For those interested in the mechanisms of conjugal separation, the article by Cécile Bourreau-Dubois and Myriam Doriat-Duban, based on purely theoretical concepts of orthodox economics, may appear somewhat disconnected from reality. The authors ask, for example, whether divorce is an exogenous risk – a random event independent of the will of the partners – or endogenous – tied to the partners’ decisions, including their potentially “incautious” behaviour: “They can act upon the probability of divorce, for example by being faithful and attentive to the other or investing in the household” (p. 462). As sociologists working on the legal aspects of conjugal separations (Collectif Onze, 2013), we believe that it is essential to lay down the abundantly documented socioeconomic facts that the article helps to mask.
The article is based on a temporal division between “before” and “after” the divorce. This division seems logical, but it creates blind spots. “Before” refers only to conjugal life; the partners’ situation at the time they split up is regarded as the result of decisions they took about “optimal” specialization during their conjugal life; no mention is made of prior factors that might determine those choices. Typically, they do not ask why it is usually women who are most productive in domestic labour and why it is “optimal” for men rather than women to invest in their professional careers. And yet there is no lack of answers to that question. Gender studies show that as children, girls and boys are unequally familiarized with domestic work, through the games they are invited to play and because they do not identify in the same way with the women they mostly see doing this kind of work – mothers, childminders, daycare and nursery school staff, domestic helpers etc. Although the egalitarian ideal is increasingly shared by couples, it is women’s greater familiarity with the gestures that weighs more heavily in the balance (Kaufmann, 2011). At school, girls are pushed towards tracks that are less valued on the job market, even though their academic results are better (Baudelot and Establet, 2006). Later, they face discrimination in employment throughout their working lives (Maruani, 2011), notably in terms of wages (Silvera, 2014).
From the existing literature it is clear that the terminology of choice is not adequate where women’s work is concerned. Take the example of part-time workers, 78% of whom are women. It has been amply demonstrated that the distinction between “involuntary” and “voluntary” does not reflect the reality of the female labour market and women’s internalization of their family constraints (Angeloff, 2000). Their specialization in domestic labour is not a matter of choice but a product of social history. Yet the authors describe it as the result of decisions negotiated between two individuals, referred to in neutral terms as “partners”, “spouses” and “parties”. Cécile Bourreau-Dubois and Myriam Doriat-Duban describe the impact of this specialization on women’s economic situation after separation as “private risk”. They then try to distinguish these “private costs” from the “negative social externalities” of break-up (a reduction in the children’s human capital as they grow up in impoverished lone-parent families, increased gender inequality in a society that has social justice as a stated objective) – as if it were by chance that these private conjugal arrangements lead to a society-wide situation of gender inequality and poverty for the children, most of whom live (again as if by chance) with the mother. By making the contrast between private and social costs, the authors mask what feminist studies have long since established: that the private and domestic are social and political issues (Fraisse, 2001). In so doing the authors help, in their own way, to conceal men’s exploitation of women in the home and the world of work (Delphy, 2015).
Given the persistent inequalities in the job market and the inertia of differentiated male and female socialization, the authors’ hypothesis that the legal marriage regime and alimony are disincentives for women to invest in a professional career seems somewhat absurd (on that basis, why should these arrangements not equally well constitute an incentive for men to foster their wives’ careers?). The authors’ reasoning relies on the idea that the spouses have perfect knowledge of these legal provisions when they form their couple, and that they exercise their contractual freedom. The authors say nothing about the reasons why some couples marry and have the benefit of these provisions and others do not. They say nothing about the rather particular profiles of couples who do sign notarized marriage contracts, yet we know that these are the wealthiest couples, and (if the contract is for “separate property”) the most unequal (which seems to show that contractual “freedom” is exercised for the benefit of the stronger), and come from families where such practices are common (Frémeaux and Leturcq, 2013; Gollac, 2011). Both early studies (Carbonnier, 1964), and recent ones (Belleau, 2011), show that most people do not know the legal consequences of their marital situation in the event of separation, and also that knowledge of the law and of legal procedures, and their proximity to lawyers available to provide help, are very unequally spread across social classes and genders.
By contrasting “before” and “after” divorce, Cécile Bourreau-Dubois and Myriam Doriat-Duban are simply ignoring the moment of the divorce itself. They leave aside the way things work in practice: how those involved in a conjugal separation process (ex-partners, judges, the family benefits authority, tax authorities, lawyers, notaries and lawmakers) assess the costs of divorce and actually organize their coverage. Here, economic theory reasons without reference to reality, institutions or the prevailing unequal social conditions, and invents divorce insurance contracts (even imagining a clause “limiting domestic specialization”), though it is hard to imagine who might actually subscribe to one.
When we look at divorce courts in France, we find that the cost of separations, especially the cost of child rearing, is considerably underestimated, and that it is generally the mother who pays. In one-third of cases, the divorce judge imposes no child maintenance, considering the parent without custody (very often the father) to be “impecunious”, which opens the way for the family benefits authority to pay the mother a lone-parent allowance (€100 per month per child). In the other cases, child maintenance is set at a low level, with a mean value of €140 per month per child (Belmokhtar, 2014). Spousal alimony is increasingly rare (20% of divorces) and the amounts awarded decreased in the 2000s (Roumiguières, 2004). This is because magistrates, whether male or female, assume that childcare is always the woman’s natural responsibility, but that she must take charge of her own finances. It is also a result of the conditions in which the judges make their decisions: 800 cases per year each, with few investigatory powers. In those conditions, the judicial system favours agreements negotiated between the parties, which the judges have only to ratify (Théry, 1993). But such agreements are the result of an imbalance of power between the ex-partners and of unequal access to professionals who can help them defend their rights (Collectif Onze, 2013). This judicial reality is not reflected in the principles of law described by the article’s authors; and it is related in complex ways to the work of the family benefits authority, the tax authorities and the notaries – institutions with which men and women of different social classes have very different relationships.
Far from enabling the state to “ensure the material well-being of children with divorced parents” (p. 470), the guidelines for child maintenance rates recently established in France help to legitimate a limited conception of the cost of raising a child. These guidelines are intended to follow jurisprudence while drawing on the definition of the cost of a child established by public statistics producers from family budget surveys (Sayn et al, 2012; Hourriez et al, 1997). They therefore ignore the non-monetized value of the domestic labour supplied by the custodial parent and the opportunity cost to that parent, usually the mother, of raising the children. The maintenance amount is mainly based on the income of the non-custodial parent; it takes no account of the economic situation of the parent the child is living with, although that is what ultimately determines the child’s living standard. These guidelines, which one of the article’s authors helped to draw up, thus result in poorer fathers paying less child maintenance, although they are also the fathers whose children are living with the poorest mothers.
So the paper by Cécile Bourreau-Dubois and Myriam Doriat-Duban should not be read as an exotic theoretical analysis of the costs of divorce, somewhat disconnected from reality. Above all, it helps to mask the fact that the largely underestimated costs of conjugal separation are almost entirely borne by women (Bonnet et al, 2015). The political applications of their analysis, such as the guidelines for child maintenance rates (and soon for alimony payments), exacerbate this state of affairs. Our work as sociologists is not only to show, as is suggested by their references to the sociological work of François de Singly and Claude Martin, that despite this reality, women also gain something from separation in terms of identity building or an escape from violence. Our work as sociologists, like that of historians, demographers, anthropologists, political scientists and empirical economists, is to understand the socioeconomic and historical mechanisms by which women end up paying the price for their hard-won right to freely unite with a partner and freely separate from him.