility to agree on a date they deem economically fair to both, and if not, they can argue the case in court, where judges have greater discretion to reapportion family assets. Mr. Epstein, who is also editor-in-chief of Reports in Family Law, acknowledges that, "in Ontario, property trials are discouraged because it is a fairly rigid system, but it is a scheme that works tremendous unfairness in difficult economic times."

Even when spouses react compassionately to an economic crisis, such as a job loss, many come to regret their generosity.

"I have seen many cases in which the husband loses a job, and the couple make a decision to postpone divorce in order to avoid the double whammy," Ms. Graham says. Many middle-aged men start up a consulting business from home, as job prospects dwindle for their age bracket. Often those new ventures are not successful. "Years can go by, and at some point, the wife, who has been employed outside the home, says, 'I can't do this any more,' and she leaves, but now she has a big spousal support obligation."

Ah, money and the Me Generation.

For better? For worse? I don't think so. The boomers have lived through a sustained period of economic prosperity, and perhaps as a result have never had the opportunity to experience how hardship can engender a greater sense of commitment to each other.

Mr. Epstein explained it best when he offered his impression of how a souring economy affects some people's decision to divorce: "[They] say, 'I was prepared to put up with you when times were good, but not now. If I am going to suffer, I'd rather suffer without you.' "

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