Alimony and Acrimony: Dispute Pushes a Hot Button

She was viewed with scorn by some, and considered a soul mate by others. Many readers pitied Cindy Hart, while others admired her. And her plight was taken as proof positive that divorce laws are unfair to men

I've written few columns that have aroused the kind of emotion that last week's did about Cindy Hart. She is a Santa Barbara woman trying to force her ex-husband--who retired last year at 46--back to work to make good on alimony payments. She is chronically ill and will be destitute, she says, if he does not support her for the next 18 years.

Hart sees it as an issue of women's rights. They were married for 18 years, and she stayed home to take care of their kids while he built a successful career. When they divorced 10 years ago, he was ordered to support her because she had never worked and was unemployable because of medical disabilities. But the payments stopped when he left his job and moved out of state, and Hart has mounted a vigorous campaign to persuade authorities to haul him back. I questioned the fairness of the notion that a failed marriage yokes a man and a woman forever financially. But Hart says she only wants her due: "It's his responsibility--legally and morally--to support me."

Many women identified with Hart's bitterness and pain.

"I am scared and lost and crying as I write this," one e-mail said. "My children are adults now, so there is no 'good reason' I don't have a paying job. The years just swept past. It seems as if I closed my eyes and woke up old ... somehow worth less than even the teenagers applying for the same jobs I am.

"My husband tells me I wasted my life. Nice of him to tell me now .... He is getting ready to leave me and wants me to just get a job. But everywhere I apply, there's that spot on the application where you write 'job history' ...."

But for every woman who identified with Hart, there was a man who saw in her an image of his own ex-wife--a selfish, angry shrew, ruining his life with her financial demands.

"I was married for 10 years, supported a family while working two jobs, and I did everything in my power to help my wife get her own footing," wrote a divorced father, who now shares custody of his kids. "I supported her through design school ... through beauty school then real estate school, only to watch her come to the realization that in order to succeed, she needed to put in time, effort and commitment, [which would have interfered with her] aerobics at nine, lunch with the girls at noon, and shopping in the afternoon."

Now, he says, "I am ordered to support her while her boyfriend takes her to the Bahamas, Israel, New York, Las Vegas. God, I wish I had her lifestyle!"

Some readers thought my column was needlessly cruel to Hart and, by extension, all women forced into dependency by their medical needs.

"You really missed the point on this one," wrote Wanda Dameron of the San Fernando Valley. "Whatever happened to the wedding vows of 'in sickness and health'? It is becoming more documented of men, in particular, leaving spouses when they become ill. Is opting out of responsibility when it becomes uncomfortable or inconvenient a lesson we want to teach our children?"

Dameron's 25-year marriage ended after she became ill with chronic fatigue syndrome, the same illness plaguing Hart. Now, Dameron struggles to get by on disability payments and meager alimony, "without sufficient money to meet basic needs, let alone fixing the roof, a plumbing problem or socializing with friends over a meal," she wrote.

Some saw a larger social issue. "The question is how we can restructure society to protect women who have children and leave the work force, only to find that they are discarded when they become ill," wrote one woman whose daughter is in that situation. "There must be a safety net for these women ... if we want a truly strong society."

But other readers questioned Hart's need to rely on her ex-husband. Given the energy she has devoted to fighting him, couldn't she manage a few college classes or work from home a few days a week? they asked.

"I'm struck by the amount of time, effort, energy and sheer zeal she has put into her campaign against her ex," wrote attorney Pam Slick. "She's demonstrated intellectual wherewithal and emotional stamina .... So I have to ask, why isn't she pouring her time, energy and skill into furthering her education? What a shame to see her wasting her life churning this mess when she could be moving forward."

Like many women I heard from, Slick has experienced divorce and financial instability. "I had my first child at 17, worked low-end jobs

Many divorced women wrote to complain that "women like Cindy" give them a bad name. "Plenty of women, including me, came out of long-term marriages with nothing but our children, who we then figured out how to support .... And we got over our anger," wrote Carolyn Ziegler-Davenport of Arcadia. "She is drowning in her own self-pity. That is a very great luxury and a terrible waste."

The one thing that was clear from the mail I received was that we all view emotional issues like divorce and financial need through the prism of our own experiences.

That is true for me as well. I have always worked outside the home, so I know the price the breadwinner pays ... the exhaustion of long freeway commutes, the anxiety bred by a difficult job, the pain of long hours away from your kids. But I have also been room mom, soccer coach, Brownie leader; have made cookies for bake sales, sewn Halloween costumes, stayed up with a feverish child. I know the demands of mothering.

I am neither bragging nor complaining. But it is hard for me to see as a "victim" a woman lucky enough to have had 20 years at home with her children. Surely she must have anticipated that one day her children would be gone--and wouldn't she want to fill her life with more than clean laundry and a pot roast in the oven?

Like many women, I've realized that a 20-year marriage no more promises a lifetime of security than my 20 years on this job guarantees me a paycheck in perpetuity. And in the end, it is choice and circumstances that will dictate the path we take.

This reader minced no words in expressing her sentiment: "I had terrible back pain for over a year, excruciating pain, to be exact. But I never missed a day of work, because that wasn't an option.

"And I have no sympathy for women who allow themselves to become helpless and dependent. Women can't have it both ways--to be equal, to have all the rights of men, but then scream for a subsidy when things go wrong.

"One thing we should all learn in life is that life is not fair. Illness, injury ... can afflict any of us. But life goes on. Maybe not the life you wanted, but those are the breaks."

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