In My Opinion

Dita De Boni is a Herald business columnist

Dita De Boni: Staying hitched wins the race

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Being married can be the difference between poverty or plenty in old age

Illustration / Anna Crichton
Illustration / Anna Crichton

Recently I interviewed a man who, almost 30 years ago, divorced his first wife and was left struggling financially for the rest of his life.

She took a large chunk of the savings, the super and other assets - all legally. He understood the process, was resigned to it and was now happily married to his second wife. And yet, when I asked him what he would have done differently to avoid arriving at old age without assets, the only thing he said with any certainty was that he would not have allowed his first marriage to disintegrate. He felt that doing so had ultimately caused his current struggle.

Of all the men and women I talked to, those who arrived at retirement with a financial cushion were still married to their original spouses.

It could be the ones who remained married were more conservative in life and in finances, or maybe it was just coincidence that marriage breakdown seemed such a persistent factor in a bleak retirement outlook.

Of course, few people would argue that couples locked into a bad marriage should be compelled to chunter on eternally, even if there is a high cost (literally) to splitting. But it did make me wonder if the prevailing narrative of divorce - impoverished woman, well-off man - was lopsided; whether, in fact, men struggle just as much to regain lost financial ground.

A recent Journal of Men's Health article says men who split from their partners, and those who remain unmarried, tend to die sooner than those who are married. Authors Daniel Felix, David Robinson and Kimberly Jarzynka have found poor health is endemic in men who have separated - whether it's minor ailments, heart disease or cancer.

Mental health also takes a battering in the divorced/single man demographic - depression, alcohol and drug abuse and suicide are far more frequent, with such men 10 times more likely to need psychiatric care.

The article did not address financial ruin, but there's no doubt it affects divorcing partners. And with more than a third of marriages failing in many countries, it seems a lot of people are knee-capping their financial prospects fairly early in the piece.

Could there, then, be some benefit to the state "incentivising" a more traditional household set-up? In New Zealand, it seems an unlikely direction to take - income "splitting" has already been rejected - but in Britain, the ruling Conservative Party is favouring marriage with plans to introduce something similar: allowing stay-at-home mothers to transfer £1000 of their personal tax allowance to their spouse, boosting the family's income by up to £200 a year (as long as the spouse doesn't make more than £42,285).

Naturally, bad marriages will still fail and many people see divorce as preferable to a miserable partnership. But if there is still any doubt about the major downsides to divorce, other than the effect on families, a visit to someone trying to retire without any extra money might just provide a salutary reminder.


On show

Prize-winning illustrator Anna Crichton, whose work appears on this story, and Peter Collis are exhibiting their ceramic art. Venue: Corelli's Cafe, Victoria Rd, Devonport. Opening night: Tuesday, October 22, 7-8pm. Exhibition runs until November 18.

- NZ Herald

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