09.23.09 10:57 PM ET
Love Trumped Money
A year ago, when the financial system melted down, many predicted that Wall Street’s cash-fueled relationships would, too. But Abby Ellin, who writes for The New York Times "Vows" column, reports a funny thing happened on the way to divorce court: Love won over.
Stephanie and Roy live in Maplewood, New Jersey, a 30-minute train ride from Manhattan. For 10 years, he made that commute to a banking job at a Wall Street firm, earning a salary that provided Stephanie the luxury of quitting her high-paying job in product management to take care of their sons, now 6 and 4. They were happy. And then, a year ago, Roy’s $1 million-a-year job disappeared, along with hundreds of thousands of others in the financial industry.
“We’re in really big trouble,” the Wall Street wife told her unemployed husband, “because I don’t think I like you.”
The stress was immediate. He got a piddling three weeks' worth of severance. Unemployment checks barely covered the cable bill. And people in their neighborhood –their so-called friends—were just a little too joyful about their misfortune. “People would say things to our face like you wouldn’t believe,” says Stephanie, 40, who asked that their last names not be used. “It got ugly. You couldn’t say your husband got laid off and he worked on Wall Street, because automatically people were filled with glee—like, ‘Ha ha, you got it, too!’”
But it was their marriage that took the biggest hit. For the first time in the 17 years they have known one another, the couple started fighting. Badly. Roy was depressed and anxious, feeling that his masculinity had been stripped down to the bone. He refused to go to therapy. Stephanie, for her part, just wished he would get out of the house. “We’re in really big trouble,” she told him during their first argument, “because I don’t think I like you… I almost felt like God was testing us.”
Somehow—and she still doesn’t know how, other than having to “bite my tongue a lot”—they survived. In fact, after the first three months of unemployment, they began having fun together. “He bonded with the kids again, he got time back that he would never get,” she says. “We could go out and have a cup of coffee after we dropped the kids off at school.”
Three weeks ago he took a job in Stamford, Connecticut. While it’s not ideal—he has to commute three hours round-trip—it’s still money in the bank. And in a way, Stephanie is glad they had such a trying time. “I’m not glad we had to be unemployed and are now in debt, but we managed,” she says. “I hope and pray that nothing will be harder on our marriage than that.”
Sociologists, divorce lawyers and anyone who saw their 401(K) decimated had a field day predicting that financial meltdown would finally reveal the superficial money-for-beauty nature of Wall Street marriages. With the cash part of the equation erased, a divorce boom wasn’t merely predicted, it was assumed. The occasional gossip-column item, such as when Jane Iwanowski, wife of a former hedge-fund manager for Goldman Sachs, bashed her BMW into an East Hampton, New York, tree in July fueling speculation it was cause by the “stress” of having her “retired” husband home so much, fed that assumption.
But a funny thing has happened on the way to divorce court. Trying to quantify this phenomenon, I found that the divorce rate among Wall Streeters actually seems to have come down. Robert Stephan Cohen, a Manhattan divorce lawyer who has represented high-profile divorcees like Christie Brinkley, Uma Thurman, and Lorraine Bracco, says he has seen fewer Wall Street divorces this year than last. Jerome Wisselman, a family and divorce lawyer in Great Neck, Long Island, concurs.
Cynics will say that any divorce reduction, like the marriages themselves, center around money. Divorce is expensive. And those cynics, of course, are partially correct. “Maybe three or four years ago they would go forward [with divorce] immediately, but now they’re taking a second look at it,” says Wisselman. “I’ve seen more conservatism. People who have high incomes, like Wall Streeters—their expenses are enormous. Also, often they may live in very expensive homes where a lot of equity is tied up in their house, or in the house and other properties, and there’s no certainty that the properties are going to be sold. So they wait. I also know people who have started a case and stopped it, because when they really sit down and look at the financial consequences they say, ‘Maybe we ought to see if we can work this out.’”
Something else is happening, too, though. Some of these couples are falling in love, either for the second time, or occasionally, the first. This doesn’t happen immediately, but after learning how to navigate life with less money and more time together, many couples are actually bonding their way through the economic downturn.
Angela Larson and her husband, Rick, have been married for 12 years, and for most of that time, Angela, 41, was the main breadwinner, working as an analyst covering the pharmaceutical industry at Paine Webber, then Smith Barney, then a series of boutique firms. She would get to the office at 7 a.m. and not come home until 9 p.m. Sometimes she’d even work weekends. For obvious reasons, this did not bode well for her relationship with her husband or her two sons. So when she was let go from her job last November, she was pleased.
Sort of. Yes, it would have been nice if she had been given her bonus, “but you have to take what you can get,” she says. After worrying that losing her high six-figure salary would be the end of her marriage—and learning to adjust to a much slower pace of life—she began to enjoy herself, and her marriage has done well. “We’re so much more in tune,” says Angela, who has since launched a toy company, Fierce Fun Toys, and also does consulting.
Not that it’s always easy, especially for men. In addition to their psyches taking a major bruising, many newly unemployed Wall Street guys turn to drugs, alcohol, and extra-marital sex to soothe their aching egos. “I’ve seen an increase in their use of adult sexual services, escorts, or trips to the Asian massage parlor two or three times a week,” says Jonathan Alpert, a New York psychotherapist who counsels scores of Wall Street men and the wives who love them (or their money). “That’s part of the culture anyhow, but from what I see that’s how they’re dealing with the pressures of unemployment and the pressures of work. It’s really sick what’s going on.”
But even such destructive behavior forges a new understanding. Alpert says that he’s seen a lot of couples come to therapy after the wife has found out about her husband’s extracurricular activities, often with surprising results. “I’ve seen relationships improve through these crises,” he says. “I tell my couples—you’re not going back to how it was, you’re improving and redefining who you are.” He adds that such moments, besides revealing the husbands’ boorish behavior, also provides clarity for Wall Street wives in need of a major attitude adjustment. “I see some women who are incredibly supportive, understanding, encouraging,” he adds, “and then others who have grown so accustomed to a certain lifestyle that they place really high demands and pressure on their husband.”
Alden Cass, a clinical psychologist and performance coach for Wall Street executives, is going further, establishing a support group called Wall Street Wives. “A lot of individuals who were once alpha males all of a sudden need to be supported and taken care of and a lot of significant others don’t know how to handle that, because they’ve never been in that position,” says Cass, adding that this also applies to women who have been laid off.
Angela Larson, for her part, says her relationship is doing fine on its own. Sure, they have stressful days—she refuses to watch the financial news because she finds it too depressing, and the family didn’t take a vacation this year—but “my being negative and tired and grumpy [while working on Wall Street] was harder than making cutbacks,” she says. “Plus, when you see each other throughout the day, little things come up and you talk about it. You don’t have to save them for when you finally see each other at night when you’re exhausted. We’re having more fun. We’re more of a family now.”
Abby Ellin regularly writes the Vows column for The New York Times, and previously wrote the Preludes column for that newspaper about young people and money. She is the author of Teenage Waistland, but her greatest claim to fame is naming “Karamel Sutra” ice cream for Ben and Jerry's.