The Dual-Career Divorce

August 01, 2005

Until about six months ago, I was part of a dual-career couple and had what is known in our trade as a trailing spouse. My ex-husband -- let's call him Richard -- got fired from a job on the fringes of the music industry about three months after our wedding. I think that's when the marriage started to go downhill.

We were living in Big City, and I was teaching at a major university there. I knew that universities sometimes create jobs for trailing spouses, so I approached my dean. Couldn't the university get Richard an office job in order to keep me? With my prodding, the dean not so gently suggested that an office on campus hire my husband to do a job for which he wasn't a precise fit.

Thus retooled, Richard became an Internet technology guy. But he hated Big City. He longed to move back to Small Town on East Coast where he grew up, and where all of his friends and "the band" were. He was miserable living in Big City and not being in the music industry, and he began to take it out on me.

I started to think that moving to a place where he would feel less threatened might help. However, as a tenured professor, I was not all that mobile. Nonetheless, I went on the job market, and three years into the job search, voila! I get this very cool job in Blue College Town in Red State at Midwestern Public University. And it's great.

I warm to the idea that I am going to slow my life down. Richard and I will spend more quality time together and be happy. This town is closer to Small Town on East Coast, so Richard likes it better, too. Plus now he actually has a marketable skill, so I am able to legitimately persuade my new university to give him a job as part of my hiring package, though it still takes some major negotiating.

We move there, and we both love it. For about six months we carpool to work together, we meet for coffee during the day, and we instant message each other with cute little icons. We turn in the Big City condo for a 15-acre farm, life is slower, and as they say, it's all good.

Well, not all good. The most Jews I see in one place is a bus full of "Jews for Jesus." And Richard still has this pesky, and increasingly menacing, anger-management problem. But he agrees to go into couples therapy, and I convince myself that it's almost all good.

Then he dumps me.

That was not completely unexpected. I told him he had to fix the abuse thing or leave. I actually taped him verbally abusing me and played it for our marriage counselor. Not so coincidentally, he decided to leave the next week.

But here's the great part: He dumps me on Instant Messenger. I'm not making that up. He IM's me that he is ready to move on and wants a divorce. "You're breaking up with me on IM?" I typed, lamely.

I was a little taken aback. Actually, I was devastated. "The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing," eh? Anyhow, he announces he wants a divorce immediately. Despite all the talk about family values in Red State, it turns out to be pretty easy to get a divorce here, and a month after he filed the papers, it's all over. "I never wanted any of this," he screams at me as one of his parting shots, "I only ever wanted to do music and to help young bands!"

Help them do what? Be a pathetic failure, marry up, and become an Internet tech guy? I wish I had actually said something mean like that, because now we get to the truly horrible part: He keeps the job I got him as part of my hiring package.

Did that scenario ever occur to me? No. It. Did. Not.

He had been whining about Small Town for almost a decade. Now free to go, what does he do? He stays in the job that I got him, with the skills I made it possible for him to acquire. He tells people he can't afford to move because he signed over his "assets" to me in the divorce. By "assets" he must mean the mortgage and our credit-card debt.

Now we live in Blue College Town, which is tiny. People have chosen up sides in our divorce (based on very little information, I might add). For instance, just before our divorce, I go over to the building where he works, and a woman I don't even know mouths up the stairs to him in an exaggerated faux whisper, "your wife's here." Like she's some executive secretary running interference for her big important boss.

Two days before our divorce hearing, I am at a public lecture put on by a student group I advise. He shows up with one of the twentysomethings from his office. Did he leave me for her? Possibly. At the very least, she was his confidante through the whole mess. Do the undergraduates he is hanging out with now know details about my sex life and my marital breakup? Do they enroll in my classes and, you know, know "stuff" about me? My past? My personal habits? Maybe they have even slept with my former husband. Or their roommate has.

The week after our divorce I go to the grocery store and I see his car in the parking lot. It's easy to recognize because it's brand new. He walked out on our huge mortgage -- sorry, I mean "his assets" -- so now he has the money to afford a new car. So I sit in the parking lot and wait for him to finish grocery shopping. And I wait so long that I start to stop being sad and start being bored.

So I pick up my cell phone and call one of my best friends back in Big City. "Wait, you moved to a place where there's only one grocery store?"

"That's not the point, I --"

"I know, but one grocery store? Really?"

"Really. Just one. OK, here he comes. He's returning his cart. I think he sees my truck. No, he's just looking at that --"

"Truck? Why are you in a truck? Oh my God. You drive a truck?"

I do. I drive a big ol' pickup truck, and I slink around town avoiding my ex-husband who was able to afford to move out because of the money he earns at a job I got for him on the assumption that he was my life partner. There was even a hiring freeze for god's sake! Shouldn't there be some kind of clause that if the trailing spouse dumps you before the probationary period is over, he gets cut loose?

He's had to be removed from my health insurance, dental plans, and retirement benefits. Honestly, shouldn't he also be off my hiring package?

I might even feel different about it had we been here longer; say 10 or even 5 years. Now it just feels like he violated some unwritten rule of trailing-spouse etiquette.

Everyone tells me that my dismay over this will fade as time passes. But what if it doesn't? What if I have to watch him start a family here, and run into him at the market, and see his kids at the movie theater?

Isn't it possible to negotiate a kind of reverse trailing spouse thing in which I could go to my college bosses and tell them that I will leave if they don't fire him? It seems logical. It worked the other way around. Why shouldn't it work in reverse?

Or maybe I can just find him a new wife with a better job somewhere else.

Andrea Allen is the pseudonym of a tenured professor and DWF who has a successful career writing and teaching at a major public university in the Midwest. She is seeking LTR with nonsmoking DM with impulse control. Must have own job.