When The Big Flip Gets Tough: Advice from the Divorce Mediators


Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today about your perspective on the Big Flip. Have you seen a change in the number of “big flip” clients over the years?

Ken: I’d imagine so, only because more people are getting divorced, so we’re seeing more clients.

Donna: Yeah, we’re seeing more cases where the woman out earns the husband, simply because there are now more women in the workplace who are making more money than their husbands. And quite frankly, there are just now more women in the workplace than 30 years ago.

We’re specifically interested in digging deeper on the issue of money and how that could, in a hidden way, cause unseen friction. In your experience, how have you seen finances managed between husband and wife in big flip marriages?

Donna: Ken has actually seen a change in how finances are shared between couples from when he first started and now.

Ken: One of the things that we’ve seen change is the way a lot of young couples come into divorce—and this is a change that has nothing to do with the “big flip.”

Donna: The way in which younger couples share their finances is with a very different method than, for example, when my parents got married and put their finances together.

Can you explain to me how you’re seeing younger couples share their finances?

Ken: When you look at older couples, they probably got married straight from their parents’ home. They didn’t have independent checking accounts, independent finances, and they didn’t own their own apartments. Now, when young people get married, they’re more professionally settled, they earn money, and they keep separate checking accounts. And when they get married, they keep their finances separate.

Donna: They also have credit cards. Many years ago, they didn’t have credit cards. A lot of young people have credit cards, and they do all of their banking or their payments with their credit cards. And when they get married, they don’t combine those two things. So what we’re seeing is that, oftentimes, couples will have an account into which they each put money to pay for joint bills, but they each keep their separate checking accounts and their separate credit cards. And that’s a very different dynamic than even 20 years ago.

So when it comes to big flip divorces, how is the issue of money usually handled?

Donna: Well, Ken had noted in the 2003 NY Mag article that men didn’t ask for alimony. We’re still seeing that today.

Ken: Men who were clearly entitled to alimony insisted on waiving it.

Donna: We’ve had instances where the men will ask for something else, in lieu of alimony. But they don’t want to be dependent on their former wife.

Ken: There’s a case that we’ve been working on, where right away, in the first session, the woman walks in and says, “There will be no alimony here.” She makes a lot more than he does.

In our research, we’ve noticed that, while money never ever comes up directly amongst our big flip families as an issue, we’ve noticed men tend to take a “it’s her money, so I’ll let her decide when it comes to major household decisions” attitude.  Is this common in your experience?

Donna: I do see a lot of people who are in the 20-40-age range who do make comments like that when they’re talking about their finances. I hear, “oh it’s her money, and she wants to spend it on whatever.” I’ve had women say that they just got a bonus, and instead of applying it to the household finances, they went out and bought a fancy bag for themselves. That’s not something that would have happened in my parent’s generation. In today’s world, there does seem to be the distinction between “our money” and “my money,” and I think that’s part of the reason why people do keep their separate accounts and separate charge cards. There are joint accounts, but there are also separate accounts.

In big flip marriages, how have you seen the husband’s financial dependence on their wife affect the dynamics of the relationship?

Donna: There’s a case we’re mediating right now where the husband has absolutely no money. We’re not really sure that he’s aware that he might actually be entitled to money from her. But she’s not offering it either.

Ken: And he’s not even asking for any entitlements.

Donna: He’s not asking for it, but it’s not clear that he even knows that he could ask for it. What is certain is that it’s not even on his radar. He’s talking about having to return Europe where he’s from and talking about going to his embassy to send him back home because he can’t even afford a plane ticket.

Ken: While they were married, she was paying for everything and resented it and kicked him out on that basis.

Donna: And his argument was, “Well I took care of the home. I made dinner every night.” He actually called himself a “housewife.” He said, “I did all of the things that a housewife would do.” And she resented that he was not bringing money into the household. She couldn’t get passed that.

Ken: But, you need to differentiate between couples that agreed from the onset that the woman’s career is more lucrative and will give them more money to live in a nicer home or nicer city, and the man stays at home and takes care of the house and kids—where they agree that the woman should be the major breadwinner and the husband should be the subsidiary or the non-breadwinner. I think you’ve got to differentiate between those situations and the ones that I see a lot of lately, where the guy loses his job and he’s not terribly ambitious. The wife has to then go out and work or ramps up her career to support the family. Those are two situations that don’t resemble each other.

And I think the women that are most resentful are the ones that were forced to become the breadwinners. The women who work it out with their husbands, and chose to do it this way, I think, have a very different outcome.

Donna: Last night, when Ken and I were talking about this, we reached this conclusion: women and their partners who make the joint decision that the woman is going to be the primary breadwinner are more satisfied, it seems to us, with both their career, family life, as with their husbands.  This morning, I came across a July 2013 study that was done by the Working Mother’s Research Institute. It was really cool because it confirmed everything that Ken and I have been talking about. It was an online study based on responses from 2000 women with partners and children in the household. What the study found was that, where the partners had agreed that the woman would be the primary breadwinner, those women were more satisfied with their family life. Dad seemed to be more comfortable with it as well. As opposed to women who were reluctantly turned into the primary breadwinner. In those cases, they found that women had a more traditional view of what the family dynamic should be. And for them, it was more difficult to feel comfortable with being the primary breadwinner. If you look at that study, it does differentiate between people who make a conscious decision to be in this role, versus those who don’t. And when I say “conscious decision,” I mean both parties, husband and wife, are making the decision that the wife is going to be the primary breadwinner. When you have that kind of situation, the wife is one you would call a more modern and forward-looking woman and she doesn’t seem to be as caught up in the traditional roles than women who are reluctantly to being the breadwinner.

So then is it safe to assume that most of the “big flip” cases you deal with are ones where the wife was the reluctant breadwinner?

Donna: I would say that’s not the case with the family we were talking about before, where the woman walked in and basically said, “No alimony.” I think both Ken and I feel that what caused the problem in that case was that she felt that her husband wasn’t being ambitious enough. She was very career-oriented and felt that he could be doing more with his educational background. What we don’t know about them was how the decision was made about who was going to be the breadwinner, but my guess would be that it was not a joint decision that he take the lower-paying job.

Ken: I think it’s a question of seeing the person as ambitious enough. If you see yourself as ambitious, you don’t want to be married to someone who isn’t.

So, in what other ways have you seen big flip marriages go astray?

Ken: I think it depends on the circumstances. I think there are situations where the woman can make a lot more than the man, but it’s ok if the man’s job has status. For example, a woman who is a corporate lawyer makes $500K, but her husband is a judge and makes $150K. Judges make less than corporate lawyers, but the status of being a judge is so high, a man can overcome his lack of income in the family with a job of status. Being a judge has status. Being a professor at law school has status. Being a medical researcher has status.

If the guy is a musician, you may have the fantasy you’re going to be marrying the next James Taylor, but not everyone becomes James Taylor. I can’t tell you how many cases I get where the marriage hasn’t worked out because the guy is a musician, and musicians don’t make a lot of money. In these cases, the couple may start out equal, but the woman’s career goes up and the guy’s a musician and doesn’t show a lot of ambition. Just so you know, I wouldn’t recommend dating a musician.

Donna: And also real life gets in the way. Now you have children, and you don’t have enough money coming into the household. So it doesn’t matter what expectations you had when you first got together, real life gets in the way.

Ken: I was talking to my son yesterday, and I asked him how he would feel if his wife made more money than him, he said, “Great, that’d be wonderful!” But he ended with a very important caveat: “As long as I’m successful.”

Donna: That’s a very important comment. You definitely see that in the research. Men are definitely very tied into their careers, and their jobs help define who they are. I don’t think that’s always the case for women. For women who choose to be the primary breadwinners, I think it is. But for women who reluctantly became the primary breadwinners, I don’t think that they are as career-driven. Whereas for men, being successful and being career-oriented are very important. I don’t know if that’s a societal difference, or a gender difference. But I definitely think it’s something we have to acknowledge.

So in the instances where both parties consciously decided that the wife was going to be the primary breadwinner, how do you think the husband defines success for himself?

Ken: I think that’s really hard. I grew up a boy and when I became a man, I always had the expectation that I was going to work and support a family. I never thought I would get married and then stop working. I understood that as a boy.

Donna: Because the women around me worked, I always thought I was going to grow up and get a job. Then in college, my dad said, “Go be a teacher. Make sure to get a teaching degree so you could be home when your kids came home.” I went nuts.

Ken: I talked to my sister Gail last night, and she did exactly what she was told to do: she became a teacher so that her hours could be like her kids,’ and she married a successful lawyer. She didn’t like being a teacher, actually, and eventually got trained in something else. But it took awhile.

Donna: Tell Janene the nursery rhyme.

Ken: My sister remembers this rhyme: “clap hands, clap hands, til daddy comes home. Daddy has money and mommy has none.” That’s the nursery rhyme we grew up hearing.

Donna: I was just wondering how many women today are singing this rhyme to their children without even thinking about what the words are.

So back to what your son said, “as long as I’m successful, it’s ok for my wife to make more money than me.” Tell me more about that.

Ken: I believed him. I asked him how his friends would feel about it. His friends are lawyers and doctors and they make a lot of money, and my son said that some of his friends said they would resent it. But you know, with this next generation that’s coming up, I think all of them would not have a problem with it.

In addition to the lack of ambition, what other common issues have you seen in your work mediating big flip divorces?

Ken: There are women who are in comfortable marriages who don’t want to leave their marriage because their lifestyles will have to change.

If I said that a woman was staying with me because she liked the lifestyle that I could provide and she didn’t have to go to work anymore, or hardly had to go to work, I might not resent that. A woman who finds herself with a husband who is staying with her just because he doesn’t want to leave the lifestyle she provides, I think she would resent the shit out of that.

Donna: I think there’s another issue that has not come up in our mediation that I can think of, but I hear people talking about it and have read studies that support what I’m about to say, and that is, women who work still have to take on the major responsibilities of the home. And when you have a husband who is making less or is a stay-at-home dad, this fact also causes a lot of conflict. And once again, there may be a distinction between women who are happy to be out in the workplace and therefore don’t look at the mess. But one of the things that I recently read is that if you ask a man how much he contributes to the chores in a household, he’ll tell you that he does at least half of the work. And when you ask his wife what she thinks he’s contributing to the household, they typically say significantly less than half.

So we talked a lot about the resentments on the part of the wife. What resentments might the husband feel in a big flip marriage?

Donna: If it wasn’t a joint decision, I think a lot of men would feel uncomfortable with their wives making more money than they are making. There’s a lot of ego. And it’s for all the reasons that Ken said before—you’re raised a certain way if you’re a young man. If you’re not making more money than your wife, you’re not fulfilling society’s expectations of who you should be. Or if you go to a play date, and you’re the only dad there, you’d feel uncomfortable and out of place.

Ken: I think it takes a more evolved man to be able to handle that. But again, I think it goes back to whether or not people agree to do this at the onset. Those couples that do will be fine.

Was there anything else that surprised you in your work mediating big flip divorces that perhaps is different than mediating non-big flip divorces?

Donna: Across the board, I would say that the men are just more passive in the conversations. They’re more willing to cede control to the more powerful, more moneyed wife.

Ken: I would say that’s true. Also, men in these situations spend more time with their children. The case we’re finishing up now is one where we’re working out a 50/50 parenting schedule.

Donna: The context of this case was that he didn’t have as much money as she had to spend on their child. But she said that he got to spend more time with the child than she did.

Ken: And there’s a lot of resentment there from the wife because he picked the job that was less demanding. Not only does she resent that she has to give him money now that they’re divorcing but she also resents that he has more time with the kids than she does because she’s more ambitious and has to spend more time at work.

Donna:  This happened in the other case too, where the musician got to spend more time with the kid. If you’re an evolved person, you might see that as a positive. But I think there could be resentment that the less ambitious person who works fewer hours gets more time to spend with the kids.

Ken: Also, when you have a situation where a guy who wasn’t working and was staying at home, and the wife was out working, the guy asked for alimony because he gave up his career to take care of the kids. And the wife said, “No, we had a full time housekeeper. He didn’t take care of the kids at all.” In those cases, what was notable was that those guys who asked for alimony didn’t get it because they did not fulfill the functions that a woman who stays at home did. The courts are not sympathetic to the guy as much as there are sympathetic to women in the same situation.

Are there differences between big flip divorces when children are involved?

Donna: Men are much more engaged in their children’s lives than they used to be. How that’s all going to play out in terms of divorce, I’m not really sure that we know yet. But men now change diapers; they take their children to school. Good working parents tend to trade off on who’s going to be at school for what events, who’s going to drop off little Johnny or little Sally off at school. They’re just much more involved.

So if you could give any advice to current Big Flippers who are trying to save their marriage, what would you say?

Ken: From the onset, they should mediate the terms of their arrangement: expectations for child care, household chores, and money. You have to figure out early on what the terms of the relationship should be because you want to avoid resentment.

Donna: And along those lines, I think what often happens is people start getting resentful and then they have a fight over whatever the issue is, as opposed to figuring out what works for their family, and making adjustments as time passes. So for example, where you have women who are earning more than their husbands, issues like the following arise: who’s taking care of the house? Can they afford a housekeeper? If the husband has more of the responsibilities, does the wife feel like he’s living up to his end of the bargain?

And so I find that a lot of times, couples don’t talk to each other about the things that are becoming a problem, and then before you know it, it blows up. And of course with women in the workforce in large numbers now, they can meet other men. Sometimes you get angry and you don’t have to work on your relationship because there are other options out there.

Last question: For love to endure, _____________________. How would you fill in the blank?

Donna: Regularly communicate with each other and set aside time to have conversations with each other.

Ken: For love to endure, there needs to be mutual respect.


Ken Neumann comes to the mediation field having had training both as a child psychologist and a family therapist. He has been working in the field of divorce for more than 35 years, and was one of the founders of the Center for Family and Divorce Mediation. The decision to form a Center was the decision to make a long-term commitment to the mediation field. The commitment was to develop both a theory and a framework on how to do mediation and then to train others in this process. Ken has been involved in the training of over one thousand mediators. Ken has served on numerous boards including the New York State Council on Divorce Mediation, the Family & Divorce Mediation Council of Greater New York, Child Find of America and the Association for Conflict Resolution Family Section.


Donna Petrucelli is committed to helping couples in the metropolitan New York area address and resolve the complex problems that often arise during a separation or divorce. Donna Petrucelli earned her B.A. at Goucher College and her J.D at Pace University.

This interview is the second in our new series of posts, Perspectives on The Big Flip.  In Perspectives, experts from diverse backgrounds—psychologists, divorce mediators, sexuality experts—explain what’s driving the rise of breadwinner wives, why the role reversal creates friction in marriages, and how big flip families can overcome these challenges and thrive.  In addition to experts, a few divorcees whose marriages didn’t survive the flip have kindly agreed to share their experiences so we can learn from them


Kent Kessinger says:

April 30, 2014 at 11:45 pm

Good interview. A. It harsh towards musicians perhaps. I do think most men would get over the fact that the woman makes more $$ so long as that man achieves some sort of success. I think that point hit the nail on the head.


  • Mary Anne Bishop says:

    September 9, 2014 at 4:41 am

    Hi there Kent. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. We all need our successes in life- however we choose to define success.