For better or what's the point?

Is marriage a union for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, ‘till death the wedded part? Evidently not, especially when it comes to parting and riches. Rare is the divorcee willing to come out of a relationship poorer than a good lawyer believes is necessary.

Consider Karen Parlour, who is seeking a substantial increase in the maintenance paid by her former husband Ray, the Arsenal footballer. When they divorced two years ago, Karen wanted about a third — around £400 000 — of his annual earnings until their children are old enough to support themselves.
Ray offered her £120 000, and in January a judge ruled he should pay £250 000, along with a lump sum for the same amount and two houses. Karen, however, is appealing to have her original demands met.

It’s the classic boy-meets-girl, boy-and-girl-marry, girl-divorces-boy-and-sues-the-socks-off-him story. Greed is almost certainly part of the equation. How Ray can maintain that being left with only £800 000 a year would seriously damage his ability to save for his retirement beggars belief. Equally, if Karen can’t live on a quarter of a million pounds a year, she must have a shopping addiction comparable to Ray’s gambling and drink problems, which she claims to have helped him overcome.

Avarice, however, is almost certainly not the whole story. When couples separate, there is often a strong desire for justice. Neither of the Parlours really need the money that is in dispute. But both feel they are entitled to it, and they will fight a grubby battle in the courts and the public eye to make sure they get it.

The courts will provide a legal resolution, but the moral problem of how we should divide a couple’s goods justly and fairly when they break up will remain. And to solve that we need to take a good hard look at what marriage now means.

It may not be what feminists had in mind when they claimed that the personal is political, but marriage today can be seen in terms of two very different political models. On the one hand you have marriage as Marxism.

Two people come together and pool their resources: from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs, now serving a common rather than individual good. On the other, you have marriage as a liberal-individualist contract. Two people agree to a certain degree of mutually beneficial sharing and cooperation. But there is to be no subsuming of self-interest. If the benefits of the deal become insufficient for either party, then the arrangement is to be reviewed, and terminated if necessary. Less “for better or for worse’’ than “for better or what’s the point?’‘

For the liberal individualists, the dissolving of such a union is like the winding up of a company. Simply calculate the net contribution each has made to the generation of the family’s wealth and divide accordingly. For the marriage Marxists, however, the principle that governed the union should also govern its dissolution: each gave to the relationship according to ability and each should take from it according to need.

Karen’s argument comes from the liberal-individualist mould. Her claim is that Ray’s success depended on her support through his drinking and gambling problems. In other words, her contribution to Parlour Ltd is a significant factor in the profits it generates today, and so she is entitled to 35% of them. Ray’s defence accepts the premise, but disputes the calculations: Karen has already benefited from his success and future earnings are due only to him, now that Karen no longer has a seat on the board.

This clinical accounting would be dispiriting enough if it merely concerned the pains of divorce. But as Aristotle remarked, how a man dies shows his true character as much as how he lives. Similarly, how a relationship ends can reveal a great deal about how it always really was.

Divorce settlements are argued in liberal-individualist terms because that’s how we increasingly view marriage. We don’t like to make it too explicit, of course, which is why pre-nuptial contracts are usually seen as distasteful. But if we are honest, most of us think the quasi-Marxist alternative is romantic tosh, only for those whose heads are as soft as their fluffy, simple hearts.

In love, if not in politics, I am something of a reformed communist. Let us retain our surnames, private interests and even bank accounts. But if there is not at least a large part of a long-term relationship that involves a genuine relinquishing of self-interest, then we are left merely with a convenient, always provisional sharing of resources, never a proper union. If you can’t see that in the way people live together, you can see it in how they leave each other. — Â

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